15 March: Writing Routines and the Torture of Starting

15 March: Writing Routines and the Torture of Starting
Contributors (1)
Published
Jul 09, 2019

Writing is just difficult, plain and simple. The temptation to put off writing is strong as a result. We end up becoming what psychologist Paul J. Silvia calls ‘binge writers’. Delaying the moment when we sit down to write means we are then faced with a deadline that can only be met through late night binges at the keyboard. For Silvia the only way out of this pattern is to become a routine writer and treat writing time as a non-negotiable commitment, like teaching a class or attending a department board meeting. His little book entitled How to Write a Lot (2007) is crammed with useful tips on how to foster better literary habits.

We all have periods in the day when we are most intellectually awake, which is when we should be writing. I try and write in the mornings because that is when my mind is most agile. Sometimes, like this morning, I wake up at 4.30 a.m. and suddenly a link or a connection I was trying to make in something I am working on becomes clear. I find that I have no real control over that process because ideas can’t simply be willed to come. Leonard Cohen commented once that he didn’t know where the good songs came from because if he did he’d visit that place more often.

Imaginative leaps or analytical connections are like that too. They seem to me like unexpected guests that we need to be ready to receive at any time. For some reason my daily cycle to work is often a moment when a turn of phrase or idea comes into focus. I know I have been spotted on more than one occasion recording the arrival of an idea at the roadside with a few scribbles in my notebook dressed in full cycling regalia.

Having said this, I do give myself designated periods of time to write. The torture for me is starting. Once I’ve started I am usually fine but if I get interrupted – if the phone rings, or if something else intervenes and time drifts – then I am really in trouble. I usually give myself a block of time rather than whole days. I find that after three to four hours of writing intensely I start to achieve less and less.

The other thing that I try to do is stop a writing session before I have exhausted all of the things I wanted to say. Always leave an argument or description to be written. So, I never stop writing without knowing what the next point is going to be. It makes picking up the thread the next time easier.

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