I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing. The book is part memoir, part instructional guide on basic writing principles. This was the first King book I’ve read; I intend to read his fiction, despite highbrow critics debunking it as commercial fluff. I’ve never bought into the whole snobby literary scene. Yes, I love reading works of genius, but I also enjoy plot-driven storytelling.
On Writing is funny and poignant. In its pages, King offers an adage: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” As writers, we know this by now. The question, more often, isn’t why we should write a lot, but how.
How do we write often?
When I taught workshops, I frequently heard about the challenges people encounter when establishing a writing habit. No one called it a habit point-blank, but this is the best word we have to describe the repeated act of writing. Practice is an accurate word for the actual process of putting words on the page: we’re practicing syntax, storytelling, dialogue, etc.. The practice of writing is what happens when we actual sit down at the desk and write.
But showing up at the desk, day after day—this is the habit of writing, and it’s the first thing we must train our bodies and minds to do if we ever want to practice writing.
I often relate to writing to running. I’m not an avid runner now, but I have been in the past and understand the challenges of showing up to run, again and again. Running can be uncomfortable, especially in the beginning. There’s always an available excuse: I’m tired and sore; I don’t have enough time; it’s too cold; it’s too hot; I’m not in the mood. When I let myself believe the excuse, I’d always regret it later. But when I ran despite the excuse, I was always thankful I did.
Writing is a physical act. We use our hands to type or pen the story. Our bodies must show up to do the work. Like running, we must write despite the excuses.
Since writing is a physical act, having routine and ritual helps my body and mind get on the same page. These small but consistent actions precede the actual event of writing; together, they create the habit of sitting down at my desk to write.
The routine involves the time of day and length of time. For me, this is eight to noon, four days a week. Before my current work schedule, it was five to eight in the morning, five days a week. Depending on your work and life schedule, it may be a half hour over your lunch break. It may be an hour before the family wakes, or an hour after the kids are asleep. The point is consistency. Just like our circadian rhythm or meal times, the body will begin to recognize the dawn, noon hour, or evening as its time to sit down at the desk and write.
Sure, routine requires discipline. Forming a habit takes a willful execution of repeating an intention. Some days there will be an emergency, and you’ll have to wait until the next day or week or month to show up at the desk again, depending on the emergency’s severity. Emergencies aside, there will be excuses. The point is to want writing more than you want to be comfortable. Mindless scrolling through Instagram is comfortable. Watching a show is comfortable. Writing isn’t always comfortable—it’s vulnerable and difficult. But you’re not writing because you want to be comfortable. Like running, you’re writing because you know you’ll feel better for it.
That being said, I do try and make the habit as comfortable as possible. Enter ritual. My writing ritual looks something like this: wake up and feed the dogs; meditate while the water comes to a boil in the kettle; make coffee and something to eat; bring coffee into the office and set up my computer and any reference or editing materials I will need that day; light a candle and turn on my aromatherapy diffuser; longhand for five minutes about anything that comes to mind in order to clear my head; write for a couple of hours; refill coffee and stretch for ten minutes; write for another hour or two.
Ritual serves two purposes. These little acts tell my mind and body it’s time to write. They help solidify the habit by executing repetition. They also feel good, which helps me want to write. While I recognize the discomfort in the writing practice, I’m not a masochist. I like the smell of lavender or cinnamon floating in the air as I type. Maybe you like the sound of beans grinding at your favorite coffee shop, or a glass of wine instead of a cup of coffee. Ritual can involve any actions that are easily repeated and feel good.
While the primary goal of routine and ritual is to create the habit of writing, I also recognize the necessity of breaks from writing. Again, it’s a physical act, so maintaining a consistent writing habit throughout the year isn’t a possibility for most people. I say most, because King apparently writes every day of the year except for three.
During the breaks I take from writing, I read as much as possible, mainly because I love to read, but also because reading, as we know, is half of writing. I try not to take a break longer than a month. It takes thirty days to form a new habit—and we want to be in the habit of writing.
I’m finding, over time, the routine and ritual become easier and easier to perform. We are, after all, master of our minds, and thus our bodies. Establishing a routine, creating ritual, and understanding rhythm begin to shift the mind and body away from resistance and into a sort of learned expectation.