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!