Everyone has heard that common writing advice about getting your butt in the chair, yet so many writers struggle to do just that.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll recognize this typical scene that plays out in my house constantly. My husband comes into the living room and shuts off the TV while I am watching a show.
“What are you doing?” I ask, momentarily thrown off my game.
“You’re clearly not watching TV. You’re on your laptop,” he’ll point out.
This is when I tell him I am doing both. This stuns him. Every time. He does not understand how I can do more than one thing at a time. The truth is, I can’t help it. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with focus. Whenever I sit down to do anything, read, write, or even watch TV, it isn’t long before I am up and doing something, anything, to keep moving.
I can relax—don’t get me wrong—but I need to do it while folding laundry and listening to an audio book or watching a music video on Youtube. Call it ADHD (and some people do), but I have had to develop a particular set of skills to get things done despite my less than laser focus.
Here are five ways that help me get my butt in the chair, even when my brain is thinking of eighteen things at once, as I struggle to sit down at all, let alone for an hour or so to write.
1. Get Excited about Your Writing
What do you love to write? Usually, you write what you love to read. What gets my butt in the chair is writing about dragons and magic spells and world building from scratch. The last two books I read were a murder mystery and a romance. Before that, it was an old Stephen King novel (Tommyknockers) and Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski.
But the books that captured my heart as a child and are buried in my limbic system from way back are Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time, and, of course, Bunnicula. FYI, Watership Down and White Fang round out the favorites.
The theme is, of course, magic. Well, science and magic, but they are the same in my mind. What I’m doing right now, typing away into this computer, would have seemed like sorcery a century ago.
I wanted to write literary fiction because that’s what “serious” and “important” people write. Right?
Guess what doesn’t get my butt in the chair? Literary fiction.
Yep. So, #reality. I write what gets me excited to get in the chair. My main character just got tossed from a dragon and grew wings. I am having so much fun it is ridiculous. If I spend a lifetime doing just this and never make more than a few dollars, I’ve still spent my time engaged in work that makes me excited and happy. I literally can’t lose.
I heard an author say (I think it was Neil Gaiman), “write like you’re going to change the world with your words. Edit like it’s the worst sort of nonsense imaginable.” Or something to that effect.
Either way…get excited about your writing.
2. Get a Routine
While creativity may love spontaneity, it also loves a solid routine. Doesn’t that sound like the most boring thing ever? But you’re already doing it. Getting up and making coffee is a routine. Watching Netflix and eating chips is a routine. You love routines—let’s get that working for you.
If you don’t have time to read the rest of this article, please remember this…getting a writing routine that works for you will change your life AND help get your butt in the chair.
Show up, and your inspiration will wax and wane, and then come when you call. But only if you show up for it consistently.
Here at DIY MFA, we are convinced this is the only “secret” you need to know. The time you spend, the words you write, the scenes you finish, daily or weekly, none of this matters as much as developing the habit of sitting down to write consistently. Do not hurry, do not stop. This is the way.
3. Grow a Ritual
You’ve probably heard of the football player who won’t shave until the playoffs are over or who always puts his right foot first when coming onto the field. Many athletes have a ritual they follow before every game, whether eating a certain meal or sitting in a specific seat on the bus.
Crystal Dunn, a member of the US Women’s National Soccer Team, is the “team DJ” who picks the music they all listen to before going on the field. We may pass these off as superstition, but following a ritual gives us a sense of control, and it trains our brain to “get ready to win.” Or, in our case, to write.
My ritual involves closing the curtains, turning off the lights, listening to loud epic fantasy music, and lighting a candle. The music helps me focus—as someone who struggles with attention, the silence of an empty room can drive me bananas. I need to have at least half my brain occupied to slow down enough to get the words on the page. I often drink herbal tea to give my hands something to do when thinking of the next scene. The candle, flickering brightly in the dark room in the pre-dawn hours, makes it feel like I’m meditating or doing something special. And, I am. I’m writing. I’m doing magic here.
I do these things every time to train my brain to drop into that flow quicker and longer. I’m using neuroscience to my advantage.
How do you prepare to write?
You may need a bright room full of afternoon sunlight, and the cat curled up beside you, and the hum of the air conditioner instead of music. Whatever makes you happy and feels like something special is happening because it is.
4. Get Grateful
Make it special, make it sacred, but for god’s sake, don’t act like the universe owes you 100,000 words of pure gold. If you have a job that pays the bills while you get to create universes and smash characters together, thank your lucky stars.
We’ve all heard being grateful can help improve your quality of life. I’ve just finished reading No Self, No Problem by Chris Niebauer, and in it, Chris posits that feeling grateful is a right-brain activity – and one that can get you in touch with your creative self more quickly. Feeling grateful is a win-win for writers.
5. Grant Yourself Time to Play
The importance of play cannot be overstated. Play for adults is critical in a world where productivity and efficiency are the new alters we sacrifice our well-being on. Play releases endorphins, improves brain function, and stimulates creativity.
Studies show play improves memory and stimulates growth of the cerebral cortex. Play triggers the release of BDNF, a substance essential for growth of brain cells. When you play with the kids or the grandkids, you don’t just feel younger (and maybe a little silly?). You actually are improving your brain and body health. You can’t get your butt in the chair and write if you can’t remember where you put your glasses.
In the end, discipline doesn’t work for diets, and it doesn’t work for writing habits. You need to be excited to get in that chair and follow your characters (who you love) down a rabbit hole. Your goal is to create a world so vivid and terrifying or lovely that you’d rather live in it than eat cold cereal and walk in the drab sunshine where your body lives.
“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD
Tell us in the comments below: How do you get your butt in the chair?
Angela Yeh hails from Atlantic Canada but lives and works in Texas – after her liberal arts degree, she wandered into Corporate Canada but managed to escape. She is a fantasy author who is gobsmacked she gets to work for and with writers from all over the world at DIYMFA.com. She considers it a personal challenge to find an article or podcast that will answer any question you ask us. Bring it on! She lives with her family, big Texas pine trees, and three cranky fur babies. You can check her out on Instagram or Twitter – @thatpluckygirl.