Waiting for the muse to descend so you can write is, sadly, a tragic fallacy. “Writing is 99 percent perspiration, and one percent inspiration,” a wise person once said. Writing is work, and like any job, it requires commitment and sustained focus.
I recently taught a memoir class at the San Francisco Writers Grotto. For our last session, we discussed practical considerations of the writing life. It’s possible to teach the craft of writing, but impossible to teach the perspiration part – because you must develop a writing habit over time and refine it to suit your character and life circumstances.
Here are eight ways to create an infrastructure to support your practice – building blocks I’ve developed and tested in my own life.
- Set up a writing routine with a dedicated space and time. Prioritizing writing when you have a million demands on your time is challenging. When I was a young working mother, I stayed late in a quiet office to catch an uninterrupted 30 to 45 minutes. That, plus occasional writing workshops and weekends away, kept me going.
- Get support – a writing group and a writing partner are essential to creating a writing habit and providing accountability and consistent feedback. Writing can be lonely. You need companions on the journey. For major projects, you may need a writing coach or an editor in addition to your writing group.
- Study with the pros, people who write for a living. At the Writers Grotto, all classes are taught by working writers who publish in the genre they are teaching. If you want to go all in, consider a low-residency (largely online) or on-campus MFA program. Getting a degree in creative writing is not a necessity, but it’s helpful if you want mentoring and focused feedback.
- Practice your craft – treat it like a job. If you follow step 1, you have a time and place set aside to work. Now, show up over and over. Some people set specific word counts for each writing session – 500 words is a popular choice. Do what works for you, but remember that unless your butt is in the chair, inspiration cannot find you.
- Get feedback from informed, supportive readers. “Beta readers” are a vital part of any writer’s arsenal. For my current book project, a novel about the search for family that goes haywire when the middle-aged protagonist attempts to refill her empty nest, I’ve had multiple readers, in addition to a professional editor. Choose wisely. Best to avoid loved ones, and choose experienced writers who can offer objective responses.
- Take creative time outs – artist dates, retreat centers, writing vacations. Often, the best way to work on a piece is to step away for a period. Writing is hard work, so recharging your batteries is essential.
- Read widely in your chosen genre, and outside it as well. I especially recommend poetry. It is the equivalent of jazz improvisation – the farthest leaps we make with language. Its music will sharpen your senses and improve your prose.
- Never give up. I cannot over-estimate the importance of persistence. There will be times of creative drought, disappointment, and rejection. Don’t let it stop you. Keep coming back over and over and, in time, you will come to trust your work habits and the mysterious ways the universe supports people who continue to show up.
For more on this important topic, see “Why I Write” by Robert Phillips, from The Practical Writer, and “The Getaway Car” by Ann Patchett in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, two short but inspiring essays.