What is a writing practice and why do writers need to think about having one? Writing practice is like piano practice, only your mom’s not standing over you, making you sit at the keyboard.
If you’re a writer who has gone through an MFA program, you will have heard the words “writing practice” bandied about in your first school term. Preparing new writers to live the life of a writer is now an important part of the curriculum.
When I got my Master’s, way back in the Cretaceous, none of my writing mentors mentioned the importance of having a writing practice. Our professors, writers themselves, certainly never told us how they structured their time. For all I knew, they arose at 9 a.m., went straight to their desks, and wrote for the next three or four hours.
From Thomas Mann (pictured below), one of the writers I studied when I was preparing for my orals, I learned that a writer wrote in the mornings and read what he had written to his wife at night. The wife ran the household. Mann’s daughter Erika served as his secretary.
Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, Alexandra Lvovna Tolstoy, served as his secretary, too, and his wife–a diarist and short story writer–wrote stories that have only recently seen publication. An article in The Guardian sheds light on the complications his writing caused in their relationship. I, for one, am quite curious about Sofia Tolstoy’s writing, and I read her diary entries with great interest.
The British newspaper, The Guardian, says, “The famous opening line of Anna Karenina tells us that “all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Now the diaries of Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sofia are set to cast a new light on the troubled family life of perhaps the greatest Russian writer of them all.”
This is not ancient history. Over the years I have met many women writers who’ve played a key role in their writer-husbands’ careers, often at the expense of their own literary ambitions. Rather than write the “great American novel,” they’ve chosen to write mysteries or romance novels. Often, their choice has been based on pragmatic considerations.
The husband–a writer of nonfiction or a writer whose work has attracted early notice–has a more marketable talent. Someone has to support the family. Witness Ted Hughes and Silvia Plath or Leonard and Virginia Wolff. The woman steps back. Her writing goes dormant until the day life will “slow down” and she can “find the time.”
Writing Practice Helps You Make The Time
Why is a writing practice so important? A writing practice is about time management. It’s about habits that foster creativity. It’s about where you write and what pencil or software you write with. It’s about whether you’re most creative late at night or early in the morning, whether you revise as you go or write through to the end. It’s about whether you write one book every ten years or have the stamina to produce five or six books a year. In short, it’s about how you’re going to fill the bookcase.
Here’s a terrific article by Stephen King. It appeared in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times on August 30, 2015. The article is entitled, Can A Writer Be Too Prolific?
Many people believe that if they can finish a first book and get it published, they will have proven themselves as writers. But what about the book after that? What about the several planes hovering over the runway–your novels!–waiting to land? Do you have a sense of how you’re going to bring them safely to ground? By establishing a writing practice, you will be able to get those books written, published, and into the hands of readers.
Do you think you are too busy? Listen to this hour-long YouTube video by Kara McLuckie, from St. Lawrence University, and Morolake Odeytoyinbo, from PATA, Nigeria. Think about whether you are, indeed, too busy to put a priority on your own writing practice. Think about the pent-up, storytelling urge that is hard-wired into our psyches and the sacrifices many writers make to bring us stories that would, otherwise, remain untold.
Just to inspire you to take this establishment of a creative writing practice to heart, I want to share one of my all-time favorite TED Talks, this one by Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert’s brand new book is called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Listen to what she says about the kind of life she has constructed for herself.
Gilbert is not only an inspiring speaker; she is a model for all who aspire to make room for creativity in their lives.
For folks who don’t have any thought of writing, but who are appreciative readers, I hope these videos will give you some sense of what goes on in the secret lives of writers.
Not every writer is as famous as Liz Gilbert, but what every writer has in common is the tension between the activities of daily living and the need to somehow squeeze in writing time. Life never slows down. That’s a given. And, what every writer shares is a feeling that writing is an illicit activity, applauded when rewarded by book publication and respectable sales, but, otherwise, disparaged as a time-wasting, self-indulgent distraction.
Seek Your Own Path
Every writer must seek her or his own path. My path is not going to be yours. In fact, I could be a lot better at structuring my time than I am. At the moment, I am spending way too much time learning how to blog and market my books. My hope is that, as I work through some of these issues and regain control of my writing time, I will discover shortcuts that will benefit you.
What I can–realistically–hope to achieve is to firm up my writing practice. I can carry a notebook and get my butt out of my desk chair. I can ride the light rail to downtown Phoenix and make notes on the tattooed young people who panhandle the paying passengers.
A writing practice pushes away the demons of self-doubt. Why? Because if you’re practicing, you’re not on a stage. You’re just sitting down at the piano doing some finger exercises.
Have you discovered habits that help you get the words on the page? What are they?