Writing Life: Four Secrets of Productive Writers

Last weekend I led a writing workshop way up high on the summit of Mount Greylock, the highest mountain in Massachusetts at just under 4,000 feet. Thirteen women made the trek up the winding narrow road to the broad windy peak, with its rustic wood and stone Lodge and its lighthouse monument recently made famous by J.K. Rowling.

It felt SO GOOD, to all of us, to get up out of the weeds of our ordinary lives; to meet each other out in the sunshine and shadow of the mountaintop and give ourselves permission to spend several hours writing and sharing about our lives.

 

But now it’s Monday, and I’ve landed with a thud back into the grind of my ordinary life. How, I’m wondering, can I keep the magic of the mountaintop alive in my writerly heart and mind?

These are some strategies I use, and I would welcome your ideas too, in the comments!

1. Find a dedicated space in your house for writing, and do nothing else there. I find that I am quite Pavlovian when it comes to my writing habits. If I set up one space in my house that is my writing space, and religiously protect it, so that the ONLY thing I do there is my most creative writing work, then whenever I sit in that spot, the creative juices automatically start to flow.

I won’t show you my messy day-to-day work counter, but I can show you the desk where I sit to write my novel-in-progress.

See? It’s clear. When I move my laptop to this spot, I am symbolically and literally clearing my mind and getting down to “real” writing—not emails, not grant applications, not proposals or comments on student papers. Just my own precious writing.

I reinforce the clarity and sanctity of this space by using “Focus View” in my Word program, so that I see nothing else on my screen but a blank white page, waiting for me to fill it up.

2. Find a dedicated time in your day/week for writing, and do nothing else in that time. Make a creative date with yourself and keep it as religiously as you would a doctor’s appointment or an airline reservation. Put it in your calendar and don’t schedule anything else in that time slot, no matter what!

When my children were small, the only time I had for writing was very early in the morning, while everyone else slept. The year I was able to rise and work from 5:30 to 6:30 several mornings a week
was the year I finished my first book project, Women Writing Resistance in Latin America & the Caribbean. Once I got into the swing of it, I would rise eagerly, sometimes well before 5:30, looking forward to the quiet, creative time with my cup of tea and the white light of my computer screen. It didn’t feel like a chore; it felt like pure, productive pleasure.

3. Look for opportunities to share your work. Whether it’s a writing circle of friends or a more formal writing class or regular check-ins with an editor or coach, there’s nothing as stimulating as knowing someone you respect is waiting to read what you’ve written. If you’re pulling together your own peer writing group, you might want to take a look at my Writer’s Companion book, where I talk about strategies to use to make sure that the feedback you’re giving and receiving is productive and positive.

As I recalled in my memoir, the experience of receiving harsh “critique” in a writer’s workshop in New York when I was in my early twenties traumatized me so much that I basically stopped writing creatively for many years. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so sensitive…but maybe that workshop leader should have been more careful about the tone of the class, too. Live and learn and do it better!

4. Learn how to say NO. I admit I’m not so good at this. The people-pleaser in me wants to accept every request and work hard to make everyone happy, even if it means I end up burning myself out so much working for others that I no longer have time/energy for my own creative work. Here in my second half of life, I am slowly learning to prioritize my own writing, which requires that I take the deep leap of believing that what I have to write about—what I have to share with the world—actually matters. You can’t just pay lip service to this conviction. You have to really feel it deep in your core.

This is the premise of purposeful memoir: that no one else can write the story you have to tell, and that your story is important to share because it will help others to see the world differently. In our troubled times, empathy may be the most important skill we can learn, and it requires that we look at the world through the eyes of another. How better to give people this opportunity than through sharing your experience and your unique perspective with them through powerful writing, whether memoir or fiction?

All creative people need to get ourselves up and away from the weeds of our ordinary lives in order to nourish our inner muse. We can do it by literally taking ourselves up mountaintops, or we can do it right where we are: by training ourselves to carve out space and time; by finding and cultivating writing allies; and by believing in the value of what we sit down at our desks to do.

You at your writing desk, me at mine…together we can and will GO HIGH!

6 thoughts on “Writing Life: Four Secrets of Productive Writers”

  1. Thanks for all of these great suggestions.

    I have to laugh about the rising early suggestion. For decades, I resisted this suggestion. I tried to find other times to squeeze writing in; I often didn’t. But since my first stint at the Sonoma County Writer’s Camp run by Ellen Sussman and Elizabeth Stark a little more than a year ago, I have been rising every morning about 6:30 (ok, maybe I skip one morning a week), sitting at my kitchen table (which actually is not used for anything but my writing) and opening up my “morning pages” notebook. I have grown to crave that time and space and I’ve become a great advocate of early morning writing time. Of course, the night owls among us might time shift to late evening, but the idea is the same.

    I’ve also benefited greatly from working with a writing partner. We don’t work on the same things. Rather, we meet weekly to dive into our own works in progress. We also set up accountability with one another–like texting daily at a certain time to report that day’s progress–to help keep each other on track.

  2. Every morning, that’s really phenomenal! If I can manage to go write from bed to writing desk 2-3 mornings a week these days, I feel quite good about it. But I know that the further I get into a writing project, the more pull it has on me…kind of like a magnetism that attracts me out of bed in the early morning hours, when I’m still a bit dazed with the fuzziness of dreamland, and more open to the creative side of my brain. I am just starting a new book project which I hope will soon become compelling enough to levitate me out of bed and to my desk–the more often the better!

  3. Since December 2015 when I started posting my blog seventysomething every second Monday, I have developed a very regular schedule of posting/processing/writing/posting. I don’t write for 9 days after the post. I live. I notice. I digest. Then, on the second Wednesday, I begin writing the blog for the following Monday, a little bit each day. I don’t worry about not having something to write about. I don’t worry getting it done. It’s a blessing.

    1. No wonder your blog posts are so calm and well-thought-out, Susie! My blogging process is quite different, I usually write in a white heat of passion, rarely taking more than an hour to write and publish a post. Like you, though, I am happy if I publish twice a month–that seems to be my usual pace given all the other responsibilities I have and roles I play. I agree with you, blogging is a blessing–so wonderful to be able to reach out and share your perspectives with so many! And congratulations on getting your Seventysomething blog picked up by NPR!

  4. Calm sounds good. Can’t think of a better adjective. And yes, twice a month is the max for me. Now looking forward to the second appearance of seventysomething on PBS. If I keep it up and they’re happy with it, I’ll be even more calm. I’m striving for an end to striving.

  5. Thanks for all of these great suggestions.

    I have to laugh about the rising early suggestion. For decades, I resisted this suggestion. I tried to find other times to squeeze writing in; I often didn’t. But since my first stint at the Sonoma County Writer’s Camp run by Ellen Sussman and Elizabeth Stark a little more than a year ago, I have been rising every morning about 6:30 (ok, maybe I skip one morning a week), sitting at my kitchen table (which actually is not used for anything but my writing) and opening up my “morning pages” notebook. I have grown to crave that time and space and I’ve become a great advocate of early morning writing time. Of course, the night owls among us might time shift to late evening, but the idea is the same.

    I’ve also benefited greatly from working with a writing partner. We don’t work on the same things. Rather, we meet weekly to dive into our own works in progress. We also set up accountability with one another–like texting daily at a certain time to report that day’s progress–to help keep each other on track.

Comments are closed.