Your routine is your muse
I’ve been busy at work on a new book proposal—more details coming soon. I gave myself the deadline of last weekend to have it done, which is why I didn’t send a newsletter last week. But I missed that deadline. No worries: the real purpose of a deadline isn’t to accomplish it, but to move forward.
But now I’m on double deadline duty because I don’t want to make a habit of missing deadlines (and I have another project I want to start).
To buy some time and hopefully keep you engaged in this newsletter, I’m offering a chapter from my book Pep Talks for Writers on one of my favorite creative topics: routines. I hope reading this newsletter is part of your creative routine.
“I hate writing. I like having written,” Dorothy Parker famously said.
She nailed it for many writers. There’s been many a time, especially on a labored day of writing, when I’ve looked out the window on a nice sunny day and wondered why I don’t take a hike with friends, go to a matinee, or just sit and pass the day with a good book.
“I’m an adult,” I tell myself. “I can do anything I want with my free time. Why am I sitting here and forcing myself to write when I could be indulging in practically any pleasurable activity I want?”
Writing can be daunting, frustrating, and even frightening—yet then, somehow, magically fulfilling. That’s why having a writing routine is so important. If there’s a single defining trait among most successful writers, it’s that they all show up to write regularly. Whether they write at midnight, dawn, or after a two-martini lunch, they have a routine.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish,” said Antoine Saint Exupéry. And a routine is a plan. A plan of dedication. A routine helps obliterate any obstacle hindering you from writing, whether it’s a psychological block or a tantalizing party invitation.
But it’s even more than that. When you write during a certain time each day, and in an environment designated solely for rumination (if possible), you experience creative benefits. The regularity of time and place serves as an invitation for your mind to walk through the doorways of your imagination and fully concentrate on your story.
Routines help to trigger cognitive cues that are associated with your story, cloaking you in the ideas, images, feelings, and sentences that are swirling in your subconscious.
If you anoint a specific time and place for writing, make it sacred and regular. Regularity and repetition are like guides who lead you deeper into the realm of your imagination.
Another name for muse might be routine.
In fact, another name for muse might be routine. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly. That’s because you’re carried forward by the reassuring momentum of your progress, absorbed in a type of mesmerism. Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas. If you don’t have a routine, if you show up sporadically, it takes longer to warm up and remember your story.
Stephen King is perhaps the perfect case study of such a writer. He compares his writing room to his bedroom, a private place of dreams.
“Your schedule—in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk—exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.”
But, wait, aren’t artists supposed to be freewheeling, undisciplined creatures more inclined to follow the fancies of their imagination than the rigid regularities of a schedule? Doesn’t routine subvert and suffocate creativity?
Quite the opposite. A routine provides a safe and stable place for your imagination to roam, dance, do somersaults, and jump off cliffs.
A routine doesn’t have to be a big thing. In fact, it’s better to make it small.
If you’re not writing, what if you try to write for a simple 30 minutes a day? If you have problems writing for 30 minutes a day, see if you can “noodle” for 15 minutes a day. Noodling is the best because noodling can mean anything. Listen to music and doodle (a sibling of noodling), and I bet you’ll start writing.
I have a tradition of buying a new hat for each new novel I write—a hat that fits the theme if possible—just to change my writing energy a bit. When I put on the hat, I get into the character of the novel, I signal to my brain that I’m ready to write. For one macabre tale, I wore a “coffin hat” (a short version of a top hat). For another one, I wore a derby.
Do you have a particular talisman, article of clothing, or ritual that can guide you into your routine? How can you make your routine like a hat you put on each day?
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