Whenever I restart my writing habit, the words come haltingly. Sparingly. In fits and starts.
Reaching 500 words on my first blog in this series took an effort of will and concentration brought about only because I had made a commitment to do this challenge.
When I start writing fiction again after a break, my brain feels cobwebby. I find my characters to be redundant and repetitive, my prose dull.
(Later, I can’t often tell what parts I wrote when I was tired/bored/cobwebby vs when I felt fully engaged with the text. But in the moment of writing, all of my resistance comes to bear on those early days.)
This appears to be true for most people who start a new habit or project.
- First day running? Aches and pains and shortness if breath.
- First day of meditation? Bored. Restless. Feeling stupid.
- First day playing piano? Slow, barely recognizable music, if not general banging on the keys out of frustration.
- First day studying calculus? How the hell does this even matter?
As time goes by, and as we invest the consistent time and effort of consecutive days, it all gets easier.
- Shortness of breath is relieved by a second wind.
- The wandering mind is tempered by a present mindfulness.
- The outline of a tune emerges from where there had only been black marks on a page.
- Differentials are still a chore, yeah. But at least now you know they’re used to make satellites for your smartphone. Or something like that.
(Got to admit, I may have passed calculus, but it did not stick with me for long.)
When it comes to writing, after a time, you stop thinking about the words you’re using. You stop thinking about what you’re going to say, and instead just say it.
This state of complete unison between your fingers and your brain is sometimes called free writing, but I prefer to use a different name:
As in, going with the.
One of the exercises I’ve been doing as a part of my morning routine this year, is setting aside twenty minutes as the first thing every morning to write about whatever comes to mind. I’m basing this exercise on A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves, and using the prompts within to direct my focus each day, but it’s not long into each session that I’ve strayed from the prompt and into whatever my mind has been dwelling on lately.
The results have been fascinating to observe, and not just because this helps me set the tone for my day, as I talked about yesterday.
What I marvel at is the pattern of behavior I observe inside myself whenever I sit down to do this.
First, I’ve set myself up for success the night before by clearing everything off of my desk except my pen, my notebook, and the day’s prompt. When I come into my office, I would have to consciously make the decision to do something else by deliberately moving aside the task set before me by my yesterday-self.
But then, without fail, once I start writing from the prompt (setting my timer for twenty minutes so I know there’s a clock ticking), I ask myself what I’m supposed to write about. I’ll look at the prompt and think, “What am I supposed to do with that?”
Sometimes I’ll write the prompt over again, putting it in my own words to warm up my creative muscle.
Other times, I’ll just write down the first thing — and image or sound or anything — that comes to mind when I repeat the prompt to myself.
I never just sit down and immediately launch into an uninterrupted stream of words, because I don’t yet have any.
But after about five minutes or so, when I’ve made it halfway down the page, I suddenly realize that I’m no longer having to prod myself with these kinds of “just get started” tricks. That instead, the next sentence or phrase or image is clear to me, and there are more that follow after that.
I’ll often hit a snag and have to read over what I just wrote. Getting my bearings again in the imaginary landscape I was inhabiting, but then the words come again at a steady pace and I’m scribbling them down in my trying-not-to-be-sloppy handwriting.
I don’t try to structure the writing. Writing structure — whether it’s sentence, paragraph, narrative, or otherwise — is something I’ve studied enough to have deep in my bones at this point. And trying to think about it too much would intrude on the work my productive subconscious is doing.
Instead, I let the words flow out from this semi-hypnotic state.
It sounds very mumbo-jumbo, I know. And you might think nothing good can come from that kind of undirected mindset.
But if you think about it for a minute, this mirrors how we do most things.
- Do you consciously construct each word in your brain before speaking it aloud?
- Do you chart the placement of every step before you set your foot on the ground?
- How on earth do we manage to catch a baseball without studying arcs of flight in physics first?
Anything we do often enough, we can do without thinking. Obviously, we can always find a better way to do just about anything, but there are ways to study and practice that.
And when it comes to performing the practiced action, you don’t obsess over all the things you learned in your studies (well, maybe the first few times, sure, as a reminder to yourself).
Instead, you find after a while that you can “Just Do It.”
And we can expand this pattern I experience in my morning writing routine to apply to our habits at large.
At first, we stumble and struggle and have to coach our way through the early days, reminding ourselves of what we said we were going to do (and, often, how we’re going to do it).
But then, as the days go by, and especially as we begin to see the benefits manifest in our lives, it becomes easier and easier to start, and it takes less and less time to pass from the awkward start and into the flowing middle phase of any activity.
The results of this are dramatically increased levels of success in whatever endeavor you’ve set before yourself, as evidenced by my significantly longer (and without even trying) second blog post in this series.
Writing is just like any other skill in our lives. All good habits are.
You make a conscious effort. You figure out how to do it right. But after a time of having to think about doing it, you eventually reach a point where you’re just doing it. Without thought.
That’s the state of flow. It’s a comfort with your actions that comes from practice.
And it doesn’t have to take all that long to grow comfortable.
Yes, there may still be times when the now-practiced action isn’t comfortable, and flow is harder to achieve. How often do we find ourselves too tired to get out of our chairs and grab a bite to eat?
I know I have days after work that I just want to sit for the rest of the night.
But it doesn’t mean our legs stopped working.
And we still make ourselves get up. Because it’s important to us. We’ve decided that whatever motivated us to get out of our chairs — food, television, the bathroom — matters.
Plus, we’ve all got a lot of practice with walking.
Practice the things you want to include in your life, and you’ll find yourself running along with them in no time.
Going with the flow.
Today’s advice from the My 500 Words challenge was an admonition to learn to free write.
I have to admit, I’ve never been much of an adherent to the practice of free writing or free association or whatever other labels you want to put on it.
But I think that’s partly because we all use different labels to talk about the same phenomenon.
That phenomenon, that experience, is the one I’ve described as Flow above.
And because we’re human and deeply analytical and possessive by nature, we try to define and prescribe and structure a deeply unstructured, non-prescribed, indefinable experience.
Now, that’s all just my baggage when it comes to my experience with free writing. So take it with a grain of salt.
I do want to say, however, that the exercises I’ve been doing through A Writer’s Book of Days have come the closest to my traditional definition of free writing (as have these blogs at certain points, to be honest), and I’ve enjoyed those morning sessions immensely.
(Something I wanted to mention in my mornings post yesterday was what exactly my morning routine is, of which the semi-free-writing is a part, but I didn’t find the right place for it. Maybe another opportunity will come up, if I think people would find that helpful. I’ve always learned a lot from other peoples’ examples. Maybe someone can learn something from mine.)
In addition to that, my mostly regular meditation practice I’ve been doing over the past month has helped me observe my thoughts in a new way, which I feel has helped me connect with my subconscious more directly than in the past.
Which, again, is often the purpose of free writing.
(Side note. I credit much of my success in meeting my writing goals over the past four days to the mindfulness I’ve gained from said meditation practice. I am so much more aware of the decisions I’m making — and, more importantly, the one’s I’m avoiding — than I’ve ever been in my life. Some of that may be maturity, but the difference in my head today versus a month or two ago is staggering. If you’ve ever been intrigued by or skeptical of meditation — particularly mindfulness training — then I highly recommend you download one of the many apps and give it a try. A couple weeks should be enough to start noticing a difference in your outlook. Rant over.)
Plus, I’ve always been a daydreamer, mostly about my potential stories, so I feel that I’ve never had much difficulty with getting in touch with my creative side.
But doing these writing exercises helps those wandering thoughts get codified into a physical form. And it’s far easier for our brains to deal with tangibles than intangibles.
So that’s my combination peek-behind-the-curtain and sort-of-endorsement-for-free-writing (with a sizable digression toward meditation thrown in for flavor) for today.
See you tomorrow.