Like many writers, I write because I can’t imagine not doing it—not because I always love writing. Some days, I decidedly don’t love it. Sometimes I have to write even when I’m not inspired (that’s what it means to have a career rather than a hobby). So I’ve developed techniques to keep my butt in the chair when I’d rather be doing something else.
However, mere discipline won’t keep me or my readers engaged. Cranking out pages simply to meet a word count while my heart is elsewhere is a recipe for boredom for me and for readers.
A few years ago I began wondering how to stay emotionally engaged and disciplined. Here are five things I try to do every day to help keep my writing fresh.
1) Read Poetry
Even though I was an English major, I avoided reading poetry after I finished school. I clung to the idea that poems were difficult and impenetrable. I returned to poetry during a tough emotional time in my life and began reading poets like Rumi, Mary Oliver, and Marge Piercy. The sounds of the words and the rhythm of the phrases drew me in. Maybe I didn’t always get the poems, but they made me feel alive.
Poems are emotional nuggets that can connect you in an instant to what’s most important. I often start my morning reading a poem from one of my favorite poets. It takes only a few minutes and sets the tone for the day. If you’re poetry-shy, here are some places to start: The U.K. Telegraph’s suggestions for five best living poets, book recommendations from poets, and Billy Collins’s “Poem a Day” list.
2) Connect to the Moment
It’s easy to switch to autopilot mode when you’re doing something you’ve done a lot. (Think of what happens when you drive a familiar route and end up at your destination with no idea how you got there.) Strangely, this can happen even with writing. Your fingers type away but half your brain is focused on what to make for dinner or the latest Facebook notification.
Mindfulness, once considered a bit woo-woo, now has been studied and documented as beneficial for everything from calming anxiety to healing the body. As a writer, I find that mindfulness keeps my brain out of a rut.
Try a five-minute mindful writing exercise: pick an object on your desk or in the room. Describe it as if to someone who can’t see it. Pay close attention to the words you choose. If the description sparks a memory or emotion, write about that. Bring that same attention to your current writing.
3) Follow a Wild Idea
Writers are urged to avoid the Internet when we’re writing. It’s true: Google can kill productivity. You start out researching horse farms because your character grew up on one. Three hours later, you’re reading about coffee plantations in Brazil and you haven’t written a word.
But don’t ban research altogether. And don’t use it just to answer a specific question. Reading about unfamiliar places, activities, or ideas might be the juice you need to get your ideas going. Sometimes, when feel uninspired, I devote 15 or 20 minutes (I set a timer!) to researching something that interests me. I try to get deep into a topic rather than just skimming the surface. (Believe it or not, some web sites still publish long, thoughtful articles. Try Aeon or Longform.)
4) Step Away From the Desk (but don’t forget to come back)
Hard work and elbow grease may pay off when you’re cleaning the garage or refinishing the hardwood floor, but it’s not always effective when you’re seeking to connect with your deepest, most creative self. Many fiction writers like working in short bursts interspersed with non-writing activity, the way novelist Ellen Sussman does. She pioneered the “Sussman method,” which you can read about in Glimmer Train’s blog.
It’s kind of like improving endurance by interval training. After focusing hard—the way you might when writing mindfully—your brain needs time to recover. I do my best work in the morning, so I schedule at least an hour of writing time before noon. But I often do that work in 15- or 30-minute intervals in between loading the dishwasher and feeding the cats.
5) Remind Yourself Why You Write
George Orwell said of writing a book that it’s “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” If writing is indeed that painful, then we all need reminders of why we do it.
I write because I can’t imagine not doing it. Maybe you write to engage with an audience, to express yourself, to bring joy to the world, because you would feel empty inside if you don’t, or even to make money. Hang a motivational statement on the wall, keep a copy of something you’ve published on your shelf where you can see it, or simply listen to the little voice inside that says this is worthwhile. Whatever your motivation, reminding yourself of it every day can keep you going through the horrible, exhausting struggle.
Audrey Kalman writes literary fiction with a dark edge, often about what goes awry when human connection is missing from our lives. She is the author of two novels: What Remains Unsaid (Sand Hill Review Press, 2017) and Dance of Souls (2011), both available on Amazon. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of print and online journals and she is at work on another novel. Connect on Twitter, Facebook, or via her website.