Three Easy Steps to Write Something NOW.
This pandemic has kicked my creativity in the ass, and I know I’m not alone. After quarantine started, I spent a solid month just losing time. I’d wake up exhausted after having slept for 9 hours, and by the time I’d roused myself and had my coffee, it was sometimes as late at 11 am. For someone who considers herself a morning person, this was totally out of character for me.
Figuring out how to create consistently can be challenging at the best of times. During the worst, it can feel impossible. We’re all grieving something right now, and while it’s important to allow ourselves to grieve, making space to create can be a critical part of our healing process.
I knew that I need to allow myself to grieve, but I also knew I needed to figure out how to keep writing because it’s what keeps me sane. So, slowly but surely, I’ve fallen back into my old habit of making mental, emotional, and physical space to do write—albeit with some adjustments.
For me, that has meant reminding myself of the best ways I’ve found to make sure I have the right environment to create in. Here’s my current strategy:
1. Remove sensory distractions.
Before Covid, I used to write at coffee shops while my son was in preschool. Now I occasionally write at the park when it’s nice out, but most of my writing takes place in my (newly created) home office.
Regardless of the location, in addition to the obvious supplies (pen, paper, and laptop) I always have the following things nearby: earbuds, hand lotion, chapstick, water, and snacks.
Sensory distractions, both auditory and tactile, get in the way of my ability to focus or think. If it’s noisy, if my hands or lips are dry, or if I’m thirsty or hungry, I end up trying to work, then stopping multiple times to address sensory issues. By the time I’m able to focus, I’ve often wasted a significant amount of time just getting comfortable.
Everyone’s sensory distractions are different. I know writers who light a candle to address scent distractions, writers who do best with ambient coffee shop noise, writers who need music, and writers who can only write in complete silence. I know writers who need snacks and writers who get too distracted by snacks. It may take some trial and error to learn what works best for you, but once you’ve got it figured out, always address your sensory distractions BEFORE you attempt to write.
2. Know where to start.
This is probably the most helpful tip I’ve ever learned about how to write consistently. Nothing will stop you in your tracks more quickly than staring at a blank page and not knowing where to begin. Here’s what you do to address that:
With a new project (or when stuck on a current project), have writing prompts handy. And from my own personal experience, don’t Google “writing prompts” unless you want a lot of tired cliches.
Writing prompts can come from literally anywhere. One of my favorite writing prompts is looking up odd news articles and inventing backstories, characters, or alternate realities inspired by them. You can also pick three items from around the room and choose to weave a narrative about them. Tarot or other divinatory cards are fantastic prompts—chose a card or three and write about the images, the meaning, or a combination of the two. Pick up any book, flip to any page, and write a response to what you’ve read.
Just make sure you decide on what prompt to use BEFORE you attempt to write. If you wait until you’re staring a blank page, making the decision gets harder and sucks up more time.
For an ongoing, longer project (like a book) make sure the last thing you do before you stop for the day is to write down your first step for the next time you sit down to write. This can be as simple as jotting down an outline of the next scene, a reminder for a prompt you want to use next time, or a character you know you need to flesh out. It should NOT, however, be something you need to research — it needs to be the next thing you actually write. I’m speaking from experience here—don’t give yourself a rabbit hole to disappear in. If you need to do some research, put that on a separate to-do list.*
Giving yourself a clear starting point—knowing exactly what you need to write next—allows you to just begin without using up your mental and creative resources deciding what to write, which can suck up all of your writing time before you even know what’s hit you (see item three).
Every single time you write, make sure the last thing you do is jot down what you need to write next.
3. Use a time container
I used to love falling into a creative trance, inspired by an idea that I just HAD to write about THAT MOMENT, dropping everything, getting lost in the flow of ideas until I came back into my body, starving and exhausted, with thousands of words, or even a complete story, ready to edit the next day. This also aligned with a lot of romantic (and mostly false) notions I held about writers and creative/artistic people in general—the idea that you have to wait until the muse inspires you and then drop everything to capture the idea before it fades.
While this notion is lovely, it’s super impractical, especially if you have children, animals, friends, family, a job, or a life in general (and if you don’t, what are you writing about?). This really hit me hard after I had my son. Writing the way I had been doing it my whole life was suddenly impossible. I was lucky to get a half an hour to myself, much less hours on end with nothing to do but write.
The other problem with this notion is one of balance. My experience during quarantine has made this lesson crystal clear for me. If I treat creative time as scarce, I respond by trying to create as much as possible for as long as possible whenever I get the chance, and I burn out. I may write a lot during that one surge of activity, but I also am too exhausted to write again, or even to look at what I was writing, for weeks. For a longer project, this means I forget the details of the project and what I need to do next. It equates to having to start at the beginning every single time. Having to repeatedly start over results in a level of creativity fatigue that will kill a long term project.
If, however, I treat my creative time as easily accessible to me—if I can trust myself to enter (and exit) my creative flow state at will—I know that even if I only have 15 or 20 minutes to write, I can still get at least a few hundred words in that will lead to progress, however small, without burning out.
The reason I said “time container” and not just “set a timer” is because I’ve found that the idea of a container makes it easier to see the spaces during your day when you actually DO have time to write.
Some examples of time containers are between meetings at work, after dinner but before bedtime, right before breakfast while you drink your coffee, during two episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with one hot dog dance break (which is my container for writing this post).
The most important thing to remember here to use step two—when it’s time to stop, jot down the next step, and actually STOP. Resist the urge to complete a thought, finish just do one more paragraph, etc. The more you can trust your present self to tell your future self what to do, the better you’ll be able to avoid burnout.
Even more important than the three steps above? Learn to trust your individual process. More than anything else, that takes practice—you can only know it by doing it. Start by finding a window of time in your day, today, and just write.
Then keep it up.
Sidenote: I also do this while I’m writing if I know I need to flesh some detail out later but want to finish a scene. My drafts are full of random things like, “write more later about the way this alley smells TK.”