Maybe it was three employers within a year or the flu three times the same year that proved there would never be a right time for writing. Returning to school for an undergraduate degree didn’t create imagined conditions, neither had getting a graduate degree. After years of yearning I resolve to return to writing. To catapult into routine, I register for a workshop not knowing it requires sharing completed manuscripts, of which I have none.
I have quick as I can been learning to write as I write and, at the same time, learning what works best for me. During this process, I developed advice for myself that helped me produce pages I didn’t have when I began. What I learned, mainly, was to:
Stop it. Stop the convincingly persuasive self-talk that insidiously bleeds into procrastination and delay until your whole lifetime has gone by. Stop listening to an inner voice, probably someone else’s, telling you it isn’t practical, it doesn’t matter, or you’ll get over the desire to write (because you won’t). Stop putting this off for last: this is your soul we’re talking about here. Stop waiting for the right time, which doesn’t exist. Stop hanging back, believing everybody else is so talented. Everybody else got better with classes, practice, and time, and nobody else is you and does precisely what you uniquely do. Stop thinking you are too young, too old, too inexperienced, or uneducated—because your experience and way of seeing needs no credentials.
Start it. It is a miracle again and again that when I start something, something happens. I don’t know how to start, I don’t know how to do this. I have never done this before. Yet as I move a pen across the page or fingers up and down a keyboard, like horses headed toward pasture, they find their way, they take me from here to there. I may circle like a predator around prey a few times, first, but when I sit down and (sometimes) start a timer to launch me, I begin.
Use it. Anything and everything, no matter how small, can be meaningful and interesting. The things you imagine, things you survived. The things that you notice, the things you repress.
Sow it, till it, reap it. Everyone is different, but I like to give my writing time to percolate versus forcing relentlessly, to plant ideas and give them time to germinate and sprout. It works best when I start, try to write for a while, and then take some time to get away and breathe, to unknowingly, unconsciously, still work at it. Then, given space to grow, the ideas turn around to seek me instead. I return with a plow to water and fertilize, take a paring knife to the orchard to whittle and shape it, then lather, rinse, repeat.
Trust it. Believe your gut. Aim straight through the apple on the head. Maybe the best advice I ever received, so simple it served me well over many, many years, was this: say what you mean to in your writing, instead of almost saying it.
Catch it. It has taken me a long time to take myself seriously as a writer, and I have widely experimented with methods to capture memories, good ideas, first sentences, and possible titles for later use. I tried large notebooks, small ones, sketchpads, and index cards, journals and moleskins, carried in my bags, in my car and kept in various rooms throughout the house. For me, it seems like less is more, and I need to keep it simple. I have my own method now, which consists of paper towels I carry in a pocket at work and a sketchpad in my car that gives me a hard surface with a single page torn out and folded into quarters. I type information from the scraps to add to a revolving master list, and print it out once a week.
Be surprised. I have astounded myself with the writing that’s come out of following prompts for assignments I would never have tried without goading. Some of these, I resisted and resented. I have started out headed north and found myself delighted in a southern destination. I have gone to sleep stymied and thwarted, my writing run into walls, and awoke, solutions borne on wings.
Invert it. Something shifted, and instead of making the time to write when and if everything else in my life was completed, and in order, I started making time for things besides writing, when and if writing commitments were already met. It was like turning a food pyramid upside down.
At first this reversal was like going against gravity, but whereas magical, wishful thinking failed me at first, specific concrete present tense active verbs helped me to get on a track and stay in motion, and they are:
Commit. In a planner for writing, I plot the number of hours per day needed to finish pieces, written into the small square days of a monthly page. I try to realistically plan foreseen non-writing commitments and backwards plan from my writing due dates. This worked well for me in college, when I completed papers, projects, and finals, and I have decided writing is at least as important as getting good grades used to be.
Record. In the weekly section of the same planner, I keep track of hours I spent writing. This way, I am not only aiming for something out of reach, but also acknowledging completion and accomplishment. I feel less like I am in a time warp without landmarks: it is like giving myself a gold star, recognition for my work.
Reward. But the real gold star is the reward I get for having written, or in my case, a plan to be reading in a bookstore in a cushioned chair soon. I plan this reward for a day after the committed writing hours weekly, in the planner. When I promise to do something I enjoy later and follow through, I am not as easily sidelined by distractions. When I block out monthly time to write, plan rewards for efforts weekly, and record time spent on writing daily—abracadabra!—a framework of phases in a cycle rises, and like a creek carries me, and though I come upon bends requiring renewed vows, to be on my way is better than magical.