The pandemic has not been good for my fiction. It’s been too easy, since March 2020, to knock out articles and essays for a paycheck and forgo the pleasures of novel writing in favor of making the family yet another meal or suggesting mother-daughter activities that don’t involve my teen’s smartphone. Colleagues around the world tell a similar tale, admitting to profound anxiety in this changed world, along with a lack of motivation and focus.
A new year, however, brings the gift of starting fresh and honoring the writing we most want to accomplish by building the habit of putting words to paper or screen. Hoping for inspiration, I interviewed experts across the country about how best to cultivate a new writing practice or jumpstart a stalled routine.
1. Quiet your mind
Authors Paulette Perhach and April Dávila met at the 2020 AWP Conference in San Antonio. Perhach had a booth promoting her book, Welcome to the Writer’s Life, and Dávila – who had just launched her debut novel, 142 Ostriches – stopped to chat. They found that they were each leading groups back home that combined meditation and writing practice.
“We got to talking and said ‘What if there was an organization that provided a yoga studio model of meditation and writing online?’” Perhach explains. “There are different teachers, and so each class is a little different, but you know you can go in multiple times a week to work out.”
The result of their conversation is A Very Important Meeting (AVIM), an online space in which writers can sign up for an hour, which includes 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation plus 45 minutes of writing time, and then 15 minutes of chatting with the instructor and participants, if desired. The classes are open to any writer at any stage of their career, with a suggested $5 donation.
On a Tuesday morning in September, I logged into a session hosted by author and Buddhist nun Faith Adiele. She asked us to close our eyes, then led us in a series of breathing exercises and stretches for the neck and shoulders before delivering a short dharma talk. Then, it was time to write.
I turned off my camera and fell into a story I’d been working on, not even tempted to check my email because I knew Adiele and the other participants were also writing. The next week, I signed up for another meeting. There’s something about taking 10 minutes to quiet the mind before sitting down to write that keeps my inner critic at bay and facilitates deep work.
“Going from meditating straight into that creative space is a really nice transition from being still and calm and accessing that deeper level of your consciousness where your creativity lies,” Dávila says. “It feels like you’re writing from your best place.”
Perhach explains it this way: “I feel like my mind for the first few decades of my life was like this wild horse that was dragging me along, and now I’ve figured out how to put the reins on the horse and take it where I want to go. I put that power of my mind that used to keep me up all night with worry and anxiety toward my creative projects and use that imagination that used to tell me everything that could go wrong into creating captivating stories instead of telling myself a story that makes me lose sleep.”
2. Set an intention
Before you sit down to write, it can be useful to determine whether you’ll work on a novel, short story, nonfiction chapter, or poem. Some writers commit to working for a set amount of time. Others aim for a certain number of pages or words.
Anyone who’s ever participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) knows the magic formula for churning out a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days is 1,667 words a day. During the months of April, July, and/or November, over half a million people commit to writing a novel, memoir, or nonfiction book with support from the nonprofit.
Co-Director of Programs Marya Brennan explains that breaking down the seemingly insurmountable task of writing a book into a daily word count for a month helps writers to achieve their goals. The practice works for kid authors as well. “I used to teach seventh grade, and the students would walk into class and beg me to let them work on their NaNo projects,” Brennan says. The young writers’ version of the program allows children to set their own word count goal for the month and provides educators with tools to facilitate the process.
Some writers prefer to set a time goal instead of committing to a word count each day. They write for an hour or two hours or in 20-minute sprints. Some, like myself, swear by the “Pomodoro Method,” setting a timer for 25 minutes of writing time, then taking a five-minute break away from your computer before you sit down again. Social psychologist Dolly Chugh, author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, uses this method constantly.
“My writing coach, Rena Seltzer, talks about ‘sacred minimums,’” she says. “That’s the amount of time you write each day, even when the world comes crashing down. The idea helps you to maintain a writing streak and a sense of confidence.”
Chugh’s current sacred minimum is one Pomodoro a day on weekdays, and, at times, it is as low as five minutes based on other demands in her life. “Missed days erode my confidence,” she explains. “When I miss a day, I lose touch with my project. Maybe there’s a good reason to miss Monday, and then because I missed a Monday, I miss Tuesday, too. I do the sacred minimum to deal with that problem.”