Posted on October 24, 2016 at 6:00 am
So first I should say, this isn’t meant as advice so much as confession. These are things I do—some commonplace, some mildly embarrassing—that seem to make writing happen in my life. So take what you will from it and know that every writer I know has a list of their own that wouldn’t remotely resemble mine. Trial and error (rinse and repeat) will help you find your way to your own list.
I started doing this after reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. My journals are nothing special. They are not full of lovely prose or profound insights about the universe. They are full of whining and rants and swearing and lists of things to do. In fact, my journals are so mundane that I burn them every couple of years, not because they are full of secrets, because they are so boring I don’t want to make space for them in my house. But the ritual of writing them before I start trying to get fiction down on the page helps tidy up my errant brain. It clears the pipes of many of those distractions and clogs and hairballs of modern living that get in the way of the stories I want to tell.
If you are anything like me, you have an endless to-do list that is long enough to take up every waking minute of every day (plus you need to steal Hermione Granger’s time-turner to actually get to the end of the list every day). One of the most common complaints of the modern writer (or human) is not having enough time to do the thing they want to do. (In our case let’s assume that thing is writing.) My not-so-magical cure: write first, do the laundry (or clean the cat box, or pay the bills, or rake the leaves, or mow the lawn: you get the idea) later. Some people may think that sounds selfish or irresponsible, and they may be right. But when I give myself time and space to write first, I find the other stuff still manages to get done, plus I don’t want to strangle people or blow up the universe while I’m doing it.
This may sound like it’s the same thing I just said, but to me it’s different. I have writing time on my daily schedule most days, and when people ask me to do something (pick up the dog, meet them for coffee, go to the dentist) most of the time I tell them I’m working during that time. Because I am. That’s when I’m scheduled to work. And I wouldn’t ditch a “real job” (oh how I hate that phrase) to do those things, so I try not to ditch my scheduled writing time to do those things.
Okay, this is one of the mildly embarrassing confessions I mentioned earlier. But yeah, I do this. I put on music and dance around my house in the most ridiculous fashion. Picture Snuffleupagus doing the cabbage patch and you’re almost there. My Labrador follows me, tail wagging because he thinks the whole world and everything in it is a party. And my cats look at me like I’ve completely lost my mind because they think going crazy and running around the house is only cool when they do it. But I dance anyway. Why? Well, part of it is just to get some feeling back in my legs after sitting for an hour at the laptop. Part of it is I know enough brain research to know raising your heart rate oxygenates your brain and helps it work better. And part of it is just that I like to dance. Plus it’s hard to take yourself, or your work, too seriously if you’ve just flailed around the house with the dog while screaming out all the lyrics to “Blister in the Sun.”
I got this advice from reading an interview with Neil Gaiman, who is one of my writing heroes both for his heart-stopping stories and his wonderfully generous advice to other writers. He said, “Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” When I was first trying to write, I’d have all these great starts, but then the story would start to demand more of me or I didn’t know how to keep telling it, so I’d stop and start something new. That’s a great way to have a bunch of half-baked cakes sitting around on your computer. And it’s a terrible way to learn how to actually write a story. So I started making myself finish stuff, even if the first draft is terrible and I know it’s not working. (More on that in a minute.)
I started doing this when I was drafting my first novel. I had decided I couldn’t go back and revise until I had a complete first draft, and since my first draft was a hot mess (again, more on that in a minute), I really wanted to finish it so I could start fixing it. I set weekly word count goals, which was great for me because some days I wrote more than others, and some days I didn’t get to write at all, but I had the week to reach my goal. It doesn’t take a big goal to make progress, but it takes meeting that goal week after week.
As a matter of fact, I now find it liberating. I can write thousands of mediocre to awful words in a week. But no matter what a crapfest they are, the words make me feel like I did something. They are words that are helping me find what the story is. Words that help me get to know my characters. Words that will probably (mostly) never make it into the final draft. Words No Other Human Being Ever Needs To See! But for me they are part of the process. And every time I try to censor myself on those first couple of drafts, every time I try to hold that writing to this higher standard of being for public consumption, it stops me cold.
I’ve always loved stories. Always been an avid, passionate reader. It’s taught me a tremendous amount about how stories work and how language works and what is possible when the two come together in just the right way. (Spoiler alert: Magic!) And I truly believe that if you don’t read stories you can’t really tell stories. Sorry. (Not Sorry.)
So there you go. Nothing groundbreaking or even terribly new. Lots of writers do these things. Lots of writers don’t. But they work for me. And when I don’t do them consistently, I find the gears start getting gummed up and the writing doesn’t happen like I need it to. Now you’ll need to find your own list.
Kris Dinnison spent nearly two decades as a teacher and librarian while dreaming of becoming a writer. Her work has appeared in One Teen Story, HelloGiggles, YARN, and Germ Magazine among others. Kris’ first novel, You and Me and Him, came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July, 2015. When she’s not working, Kris loves to hike, read, and binge watch TV shows. She lives and writes in Spokane, Washington.