On Writing Spaces & Writing Practices

At some point in every creative writing (and composition) class, I address the topic of writing spaces and writing practices. I preface our discussion with a series of questions:

  • Where do you write?
  • Do you need complete silence? Some noise? A lot of noise?
  • When do you write?
  • Do you start right away on computer? Do you write with pen or pencil first?
  • Do you need to be by yourself?
  • Any certain beverages or foods you enjoy?
  • How long do you write before you take a break?
  • Do you share your drafts with anyone? If so, when in the process?

Once they’ve written their responses, students are generally quite willing to share their preferences, their struggles, their poor choices. (“I know it’s a bad habit, but I always have the TV on while I’m writing, and I am distracted.”) After most of the students have shared their responses, I offer some of my own practices, noting that they are practices I’ve developed over years and through trial and error.

The first point I offer is that I’ve learned to be flexible in the particulars. A writer needs to be adaptable. Surviving grad school has helped. Becoming a parent has really helped. I tell them that most days it’s challenging enough to schedule one hour, so I don’t have time to ponder and get distracted. (That’s why I run; that’s why I clean the house–two activities great for working through ideas, for pondering.)

Do I have preferences? Of course. The house to myself. Or one of my favorite coffeeshops. Instrumental music (sometimes). Complete silence (sometimes). Coffee. Cold Water. A candle burning. Reading a few pages of good writing first. But when it’s writing time, it’s “go” time. No excuses. I’m too busy to sit around waiting for so-called inspiration. Besides, through my own experience, I’ve learned to revise or draft “instantly” (little, if any, warm-up necessary).

Do I offer them advice? Of course. Don’t try to write a complete draft (of prose) in one sitting without taking a break. You can stop writing when you know what you’re going to write next. Don’t try to generate text while simultaneously trying to edit it. When you’re done writing, plan when and what you’ll write next. Reward yourself. All-nighters are a lie from the depths of hell. Proofread on a paper copy. Give yourself a night’s rest (if possible) between “finishing a paper” and proofreading it. Proofread it from end to beginning. Share it with a trusted reader (not just someone who will tell you what your itching ears want to hear). Take note of what’s happening when the writing is productive, and take note of what’s happening when the writing is, well, not as productive.

When I tell them that my threshold is 2 hours a day of drafting or revising, they often appear shocked. I’ve learned that consistency is more important that quantity. I completed my MFA and PhD by adhering to the principles in the previous paragraph. There were few times that I wrote more than 2 hours in a day. Yes, I’m in awe of writers who can write for 6 or 8 hours a day (wish I could do that), but I also know that’s not me. My head would explode. So, I’ll just keep plugging away, writing a “little” every day, not being in a hurry.

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