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.