Hello, readers! Today, and for the next few columns, I’m taking a departure from my usual format. Like many of you, I want to learn more about how other writers work, live, and balance it all. I’m interviewing writers at all stages of life and career about their writing process, habits, routine, and wellness tips. I’m so excited to share this first interview from my friend Julie Maloney. Julie and I met three years ago at the Writer’s Digest conference, waiting on line at Pitch Slam. We ended up going to lunch afterward, and I’ve since attended a couple of her Women Reading Aloud retreats (a transformative experience each time). Julie’s an inspiration to me, and I’m unbelievably excited that her first novel, A Matter of Chance, is releasing in spring 2018. What a long way we’ve come from those eager writers, waiting on line to talk to agents!
(If you’d like to read my own answers to these questions, find them on my website— I tried out the interview on myself before subjecting other writers to it!)
What is your keystone habit (the habit that makes all other habits possible)?
Exercise. As a former dancer, my body is used to moving. Without it, I’m a grump. I give myself choices: I walk outside or go to the gym or attend a yoga class. I have a treadmill and exercise bike in my home and if I haven’t exercised by the end of the day, I jump on the bike for 30 minutes. I keep my yoga mat stretched out in my foyer so I see it and have no excuse not to stretch. I work at a standing desk to avoid sitting for too long.
Is there one wellness-related habit you’d never skip?
I need sleep. I am not the kind of writer who can write through the night.
What is your daily writing routine?
“Routine” is a powerful word. I like to write in the mornings and take a break to exercise later in the afternoon. But each day is slightly different. Although all the variables are the same, I mix them up. If I have a yoga class on Thursday in the morning, this means I’m writing later on that day. I do not write into the evening, because it becomes too hard for me to fall asleep. I’ve found even if I’ve taught an evening class, it is harder for me to unwind and sleep. I need time to slow down…which is a near impossibility!
What are your essential writing “tools?”
I write initial drafts of poetry with pen and paper. My novel, “A Matter of Chance,” coming out in April, 2018, I wrote mainly on the computer. I always edit on the computer but I love writing in a notebook. For a long time, I was writing at the NYC Public Library in the Rose Reading Room until it closed for renovations. It’s reopened but I haven’t yet returned to that routine. It’s a train ride to New York City from my home in New Jersey. I use that time to read. Often, I carry my laptop but end up writing on paper. When I’m writing a scene that is causing me trouble, I step away and write by hand.
Where do you write?
Usually, I write at home in my “writing room,” that was once a bedroom. It is a happy space which means I have pictures of my family and writing friends and students. It is also a messy space. It is the only part of my home that I would call “messy!” I have so many books in piles and on bookshelves. At times, I attempt to clean up and I am still happy when things are cleared away. I’ve seen pictures of writers in their writing spaces and I am mystified as to how pristine their spaces look. I have a large file cabinet where I keep all the WOMEN READING ALOUD materials. This is an organization I founded in 2003 and it has grown to be an international organization. (www.womenreadingaloud.org)
What’s one aspect of your current writing process that you learned the hard way?
Balance. I am still working on this. It is a huge learning process. Many days, I throw “balance” to the wind. Other times, I rein myself in and that is why I need to take that walk or release into shavasana on my yoga mat.
Do you have different routines for different parts of the writing process: drafting vs. editing, for example? Do you have a “crop rotation” schedule, or work differently during different seasons of the year?
Usually, I teach less in the winter and so I have delicious amounts of time to devote to the novel writing process. But this year in 2018, I’ll be spending lots of time gearing up for a book tour. I will have to relearn how I use my time. I am always very aware of “time” and how I spend it. And this is important: with whom I spend my time…an entirely different topic but one I pay attention to. As I said above, I edit at the computer. I lead two international retreats in the summer. This summer –2017– I flew on 10 planes, rode 2 ferries and took innumerable van and taxi rides —all international traveling. I read on those flights and loved every second. As I write in the workshops I lead, according to the Amherst Writers and Artists Method, I use that time for discovery of new material on the page.
What’s the biggest thing that gets in the way of your writing life?
Staring. I like to sit quietly and stare out the window. Often, it is hard for me to simply move my position at home from staring out the window into the backyard where it is full of trees and forest. I sip a cup of tea and I get very quiet. I know when I get up, I’ll be entering a busier space —my writing room —and I’ll have deadlines and responsibilities to fulfill. So I stretch out the time I allow myself to stare. Of course, staring means that I am conjuring up mental images and always a line or two or three floats across my brain and then I am in full poet’s mode. Or something I couldn’t figure out in the plot of a novel I’m working on gets a “aha” moment.
Which would you give up first: writing, sleep, or breakfast?
Never breakfast. This is a hard question. I must create something in my life. I would never be satisfied without creating, no matter where I was or what age I was experiencing. I don’t think that way as far as “giving up.” I prefer to ask myself the question: “How must I adjust at this time in my life?” It allows me more freedom to think like this. Adjusting is temporary. Giving up sounds permanent.
How do you maintain your mental health during difficult times?
I walk outside. I breathe in deeply in a yoga class. I curl up with my husband. We’ve been married 45 years. He knows me! I need lots and lots of space – mental and physical. I also know that I must “feed myself” with art. Going to a museum is one of my favorite things to do. I feel fed when I leave and my mind has cleared. I have a different perspective after filling up with someone else’s art. During a difficult time, I’ll go to the ocean and walk on the boardwalk and let myself breathe deeply. Breathing brings me back in touch with my body. I need this to feel fully alive as I create and write.
How do you get into a creative mental space that fosters new ideas?
I’ve lead a creative life forever. Even growing up, at the age of nine and ten, I was choreographing neighborhood shows with all the kids on the block. I can slip into a “creative mental space” very easily. In the middle of a noisy Starbucks, I can take out my journal and edit a poem. New ideas come from living a full life. This is where “balance” comes into the picture. Of course, reading, reading, reading…this always does it for me. It brings me to places I might not get to. I am crazy in love with books like “Stoner” by John Williams and “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout. Ask me how many times I’ve read “We Were the Mulvaneys” by Joyce Carol Oates. I can read a page or paragraph from these and put the book down on my lap and feel enormously happy to be breathing. Once I’m breathing well and deeply, new ideas pop up. Always. They’ll come. We have to give ourselves the space for ideas to show themselves.
Since we’re heading into NaNoWriMo, have you ever done a marathon writing session? What did you learn from that process?
Never. This kind of pressure might work well for some but it wouldn’t work for me because I need more time to “stare out my window!”
What book, blog or podcast would you recommend to writers who want to develop strong writing and wellness habits?
The writing book that I return to over and over again is by Stephen King called “On Writing.” King nails it on every page. The book is accessible to every level of writer. It’s subtitle is “Memoir Of The Craft.” King weaves craft with his personal experience as a human being who chooses to be a writer. He does not discourage nor does he gloss over the difficult parts of the writing life. I also love “The Art of Slow Writing” by Louise DeSalvo. I had the pleasure of hosting DeSalvo through WOMEN READING ALOUD and her fierceness and dedication is nothing less than the pinnacle of inspiration.
Listening to other writers speak about their writing lives adds fuel to the rest of us who are listening. How do we keep the fire lit in our bellies? By listening! Observing, and yes, eavesdropping. “Self-care” is a lifetime commitment. Artists and writers have a hard time practicing self-care but it is imperative. We can begin with self-awareness and slip into self-care. I return to books for inspiration. As a child, I lived around the corner from the tiny local library. Through elementary school, I’d walk alone to the library on Fridays and check out four books—the weekly limit—and return home to read. Even now, I recall the experience as nothing short of sublime. Reading and writing and creating keeps me happy. It sounds simple. Perhaps, it is.
JULIE MALONEY is the founder/director of WOMEN READING ALOUD, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting women writers. She is a trained workshop leader in the Amherst Writers and Artists Method and holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a former dancer, choreographer and artistic director of the Julie Maloney Dance Company in New York City. Julie’s book of poems, Private Landscape, published by Arseya Press, is an intimate look into the heart of a woman who traveled through cancer. She is a frequent speaker on “Writing as a Life Tool.” As director of WRA, she leads writing workshops throughout the year. Julie will return to the island of Alonnisos in September, 2018, to lead her eighth international writer’s retreat in Greece. She just returned from directing the Writing and Yoga Retreat in Languedoc, France. Her debut novel, “A Matter of Chance,” will be published in April, 2018 by She Writes Press. Visit: www.juliemaloney.net
Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical/literary fiction and memoir; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or on Twitter @sowulwords.