When poet Donald Hall met with sculptor Henry Moore,he dared to ask if Moore believed that there was a secret to life. The response astonishes: “The secret of life,” Moore answered without flinching, “is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is – it must be something you cannot possibly do.”
Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage
Although many of my friends are accomplished writers, I am most often around young writers, beginning writers. These are my students, and they are busy honing their skills as undergraduates at a state school where most of them major or minor in creative writing.
One of the biggest challenges these students face is that of building a writing practice. That is, learning how to write when there is no teacher around. Sometimes this is a summer break issue, but more often the worry kicks into gear during the final semester of senior year, right before they graduate. That’s when most of them realize they will likely never take another creative writing class and, therefore, never again have a professor imposing a deadline, suggesting a topic, carefully reading and responding to drafts and – if I and my colleagues have done our jobs well – otherwise nurturing the writer along in his/her process.
For a few students, this is a welcome challenge. Many of them, however, become concerned that they won’t be able to set their own goals, or worry they might lack motivation. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of my job is hearing from graduates who send me a note just to catch up. They’re one or two years out of school, and confess with some sadness that they really haven’t been writing much. “It’s hard to keep at it,” they’ll say. “I wish I had someone around to make me write. It’s hard to be self-disciplined.”
I try to give students some guidance for making the transition. In advanced writing classes, there’s one major project where they’re on their own. I don’t read the draft, don’t give feedback, don’t impose a strict deadline. They independently do all of that, with help from a small group of classmates. They choose a topic, they decide how to give each other critique, and they decide what/how/whether to revise and when to submit their work.
We talk about some of the things they can do to insure that they keep writing after graduation. A few students are heading to MFA programs, so they will continue to have a structured environment to keep them on course. The others, however, will have to decide when and whether to write. They’ll have to decide on a subject, and perhaps on a genre, and they’ll need to figure out how long the essay or story or poem is going to be, because nobody is requiring “10 to 15 pages” or “a minimum of 30 lines.” Sometimes they think it’s funny when I tell them it won’t always be easy to come up with subject matter. “But we’ll be able to write whatever we want!” they say. This is true, although “whatever we want” tends to translate as “I can write about MYSELF now!” This, too, is true – many writers use the self as subject. But even the most adventuresome of us, at some point, may grow a little weary of the self. It’s a complex, fascinating world. Look outward. Pay attention.
I’m confident that my students can find meaningful subject matter. I’m less confident that they will continue to write, however, so I try to send them off with some tips. Here are a few suggestions that might be useful to college graduates who hope to pursue writing as part of their daily lives. Anyone struggling to establish a regular writing practice might find the advice helpful as well
- If you are super-busy, make an hourly calendar. Pencil in all of your obligations: work, family functions, volunteer time, doctor’s appointments, etc. Block out the hours during which you sleep. Block out time for socializing. Now determine where there are openings. Use ink to label your writing time. Consider the inked parts sacrosanct. (An argument could be made for inking in your writing time first. If that argument is persuasive for you, then make it.)
- If you are not super-busy, establishing writing time can be even more difficult; long stretches of unstructured time can lead to procrastination. Try to avoid falling into that trap by setting up a writing time each day. At both my busiest and least busy times of my life I set aside the morning hours as writing time. Even when I was teaching five classes and spending virtually all of my time grading papers and planning classes, I still did this – I just got up earlier. It may feel luxurious to have large blocks of unstructured time, but do yourself a favor and structure in an hour (or two or three) of writing practice. If you make vague promises to get to it later, then “later” will be pushed ever further into the future.
- Try a writing group. Some people don’t benefit from them, but many do. I had a writing group for years where we’d meet once a month. Everyone was expected to have new work, and everyone did. Even if you live in a rural area or have transportation issues, you can set up an online writers’ group. I try to encourage graduating seniors to do this before they leave school. If 5 or 6 students can agree to have work ready once a month (or on whatever schedule the group agrees), then they know they will have those deadlines to meet and peers to be accountable to.
- Try associating a specific place with writing. For some, it might be a library. For others it’s a café or park. Whenever you go to this place, bring your laptop or notebook and do some writing. You’ll begin to associate this place with writing and it will feel weird if you’re ever there without your writing materials.
- Make your own writing prompts. This can be as simple as freewriting from an image – write for 30 minutes on the word “ladder,” for instance – to more complex challenges, such as attempting to use second person point of view effectively. Prompts can be particularly helpful on static days, where you find yourself staring at a blank sheet of paper or computer screen. If you build a list of prompts in advance, you can just choose one and start writing.
- Create a writing ritual. This can be as simple as lighting a candle, making a cup of tea, or reading a book of poetry for 10 minutes before you begin to write. The point is to take the writing time seriously and to create an environment that will allow you to think deeply and broadly.
- Eliminate electronic distractions. Turn off the phone and put it in another room. Keep iPods and iPads out of reach. Turn off the television. If you’ve convinced yourself that you need music in order to write, go ahead and keep the headphones on or the ear buds in, but at some point see what happens if you eliminate the sound. This feels like stating the obvious, but quiet can be conducive to writing. Many of us need the Internet for research, but Facebook is not research, nor is email.
- Manage your solitude and your socializing. Most of us err on one side of this equation or the other. Left to my own devices, I might not see anyone for weeks at a time. Other writers I know are extremely gregarious and love to be in a crowd. Whichever side you lean towards, make sure you seek out the opposite. If you’re alone a lot, it’s important to engage with others and to immerse yourself in the workings of the world. If you’re hyper-social, remember that solitude is an essential part of the reflection often needed for good writing.
- Writing is partly physical. The whole body is involved, even when it is perfectly still, even when it is simply tapping at a keyboard. Reward that kind of physical discipline with movement. Take a walk. If the weather’s bad or circumstances don’t allow a walk, look out the window and stretch for a while.
- Think about what tends to inspire you and make that inspiration happen. If quiet does it, then arrange for quiet. If an evening of intellectual conversation with close friends does it, then see your friends on a regular basis. Music might trigger ideas, as might driving or meditating on the beach or reading a particular writer’s work. Whatever does it for you, make it happen.
- That being said, don’t depend on inspiration. If you’ve talked yourself into believing that you need to be inspired, you’ve sabotaged yourself. Just sit down and commence writing.
It’s as easy – and as impossible – as that.
Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems. Her essay chapbook, Elements, was released in 2013 by Sweet Publications.