rituals

How a night owl got an a.m. writing habit

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This is how you change your writing life: You do something differently.

I know that’s no great revelation. Still, I can forget it in an instant, swept along by my routines and the slick thought loops in my head.  My mind must hold a record for the speed at which it can bounce from “I want more time to write,” to “There’s no way to do that!” to “I think I’ll check out ‘Orange is the New Black’ on Netflix.”And then do it again. Repeatedly. For weeks.

Sometimes, though, I wake myself up by moving the furniture. More than once I’ve dragged the bed into the living room to make space for a writing studio. And recently, I did the mental equivalent by shifting my schedule to find room for my poetry project.

This time, didn’t make a spreadsheet or even look at my calendar. My computer and filing cabinet are littered with fancy renditions of a “perfect schedule,” color coded and neatly printed, with time slots for everything including the 10 glasses of water I’ll drink and the 23-minute power nap I’ll take. I love the exercise of creating those visions of efficiency, but once they’re done, they make me twitchy. And by the time I get to Day 2, I feel like a failure.

What’s working? Can you copy that?

So I started with a different question, one I think we don’t ask nearly often enough: What’s working for me now? Not “What rotten habits do I need to break?” but “What's making me happy and giving me the results I want?"

The answer was easy. Some time ago, I got into the habit of rolling out of bed and going straight to the gym. I had never been that person before, and could go for months—years!—without exercising. But I started going to group classes and found that I liked the Follow the Leader aspect, the too-loud music, the endorphins, the crazy Russian lady teacher. I didn’t have to think, I just had to show up and put my right foot in, or shake it all about, when someone gave the cue. You didn’t have to be fully awake to do it—who knew?

Perhaps best of all, for the rest of the day, I didn’t have to think about that exercise I meant to squeeze in, or feel defeated when I didn’t get around to it.

What was working for me? Crossing “exercise” off the list before the day roared off the blocks. I got great pleasure out of knowing that no matter what else happened, I had a tiny accomplishment to show. I could definitely use more of that. I could tack my writing onto that routine.

It made me happy to imagine walking into my working hours having already spent time with my own thoughts, my own words. Without a lot of angst or drama, I decided to try it. Mostly, I was curious to see how it would feel.

Let's just pretend it's night...

It took me a few days to set my alarm an hour earlier and see what it was like to open my computer to a writing file without looking at e-mails or news or anything else. It helped that I was too sleepy to care much about what anyone else was doing at that hour. I’d been snoring just moments before. I typed the date on the top of the page, dimmed the brightness of the screen so I could pretend it was still night, and let myself write.

I’ve learned that it’s not good to stare too long at a blank document without moving my fingers, because my body’s apt to slide back into a snooze. I’ve pointed myself to writing prompts when my mind doesn’t find a foothold or pick up where it left off the day before. I'm still learning what works.

I’ve been surprised by the images that wind up on the page, the stories that bubble out of sleep. And I've been struck by this unthinkable twist: It’s possible to be a confirmed night person and a person who writes her way out of dreams before 7 a.m.

Guilt and self-blame vs. desire

This “first thing” writing is an ongoing experiment that may well be replaced by another. But it feels like a keeper, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I'd been resisting this for years.

There seems to be a difference—a big one—between setting out to fix something broken (“I’ve failed because I can’t make enough time to write!”) and deciding to build on something that makes you feel good. The first seems to come straight from the Inner Critic. And the second seems rooted in those natural magnets, pleasure and desire.

The magic is in following the pull. 

(Image of moon at dawn by Babu Kantamneni via Flickr.)

Create instead of wait: Your writing is urgent

I’m thinking about time—and how much more I want to write. Some of the most motivated writers I know and work with keep a sense of urgency pulling them forward: Someone close becomes gravely ill. A parent dies. A car swerves into their lane on the way home and crashes into the timeline they’d envisioned, that long life full of days to spend thinking about what they might get around to next year or the next.

Time shifts. It loses its the slipperiness that lets us imagine it into any dimensions we choose and reveals itself to be bracingly finite. Precious.

‘I’m an artist. What else would I do right now but this?’

A friend from the gym is 81, and her cancer’s back. Gloria’s optimistic, and intensely focused. “I’ve been tired,” she told me, “but I’m almost done with my children’s book, so I’ve been at my computer working on it.” A week into chemo, she brought the book in to show me, the tale of a mouse—“not a Disney mouse, but a wild one”—who joins the circus. “I’m an artist,” she says. “What else would I do right now but this?”

Gloria's book is full of encouragement as it traces the intrepid rodent’s journey to the big top: Take a chance, the story line suggests. Have an adventure! Try again when something goes wrong during the show! I’m listening to all of that, letting the art seep in as I let Gloria’s clarity about the importance of this work we do—even when it’s “just for ourselves”—reinforce mine.

 

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The art of making our best work urgent

You’re probably familiar with the distinction Steven Covey, the late business guru, makes between what’s important and what’s urgent. Urgent tasks, he says, are the sometimes inconsequential ones that make lots of noise and, with their deadlines or importance to someone else, tend to crowd out truly significant priorities that don’t have a screaming boss, finger-drumming client or child attached.

He advocates focusing on the important, in our case the novels or stories or essays or poems that no one’s paying us to write or expecting from us by a particular date. I’ll be filling the coming year with a stream of prompts, pushes, and practices to keep my own important projects sanely infused with a sense of urgency over the long haul.

Some of that will involve setting deadlines and creating time-based containers for work—five poems in five days once in a while, for instance—and some will no doubt mean making and keeping promises to someone else, because there’s magic in contracts and commitments, unsexy as those words sound.

I’m not envisioning a yearlong sprint or even a fast start. Just a walk-run steadiness that builds intensity, eases off and builds again, filling growing stretches of time with writing, with presence. I’ll share what I’m doing along the way. Maybe you’ll come too?

So, are you game?

I hope you will join me in trying to marry your truly important work with a sense of urgency. Urgent comes from the Latin for “to press or to drive,” and in tapping urgency, we unleash its driving energy, channeling the push to create instead of wait.

It can feel like wind at your back.

Looking ahead to the next 12 months, what’s the slightly scary, undeniably important-to-your writing goal you could elevate to urgent by announcing it to the world (or us) and moving toward at a solid walk-run pace? If you’re feeling bold, declare it in the comments below, and I’ll tell you mine. We can support each other as we go.

If you want concentrated help to get you going, check the “Work With Donna” page. And feel free to use the Contact page if you want dream up other ways we can work together.

(Clock image by Zorin Denu via Flickr.)

 

P.S. A tracking tool I like

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I’m not a big believer in starting a new project or renewed push with a new notebook (see this post if you’ve got the starting-gate stationery fetish), but I do like toys and treats, so I’ve been playing lately with an app called Chains, available at chains.cc. It’s another of the tools based on the old Seinfeld idea “don’t break the chain” of days on which you stay true to a chosen habit. I’ve been using the desktop version, but there’s also an iPhone app (nothing for Android mobiles yet).

In Chains, you can track multiple habits, and each time you click a date to indicate you’ve, say, done your writing practice or made time to work on your fiction, you activate a graphic (you can choose among several) that changes in surprising ways as your “chain” gets longer. Currently, I’m tracking the growth of a yellow crayon, a flower in a pot and a rugged-looking iron chain.

If you liked gold stars, you’ll enjoy this century’s variation. For support (or competition) you can form or join groups of people tracking similar habits/commitments. You’ll find many writers and readers in the Chains community. If you’d like to play with this in the company of other Let’s Write This writers, let me know below and I’ll set up a group.

Looking Away: A simple meditation for freeing inspiration in a crazed writing life

What do you do when you reach that “writer action shot” moment—staring off into space with words bouncing around like bumper cars in your mind but refusing to find their way to the page? I used to simply gut it out, staring longer, “thinking harder,” hoping something would come into focus. But recently, I’ve been using a technique I learned from my meditation teacher, a practice called Looking Away. It’s worked so well, and freed my writing so much, that I wanted to introduce you to both the process and to my teacher, Jona Genova.

Jona has done brain research, worked on Wall Street, helped launch restaurants, been a cookie queen and studied Tibetan Buddhism in her fluid and fascinating life. She now teaches meditation and works as a healer from her base in Malibu, Calif., and her organization Samadhi for Peace, samadhiforpeace.com.

We talked this week about writing and meditation, and some highlights of our conversation—including instructions for Looking Away—are below. Especially if you’ve had difficulty meditating in the past, I hope you’ll give it a try. It’s a tiny practice with surprising power.

Meditation may be more familiar than you think

“Creative people tend to be great meditators, and even those who think they’re not probably already have a meditation practice—they’re just not calling it that,” Jona says. “So a first step is to tap into how you’re already meditating.” The techniques you use to center yourself before doing creative work are closely tied to meditation, she explains.

Visual learners, she says, may naturally picture themselves doing a task successfully, the way a musician might envision a performance and see himself going through each step, creating a strong image of what’s going to happen.

For many writers, the process might be more intellectual, using words to pull inward and separate from the world. “It might be a peaceful thought you go to,” she says, or a practice of telling yourself, ‘"t’s going to be okay. Just relax. I have plenty of time to do this.”

That means there’s no one meditation technique that’s right for everyone. “I meet many people who are frustrated because they’ve tried meditation by the book and it’s difficult for them,” she says. “I always say that it’s different strokes for different folks—it’s important to find the meditation that resonates with you, and where have a visceral response to the technique. More than likely, it will relate to (or be) the practice you’ve naturally found for yourself, and you can build on that.”

 

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Starting when you don’t know where to start

But it’s not unusual to have trouble recognizing what you always do, Jona says. “You may say, ‘I know I have a meditation practice in there somewhere, but I can’t find it.’ That builds frustration.

“When that happens, the very simple technique I would offer is to engage the process of Looking Away,” which is particularly useful at stressful moments in everyday life.

To describe the effect of Looking Away, she tells a story from her childhood. Her brother was a catcher on a softball team, and during a game, his arm was injured. “So my grandfather ran into the dugout and grabbed an ice pack, the kind you smash so it’ll become cold.” He was a strong man, and when he clapped the pack between his hands, it exploded, its chemicals flying everywhere.

“The next one he grabbed did the same thing. The third time, the coach said, ‘That’s our last one…’ So my grandfather brought himself out of the moment and was a little more gentle. Breaking that ice pack in a more gentle way produced the result he wanted”—and he was finally able to ice her brother’s injured arm.

Go gently, writers, she advises: Brute force probably won’t liberate the muse. “If we try too hard, we’re not going to get the result we want. To some people that effort may feel like squeezing, holding on, or confining our ideas to one train of thought. And when we start to go down that road, it really inhibits our creativity.

“It may seem counterintuitive, but taking a few minutes to not pay attention to the thing you’ve been focusing on can actually put your body in a state that’s able to give you what you want.”

Looking away, step by (short) step

Here’s how Jona suggests Looking Away when you get stuck:

1. Accept that distraction and frustration are going to happen—they happen to everyone, and it helps to acknowledge that.

2. Take a few deep breaths—it may sound cliche, but it does help to clear your mind a little bit and relieves some of the pressure. Then take a very brief break for a meditation.

3. Set a timer for two minutes—and only two minutes; we’re practicing restraint.

4. Sit in a chair and elongate your spine without a lot of strain or thought about it. Try to sit in a comfortable way that makes room for your breath. Once you’re there, find your breath and ride the rhythm of your inhale and exhale, feeling the rise and fall of your body.

Your mind will probably want to go to the task at hand, but bring yourself back to just feeling the rise and fall of the body, and every time your mind returns to your project, bring it back to “feel the rise and fall of my body."

5. Remind yourself to trust this very ancient practice that’s worked for many, many people. Just go with it.

No need to panic if ideas come

She recommends keeping a journal by your side during meditation. “You take your two-minute break, and more than likely, you’ll see ideas pop up about what you were working on. It’s okay to turn to your journal and jot down those thoughts in one or two words rather than letting your mind race through: ‘Okay, don’t forget that. That was a really good one. Don’t forget it! Okay, now back to the breath, back to the rise and fall.'”

“That’s just too much. Don’t make it so hard on yourself. Write down the ideas that pop into your head and enjoy the fluidity of going back into your meditation: 'Okay, got it down on paper. I can go back in. Everything is fine.'”

Less really can be more

“Somewhere along the line, we all picked up the idea that to be successful, we need to work harder and faster. And it’s just not the case,” Jona says. “There’s more and more research telling us that a relaxed state and a well-rested person is going to perform better. So try to shift your framework.

“Spending two minutes in meditation and going back into daily life gives us an experience that I feel is missing in some practices,” Jona says. “What occurs in meditation should flow into the rest of our lives so that eventually, we can’t tell the difference between being in meditation and everything else. When we take those two-minute breaks, we’re carrying with us the resonance of that meditation, that way of being, into what we do next. Less is more sometimes. We just have to recognize that just because something seems simple, that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective. There’s great depth in that simplicity.”

You can find Jona Genova at samadhiforpeace.com, and she's Samadhi for Peace on Facebook. To see one of her short and simple guided meditation videos, click here

(Photo by Marcus Hansson via Flickr.)

A simple trick for winning the war with distraction

Here's a quiz. You hit a snag in something you're writing at work. Do you:

a. Power through and keep going? b. Get up and walk around? c. Click away to your e-mail or the Web?

I'm guessing C. That quick and easy avenue of escape is so pervasive it's part of the rhythm of the day. Type, stall, click away. Type, stall, click away.

You bend the idea you’re trying to shape back and forth like a paperclip wire until there’s a tiny snap. Okay. Enough of that. What’s on the web?

Many minutes later, Facebook checked, the great and powerful Google oracle consulted, e-mail scanned, you’re back. Same spot, same task, just a little bit farther behind, a little more stressed. The enemy—distraction—is winning. Sometimes there’s hardly a contest.

Maybe it’s always been like this, but getting stuck was probably more fun when people typed their attempts on paper, looked at them with a shake of the head and then yanked the sheet from the roller and wadded it up. (Typewriter talk is so visceral, no?) A ring of big white wads around the desk was some kind of measure of time and progress. And when the pile got big enough, you could shoot baskets into the trash can.

Now, we just silently click away from what we’re doing, sometimes many, many times a day. And there’s not even a satisfying mess to show for it.

The clicking would make sense if we were lab rats getting a food pellet. Or the fresh inspiration of a real break. But no, what we have here is a time suck. More info bits crammed into a brain that seriously doesn’t need another status update. And now there’s even less time to write the important stuff—our own.

Distract yourself with .... yourself

But here’s a secret: You can have your distraction and your writing too. The trick? Don’t fight distraction, don’t declare war and don’t stop. Just do it a little differently. Distract yourself with yourself.

The truth is, you need a balance of breaks and concentration to get your work done, and you’ve worked out a way to do that. You push a browser button that takes you somewhere far away and creates the illusion of a break. It just doesn’t wind up feeling like one.

So here’s something to try: Click away to yourself. Create a button for your browser toolbar that takes you to a file you create for your own writing. Google docs works well for this. And if aesthetics is a hook that will keep you coming back, try a serene setting like Ommwriter (on a Mac) or Zenwriter on a PC (more on those soon).

What will keep you distracted by yourself? If you’ve been away from your writing for a while and the blank page does not make you squeal with glee, type a prompt onto your “distraction”/”vacation” page when you create it. (There are dozens of prompts here  and some wild ones here.) Or take a few lines from the last interesting work you did—an old poem or essay or story. Just a taste to remind you of what you sound like. You, the real you, the one who writes.

You might get hooked

Then, keep clicking back to that page. Stuck? Distracted? Fine. Leave the problem for a minute or two or five or ten. Click away to yourself. And let your mind tinker with your own thoughts, your own writing.

You’ll recapture the time that’s been dribbling away. And you’ll be seeding your own work daily. Even hourly. Do it for a day. Then for another, and remind yourself if you forget.  I’ll bet you get hooked.

As for the work you’re supposed to be doing? You know that’ll get done. It always does. But alongside it, you’ll be building a writing life of your own. All with “distraction,” and stolen time.

Are you battling distraction? What works for you? Let's chat in the comments.

Image by turinboy via Flickr.

Stone soup: The act of crafting something from 'nothing'

I’ve been writing a lot lately in my guise of “person who writes for other people,” and my brain is packed with details from their projects. Once, not that long ago, I might’ve made that my reason for not working on writing of my own. No brain space. That expression often feels literal, as though the mundane has displaced the mythic—or anything vaguely interesting—from the imaginal realm. Daily, though, I’ve been rescued by the seemingly rote, even mechanical, practice of choosing one thing in my environment to study closely, pore to pore, then writing down what I see. It can be a 10-minute practice, done anywhere, and I suggest it to you repeatedly because it’s such a simple way to restock your well of images, and connect your inner and outer worlds.

You’re standing at the back door, gazing into the twilight after the kids have gone to bed. Pick one shape out of the gathering darkness—the swing set, the hose coiled against the cement base of a wall—and start there, with the colors draining away, imagination pulling you to the messy wet spirals pressed onto the concrete, the sculptured brass curves of the nozzle that's dripping onto the grass.

Stored in a touch or a scent, doorways to endless stories

In such moments, you might be memorizing the world, its scents and shapes, what breezes across the skin. The moment is full enough, immediate enough, rich enough to bring you back to your body, to the page.

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Being present to what moves through you might pull you to another set of sensory images, a scene from the past, perhaps. That’s what happened to me today. I was—mechanically—choosing something to write about. How about that potted plant! It sounds unpromising, I know, but I lost myself in the unfurling corolla of leaves and in the loose soil I rolled between my fingertips.

My feet and fingers suddenly remembered the powdery dirt beneath the tall, scraggly pines of a canyon where my father took us once for a picnic. How smooth, almost slick that dirt was, even with its tiny pebbles. We dug our toes in, the way other kids might play in mud. I looked up from my feet and could see my father’s friend, in his now dusty black leather shoes and rumpled “office clothes,” curled on a blanket on the hillside above us, sleeping. An exhausted greyhound. He’d been up for days with my father—nowhere in the picture—trying to squeeze a few dollars out of a losing gambling streak.

All of that was there for me in the dirt.  What might sense memory hold for you?

A vehicle for conjuring & exploring the universe of a story

A client of mine began using her writing practice to travel through her mother’s kitchen, taking her own as a starting point. Pulling open a cupboard, she remembered her mother’s appliances, lined up like mechanical soldiers, a simple image that could be a doorway into character and a cascade of memories.

Ten minutes of writing, of seeing, of letting the body experience this moment and the mind connect it with the sense memory of other moments—ten minutes can be vast.

Even on the busiest, craziest, full-to-the-gills day, you have ten minutes, beautiful writer person. Today, open a cupboard, lift a cup, trace the edge of a leaf, run your hand over the carpet. The moment, this moment, is full of details, starting points, entryways. From “nothing,” a universe can bloom. Observe just one thing. Experience it with all your senses. Write. 

(Doorway image by runran, via Flickr.)

Steal time for your writing in 3 easy steps

The writing life isn't always serene and idyllic. They move up the deadline.

The workday turns out to be 15 hours long.

The kids get the flu.

Dad backs into a mailbox.

It's a birthday. A holiday. Your turn to host the book group.

Everybody needs something.

The day is gone before you know it.

Time can easily blur into a long stream of interruptions and exceptions and emergencies that seem to leave no room for your creative work.

In stretches like this, it helps to simply acknowledge that yep, things are crazy. You’re not on sabbatical. The genius grant people haven’t yet tapped your shoulder with their magic wand. You’re in the thick of your life, and this is what it looks like.

So where will you find the writing time? The mental space? You need a plan. Not a huge, sweeping overhaul-it-all plan. Just a structure that guides you  into your writer’s mind for even a few minutes so you can add a twig or a feather or a shiny bauble to the nest you want to keep building, the psychic space that supports your writing.

Here’s one way to start: 

1. Use “transition” time as writing time. 

Scan your schedule for the times when you’ve disengaged from one activity and you haven’t quite begun another. Could you steal time in the gap? Try looking in spots like these:

* Bathroom breaks. Really. Even the busiest people take these during the day. They get up from their tasks, walk to the restroom, walk back. Try stealing five minutes, or ten, for writing afterward, as soon as you return to your desk. (Will anyone miss those minutes? Probably not.)

* Commuting. Use you use your transit time to observe something closely, or let your mind wander to your own writing. Then jot notes when you reach your destination. If you're able (and not driving), write while you ride.

* Post-meal time. Delay the dishes for 10 minutes and write then. Or write after you feed  the dog.

* Post-exercise time. You’ve taken your run or class or walk and cleaned up. Right there, in the space before whatever usually comes next, can you take 10 or 15 minutes and write?

Tucking bits of creative time into these odd nooks begins to weave writing into the pattern of your regular activities and integrate it with your life.

Choose one "transition" and co-opt it for writing.

2. Actively remind yourself that you’re stealing this time.

At first, you’ll need to tell yourself often, and in vivid ways, that you’re adding something new to your routine. By vivid ways I mean putting notes in the bathroom—or on your hand. Sticking a notebook in your running shoes. Posting notes in the kitchen or sticking them to your coffee cup or dinner plate or cereal bowl. Leaving a roll of toilet paper on your desk with a pen or notebook on top.

Make it hard for yourself to ignore that you are making this small shift in your routine.

Tell someone what you’re up to, and let them remind you. (If you’re ready to make a serious shift, and you want daily reminders, plus help with the  bigger picture of your writing practice, contact me here and let’s talk! I can help.)

3. Repeat daily.

Just how up and do what you can. A little is good. More is good, too. See what makes you feel like your writer self. Maybe it’s a 15-minute stretch. Or 30 focused minutes. And maybe for a while it’s five minutes of texting yourself some lines as you sit in at your desk right before leaving work at the end of a too-long day.

Everything counts. You can build from a tiny foundation. You will.

Writing while shopping, biking or feeding the cat

Sitting down to write can feel like walking in your front door and being greeted by a pack of friendly dogs, a mass of paws and fur and beseeching eyes and eagerly wagging tails. They bound into the quiet space of “I’m at the blank page now,” raucous and insistent. That e-mail I’ve put off answering is suddenly there with a leash in its mouth, begging for a walk. Those bills, those projects, that news flash and ping from Facebook, that birthday card, that urgent note I’ve spent all day remembering and forgetting—they all crowd in too.

When time is short and those dogs of distraction abound, I focus on the "seeing and sensing" part of writing, the part that's so still, it  doesn't excite the pack.  When I’m in my body instead of my racing mind, absorbing the way the barrista has folded a stream of foam into a delicate leaf, then running my finger over the warm smoothness of the cup, I’m pulled into the deep, necessary space that comes before writing: the moment. Right now.

Filling up the senses, looking long enough to see even one detail afresh, is  a portable “busy day/busy life” practice I use day in and day out: To notice one thing, and to write it down. If time allows, the daily writing can grow, making connections, refining lines. And if not, small is enough. If I’m paying attention, I’m able to write. Everything is built from that attention, which doesn’t need a desk or perfect setting—just the ordinary.

In a beautiful essay on the New York Times’ website in December, the novelist Silas House wrote about weaving a connection between seeing and writing, and how he builds his stories from the minutiae of his life by experiencing it through the eyes of his characters. It's that same practice of paying attention, tuned in a slightly different way.

As he rides his bicycle to work every morning, House writes, he’s focused on the traffic, but also on the character in the novel he’s writing:

“The book is set in Key West, so naturally [my character] rides his bicycle all over the Florida island. When pumping those pedals toward my office, I am not myself on an orange-leaf-strewed campus. I am my character, pedaling down to the beach after a long day of working as a hotel housekeeper. I see the world through his eyes. I imagine what he is thinking. I use that brief time to become him.

“I transform the mundane task of grocery shopping into a writing exercise by studying my fellow shoppers through the eyes of my character, a man who is on the run from the law….”

Attention alone isn’t writing, of course, and I caution too-busy writers, myself included, that seeing isn’t writing, and thinking isn’t writing and talking about writing isn’t writing. Writing is writing. But its angels are in the seeing, in the details. Right at the kitchen sink, or in the grocery aisle.

Writing secret #1: Turn on your writer self first

If you ever picked up Julia Cameron’s classic on creative unblocking, "The Artist’s Way," you’re well familiar with morning pages. The idea is simple: First thing in the morning, you pick up your notebook and write three pages in longhand. About anything. Theoretically, this practice takes the heap of concerns, to-do’s, longings and big ideas—along with pettiness, complaints and irritation—out of your head, clearing space for the good work you want to you. It’s daily time with yourself, it’s writing, and it’s supposed to be a great incubator for your creative work. It never worked that way for me.

I failed at morning pages!

I was a devotee for quite a long time, and I’ve filled up many notebooks, following the instructions to a tee and devoting hours to covering the requisite three pages with my tiny (and yes, illegible) scrawl. Many people swear by doing this, and if you’re one of them, all I can say is: Fabulous. Keep it up!

But the ritual, as I look back on it, did very little for my writing. I wrote as fast as I could, I kept my hand moving, I laboriously put ink to paper. But something essential was missing: I didn’t turn on the writer in me. I never gave myself a charged starting point—a prompt, an observation, a question, a lingering image from a newspaper story or the emotional tone from a piece of music—as I do when I set out to do my own creative work. I didn’t hold my object of curiosity in my mind and feel my way around it, or place it next to something completely unrelated and see a web connections begin to spin. I just moved my hand, brain-dumped, and stayed true to an assignment that seemed, in the abstract, like something beneficial.

What I have to show for all that is a bunch of filled pages that I really need to throw away. By contrast, my working notebooks and files, the places where I keep starts, lines, ideas and inspirations are invaluable. Real work happens there.

Intention was the missing ingredient

I think the difference is in intent, in the tuning of the ear and eye to essence. I do better writing when I actually set out to write, rather than to “unblock” or vaguely “be creative.” I’ve had great results with free writing—fevered writing, some people call it—that same process of keeping the hand moving or the fingers typing. But it’s given back the most riches when I’ve given it a starting point that actually interests me, and aimed my rocket toward it before the writing takes on a life of its own. And when it happens that I find myself writing something that really interests me, I’’m OK with putting aside the idea that I’m doing fevered writing. And I might just break “the rules” and start to work on an actual piece, right then. (Shocking, I know. And let’s not mention that I was typing….)

Your writing knows when you’re walking in with a rote assignment and when you’ve actually engaged. So keep letting details and ideas pull you in when you observe something closely every day. Keep writing down what you notice. Keep being fascinated, even thrilled. And when you sit down to write—as you will when you start getting interested in the little daily lines  you’re collecting—state your intent: I’m working on a story. I’m working on a poem. I’m finding out what my book wants to be. I’m giving my writing some love—by writing something real.

Ah! Focus!

It sounds small and obvious, but if you’ve only got limited time to write, turning over most of it to the nebulous task of filling pages for its own sake may not be all that satisfying.

Try writing a little—a line. A paragraph or two, maybe. In a focused way. Pull on your “writer” intent and identity first. And if you need to break a rule or two in the game, go ahead. When your writing starts telling you what it wants, all you can do is listen.