If nothing else, we have this much in common: we write.
We plop down in front of laptops or desktops. Or we sit in stiff wooden chairs or on cushy leather couches clutching spine-weary composition books and favorite pens. Some of us may even stand (like Hemingway, Nabakov, and Camus did), or stretch across the carpet on stomachs, or recline on couches or in beds or even in bathtubs to do our work.
No matter how we do it, if we ever hope to be any good, we write. And write. And revise. And edit. And revise again. And then edit again, laboring for the words on the page to mirror the labyrinth of ideas unfolding in our minds.
Through extensive use, we learn that the writing process is a recursive, messy business.
When we are lucky, an idea seizes us so fully that it pushes us to our favorite writing positions and holds us captive until it takes satisfying shape in scratchy cursive or stalwart font. Those privileged to hear the song of such insistent muses read the results of these interludes with a joyous disbelief that borders on ecstasy, wondering, Did I really just write that? We long for the rare occasions a piece of writing comes to us almost whole, all but wrapped in a billowy bow–an experience that creates an energy surge that pulses through our hearts, our veins, our perhaps pounding heads. I call it a writer’s high. Few other experiences compare to it. But let’s face it, the muse is fickle.
When we find ourselves abandoned by muses, we writhe under the dominion of the dreaded blank page, waiting for inspiration.
The good news is that facing that blank page leads writers to some interesting strategies. I’ll share a few ways I invite inspiration into my writing life as well as some of the stranger ways successful writers practice their art. Who knows? Perhaps some of the strategies I outline will spark your muse.
One way to spice up your writing is to seek out new ideas. A quick internet search will yield many sites devoted to writing prompts. A few I like are:
In addition to writing prompts, changing how you write can spark your creativity. After years of writing alone, I recently discovered the incredible power of writing with others. Those of you with MFAs already know the benefit of writing in a group. Those of you who soldier alone, a pen or keyboard the only weapon in your arsenals, may want to add one or more of the following to your writing life:
1. Find a writing partner. Write together on a regular basis, at least once a week. These meetings should begin by focusing on generating writing. After deciding on a writing prompt (or two or three), you write together for thirty minutes (or more). Then you read aloud what was written and offer feedback that focuses only on “what stayed with you” in your partner’s piece of writing—no critique, no questions, no suggestions. In this way, the writer hears feedback without suffering through an inappropriate critique of first draft work. Eventually meetings with your writing partner may include sharing later drafts of work and critique, but be sure to begin with a focus on simply generating writing. This practice alone has transformed my writing in the last year, making me more prolific and stretching me in ways I could not have done alone.
2. Start a writing group. This might be a group of your writing friends, or you can volunteer to lead a group at an organization, senior center, homeless shelter, or library. Facilitate weekly meetings during which you write with the group. Everyone is invited to read aloud the writing elicited by the prompt(s) and the feedback given is limited to what in the writing “stayed with” people when read aloud. Though people can pass when it comes time to share, I’ve challenged myself always to read what I’ve written. I typically like a piece better after reading it aloud. And the feedback I get as a writer is helpful. I encourage you to keep a larger group like this focused on generative writing. Pat Schneider’s wonderful book, Writing Alone and With Others, is a great resource for running writing groups.
3. Write in a power trio. For some reason, I write best in a group of three.
First, set a daily writing goal for yourself. Some writers set time limits, others set page or word limits. Stephen King writes ten pages a day, no matter what, even on holidays. No wonder the guy is so prolific! Thomas Wolfe wrote ten triple-spaced pages a day, a number that translates into roughly 1800 words. Hemingway wrote 500 words a day, but labored over them, swooping back through the text like a hunting hawk. Flannery O’Connor wrote for two hours a day, lupus undoubtedly making longer periods of time uncomfortable for her. Find a realistic goal that stretches you and then stick to it.
Second, create an environment conducive to writing. Many writers (Francine Prose, for one) write facing a wall in an effort to limit distractions. No matter where you write, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to set aside sacred time for writing. Let nothing interrupt this time—not family, friends, work, the telephone, the internet, Facebook, pets, hunger, nor the doorbell. Sequester yourself for your solitary writing in a way that helps you to be productive. Visual art, pleasing smells, and music can provide creative stimulation as you write. For ten hours a day writer Haruki Murakam listens to American jazz as part of his creative process. Screenwriter Ben Settle plays inspirational movie themes on repeat while he writes. I love to play classical music. Though I have eclectic taste in music, I find lyrics distracting to my writing process. Poet Friedrich Schiller placed rotten apples under his writing desk (out of view), believing the odor boosted his writing output. Find sensory stimuli that make you want to write.
Next, discover your best time of day for writing and reserve it. Joyce Carol Oates gets up every morning to write. Even when she must lecture that day, she writes for at least 45 minutes before her class starts. On days she does not have to teach, she will often write from early morning until two or three in the afternoon.
Many successful writers have adopted unusual habits. Are these eccentricities responsible for their prolific masterpieces or merely another sign of the genius within? I can’t say for certain, but recent psychological research indicates that creativity can be cultivated. Anyone can boost creativity through novel experiences that help us capture fleeting ideas, unique challenges that knock us out of behavioral ruts, a focus on broadening the techniques we use to generate ideas, and environments with diverse stimuli.
What do the masters have to teach us? Here are a few of the stranger-than-fiction habits of successful writers:
* Many writers dress for writing. Some dress up before they sit down to write (Poe wore black, and Dickinson wore all white to write). Others prefer comfort over professionalism in their clothing (Cheever writes in his underwear, Smiley in her bathrobe, and Francine Prose in her husband’s pajamas). Still others fly a freak flag to do their work. There are nudist writers, including Victor Hugo (who gave his clothes to a servant with specific orders not to return them until his work was complete) and theatrical writers, including T.S. Eliot who wore cadaverous green face paint and bright lipstick to write his verses. You must discover what makes you most comfortable as a writer. I personally prefer loose clothing (i.e. sweats and t-shirts) because I need to forget about my physical self when I write.
* Many writers walk or swim when they get stuck. Incorporate movement as part of your writing routine. Henry Miller was a walker. Charles Dickens was known to walk twenty to thirty miles a day as part of his writing/thinking process. Philip Roth walks at least a half-mile a day as well. When I get stuck, one of the best things I can do is go for a long, brisk walk. I love the thinking that happens while I’m in the fresh air. I sometimes fear I might actually be talking aloud as I walk (and frightening the neighbors), but the benefits are worth the odd stares.
* Several successful writers used alcohol as part of the writing process. Faulkner, Bukowski, Hemingway, and Hunter S. Thompson declared alcohol a muse in their writing lives. I encourage you not to buy into the mythology that an altered state is required for “true art” and to keep in mind that Hemingway and Thompson both committed suicide. In contrast, Rita Mae Brown encourages writers to work sober. I stand in the middle of these two camps, arguing for moderation. A glass of wine or two can loosen things up for me, but I don’t drink every time I sit down to write.
* Some writers get quirky to invent characters and dialogue. Ayad Akhtar keeps a special chair near his writing desk where he imagines his character sitting as he writes. Aaron Sorkin stands up and acts out his dialogue in loud voices. Like Sorkin, I find myself muttering dialogue for my characters as I do dishes or the laundry. I’m certain my roommate thinks I’m insane.
* If you don’t already have one, consider getting an animal. An amazing number of famous writers had animal companions they considered muses. And these muses were far from the typical house cat or domesticated dog. Most people know that Flannery O’Connor raised over a hundred peacocks (the birds or their feathers appeared in many of her stories). Sylvia Plath was a beekeeper. Oscar Wilde loved to shock people at Oxford by walking a leashed lobster through the streets. When told he could not have a domesticated animal on campus, Lord Byron famously kept a bear while studying at Oxford. The bear lived in his dorm room and made frequent outdoor appearances. I myself tolerate two obnoxious dogs who like to annoy me while I write, but I also have a small tank of freshwater fish. Graceful and dumb, the fish are my preferred animal muses.
* If you can, experiment with changing your sleep schedule. You might get up in the middle of the night or wake up very early to write. Great thinkers like Da Vinci and Edison tended to nap for short periods, rather than sleep a full eight hours. They believed a scattered sleep schedule contributed to their creativity.
Writing is a laborious, often lonely enterprise. When you feel yourself stuck, remember both the advice of psychologists who say that creativity can be cultivated and the weirdly wonderful examples set by some of the world’s most successful writers. To boost your creative energy and improve your writing, be willing to venture outside your ordinary habits as a writer.
My final thought? If you have not yet done so, assign yourself the 3Elements prompt. Submissions are due October 10th, and we think writing a piece for us provides you with exactly the kind of rut-escaping challenge any writer needs. Happy writing!