By Kayla Murphy
In January of 2021, I began a daily writing practice that I have stuck with for the past ten months.
Before this year, my writing was sporadic. Then, mid pandemic, I was laid off. I had been employed as a research assistant for a college, and was set to begin a social work graduate program with the same school. The lay off meant graduate school tuition remission was off the table, so I left the city and moved in with my mom.
I painted the walls of my childhood bedroom pale yellow. I collected furniture from the trash and stained it all the same dark cherry to match my desk. I worked landscaping jobs for my father’s clients. At that point, I had written only three stories. I’d pick a story up every few weeks, try to work on it for thirty minutes or so until becoming frustrated with no clue how to revise. The idea of producing any quality creative output in the same bedroom where I’d written angsty high school poetry only five years earlier was daunting. But, I was determined to try.
Thanks to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, I was able to develop a daily writing routine. Many other things remained out of my control. My mom worked from home, our dog and two cats pestered the both of us, and all fifty-something of my relatives live in town too, and stopped over unannounced at all hours. I don’t mean to disparage these moments, I love these people and my time with them is always full of joy. What I mean to say is it’s easy for a writing practice to be derailed. Despite these distractions, I was able to write 45,000 words of a novel and various short stories over the past nine months. Like almost all creative work, it needs or has needed various rounds of revision, but I now have a strong commitment to a daily routine.
Here’s what has worked for me:
Set a twenty minute timer: Tell yourself that all you have to do is write for twenty minutes. Write and do not stop. Set the timer and then throw your phone facedown on the bed. I find that usually, by the time the alarm goes off, I’ve already got an idea that keeps me writing for at least an hour.
Schedule your writing time: I developed my routine while a childless, twenty five year old, living at my mother’s and collecting unemployment, so my routine looked different than most peoples’ will. In fact, since beginning an MFA program, my own writing routine has changed. I no longer write at the same time everyday. Instead, I fit it in where I can. Sometimes that means I don’t get started writing until ten at night.
During the days of PUA, I awoke early to my dog barking at the garbage truck or fast walkers. I brewed wholesale Keurig coffee cups. I ran three and a half miles (to the end of town and back), even in January. Then, I made another cup of coffee, tried and mostly failed to meditate for about ten minutes. Afterwards, I wrote. Some days, 500 words took only thirty minutes. Other days, I plugged away at the 500 until lunch time. After lunch I walked my dog, napped, went grocery shopping, made dinner, etc.
This routine was different on days when I worked landscaping jobs. On those days, I’d shovel snow or mow the grass in the morning, then write in the afternoon. Here’s another tip: Get a landscaping gig. I came up with the idea for my novel in progress while mowing a lawn. Had multiple creative nonfiction essay lines drift into my head while shoveling snow. I hate weeding, though. Nothing good has come to me when I’ve got my knees in gravel, pulling Violets and Virginia Creeper out by the roots.
I guess my main point here is: Try an activity that isn’t writing. One that lulls you into a sort of meditative, focused state, and see what comes out of it.
Workout, do yoga, or try meditation/prayer before writing:
In my opinion, it helps to do some physical exercise before you write. And/or meditation and prayer. It can help to rid your body of the nervous energy surrounding actually sitting down to write.
Before developing this routine, I struggled with Illness Anxiety Disorder. I admitted myself to the ER something like eleven times during 2020. Never Covid related. Always a rare disease. Once a neighborhood cat scratched my hand and I convinced myself I would contract rabies. Another time, a brief stomach cramp indicated that all of my organs were failing at once. After developing this routine, I found that my brain was too tired post-running/writing to focus so intently on my anxieties.
Write a set amount of words, no matter what: On the days I dreaded sitting down to write the most I told myself “I am going to write the worst 500 words that have ever been written.” This gave me the freedom to write poorly. And usually, they didn’t turn out to be the absolute worst words ever typed into Google Docs. Sometimes, once I pushed past the fear and judgement, I ended up full of ideas I’d never had until I sat down to write.
Accept that work will need revision: In fact, more often than not, it will need multiple rounds of revision. That’s okay. Through daily practice, you’ll begin to find your voice (if you haven’t already). You’ll see patterns emerge in what you write about. You’ll get tired of your lengthy descriptions and you’ll start to cut some of them. When the week, month, year is up, you’ll be able to look back and see that you’ve amassed a promising body of work.
On days when you really can’t bring yourself to write sentences, try brainstorming: Compile a list of concrete images that you’d like to use in a future story. Make a list of people you’ve known, imagine you can only tell one story about them, ask yourself what it would be. Sift through all the phone notes you’ve typed and forgotten about, see if there’s anything worth reviving in there.
Most importantly, just keep writing: Even if everything you send out gets rejected. If you enjoy it, you should keep at it. If you don’t enjoy it, try decorating a birthday cake or playing an instrument or some other channel for your creativity.
I’ll leave you with two quotes
“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
― Jean Rhys
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life