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Writing Habits and How to Get One

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It's that time of year when our thoughts turn to habits: breaking out of the easy, undesirable ones and into the ones that will lead us to our goals. But as many of us know, habits are hard to break, hard to form, and are about as sticky as Teflon. In short, habits are riddles wrapped in enigmas.

The simplest of habits, like smiling right before you open the door to work everyday, took on average, 21 days to form before they became automatic. The more challenging the behaviour modification or addition, say, writing for an hour everyday, the more days it will take. According to Jeremy Dean, in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, it took an average of 66 days for a habit to form. It only took Sandra Bullock a month to change her hedonistic life around in 28 Days because, that's Hollywood, and not reality. Everything takes longer than you think it will.

The laws of gravity and inertia are against us all. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and even if it gets propelled forward by something, it will eventually slow and come back to resting. This is not to thwart or deter you, just a call for you to make things easy on yourself. If you want to go from passively enjoying Netflix to writing your own entertaining stories, know the habit hurdle and pace yourself. I'll even be super generous with you. If you write a little everyday for 66 days in a row, you can call yourself a writer!

Here's what it takes:

Preparation

  • Get a Moleskine Volant notebook, (size "large") that you can easily shove into your bag. I prefer unruled paper. The Volant comes in packs of 2 or 3. Trust me, when you fill one up, you will feel like a god.
  • Pack a favorite writing utensil. I preferred mechanical pencil at first, it was less daunting than the perceived permanency of ink.
  • Think of a nice, quiet place near your domicile or your place of work that you can reliably get a seat at. (It is imperative to leave your regular environment behind until the writing habit forms, there are too many distractions otherwise). A quiet window seat in the book stacks of the main Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh was my refuge everyday at lunch, and I didn't have to buy a cup of coffee to justify a seat. (but there is something to be said about positive reinforcement, and treating yo self to a cup of coffee can actually help, but know that it does $$$ add up. Speaking from experience).
  • Make sure you have your notebook and a writing utensil before you leave home everyday.
  • Pick a realistic time you will write everyday. Don't say you're going to get up everyday at 4am and write, if you're not up at that hour to begin with. I started with my unpaid lunch hour, it was basically lost time in the middle of the work day. Maybe it is for you too. Don't work through your lunch for the man during your unpaid lunch hour, work for yourself.
  • Prepare for noise distractions. Bring headphones and play music that doesn't distract you from your task at hand.

Execution

+ Just do it!

+ The first 66 days is less about producing and is more about showing up. SHOW UP.

+ Be messy! The first thing you write in your notebook had better be the stupidest, inanest, boringest thing you can muster, okay? There is seriously NO pressure to write a perfect sentence or psych yourself out with a blank page. NONE. It's like that Black Eyed Peas song says, " Everybody, everybody, let's get into it. Get stupid. Get it started, get it started, get it started. Let's get it started (ha), let's get it started in here!"

- Do not social media.

- If you can't leave home and want to get into a writing habit, DO NOT clean the house thinking it will free up your mind from distractions. House cleaning never ever ends. Face a corner so all you see is the wall,  ignore any cobwebs.

- Do not check email.

- Do not daydream out the window.

- Do not look up the "right" word.

- Do not stalk exes.

- Do not internet, period.

- Do not write in groups. Writing is a solitary act and other people just get in the way.

- Do not erase what you've written, just write the next sentence as a better version of the sentence you wanted to erase. Just keep writing and moving the pen forward. It literally doesn't matter what you write. You are making a mind body connection, of sitting, putting pen to paper, getting your mind in the zone, rousing your inner muse, and training yourself to do all this on command.  Yes, like Pavlov.

 Cartoon by Mark Stivers

Cartoon by Mark Stivers

Repetition

  • Start with small, achievable goals. Start by writing for 10 minutes each day. Then add another five minutes each week until you get as close to an hour of writing each day as you can.
  • Keep doing it every day until you crave it, but prepare yourself for the monster you may unwittingly create within yourself. When I am in the midst of writing a rough draft, if I miss a day of writing, I get all frustrated and angsty and afraid that I'll lose the momentum and I'll never finish my book... In short, I feel like I'm going to lose my mind. see below.
 painting by Xue Jiye, Untitled, 1998.

painting by Xue Jiye, Untitled, 1998.

Conditioning

  • Do all the stuff mentioned above and by day 66, your writing habit should be well on its way to formation. The first 66 days is about creating a rift in your daily time and space continuum, training yourself to focus and make the most of that time you're so defiantly claiming from all other areas of chaos in your life. Guard it and protect it so you can get those powerful stories out of your head and into the world. Jack Nicholson doesn't mince words when protecting his writing time.
  • Continue. Eventually, you'll be able to write anywhere, even at home with a sink full of dirty dishes.

Other writers! Do you have any tips for people starting out? Think I missed something? People starting out, do you have any problems you're facing? Let me know below in the comments.

Next time we'll talk about the writer's block and summoning inspiration.

 

 

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What Came First? The Idea or the Habit of Writing?

 photo: Rahul Singh

photo: Rahul Singh

Have you ever felt something powerful, deep within you, welling up, and yet, biding its time? Maybe you've always wanted to write, but it seems like time and ideas and confidence are scarce, so you don't. But still, that feeling in the pit of your being burns, it almost says, One Day...One Day...One Day to the beat of your heart. Congratulations you have the creative soul of a writer! Let me be the first to say, the world needs your story. Yes, you. And you should definitely take all the reasons why you can't write, and push them off the table in your head.

“Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.” - Stephen King

The pilot light of creativity is already lit within you, that's the first step. The next step is fulfilling your destiny as a writer, and that means putting the fingers to the keys, putting the pen to the paper, putting in the hard time. So where and how do you start?

I occasionally thought about my work-in-progress for ten years before I started working on it in 2012, once all the story pieces fell in my lap (or so I thought). Now, after many years of near daily writing, I'm positive that if I'd started a daily writing habit sooner, the story pieces would've also arrived sooner. See, I originally thought I already had the story pieces, but the truth is I didn't. So many more interesting plot developments and character arcs came after I'd been working and learning the ropes for a few years. I probably spent 1 1/2 years learning how to tell a story before I could translate the wily idea in my head into a cogent tale. I will never consider my time wasted or misused, but at the same time, ten years is a long time to wait for "divine inspiration" to arrive and only then motivate me to learn the craft of writing.

Maybe you've read the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling? In the 7th book, Luna Lovegood, needs to enter the Ravenclaw dormitory. (Each Hogwart's house, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, & Slytherin, has a unique way for their students to gain entry). Ravenclaw is the house of students exemplifying traits of wit and wisdom, so naturally a marble statue of Rowena Ravenclaw asks a riddle that must be answered correctly in order for the door to open,

"Which came first, the phoenix or the flame?"

Luna Lovegood cooly responds,  "A circle has no beginning."

  Ouroboros , wood block print from Abraham Eleazar's  Uraltes Chymisches Werk , 1760

Ouroboros, wood block print from Abraham Eleazar's Uraltes Chymisches Werk, 1760

This kind of question is called an infinite regress or a causality dilemma, where it is unclear which event should be considered the beginning. You know, like the old: What came first, the chicken or the egg? So I'd like to pose the question,

What comes first, the idea or the writing habit?

Tell me your thoughts in the comments below. Since I've been writing on a near daily basis for five years now, I feel that I'm in a position to give a little advice. It was my father's favorite thing to say me, "Do as I say, not as I do." If you feel that creative yearning inside you and you want to write, write. Do not wait for divine inspiration to shake you by the shoulders, because that day may never come. I was incredibly lucky to receive a shakedown. There are many paths that lead to writing. Some may answer the call and some may go looking for it, but I do know the act of writing feeds the inspiration. A circle has no beginning. It doesn't really matter what comes first, so long as you get started, but do. Get started.

Next time we'll get into forming writing habits that stick.

 

 

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When Did You Start Writing?

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I get this question a lot. When did you start? Let me get out my guitar and tune it, so that we can start from the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read, you begin with A   B   C. When you write, you begin by putting one word after another...

My first writing memory was 1990. Before this point I was a single-celled sponge quietly absorbing oral tradition stories, books, and movies. I later evolved to an upright bipedal homo erectus and terrorized blank pages of butcher paper and cave walls with tempura paint. But 4th grade came around and I had an assignment to write a ghost story on some ruled lines within the belly of a cartoon ghost. So I plagiarized a particularly good episode of Scooby Doo. I thrilled my teacher so much , she showed her mother. I got a red A++ written on my ghost's head. I didn't know what plagiarism was at this point, but I knew I'd done something wrong. It didn't feel so good that I hadn't thrilled my teacher, Ms. Quackenbush, with my own ingenuity and daring. But I knew that I wanted to thrill someone with my own words and imagination one day. I just needed an original story. I couldn't think of one. I set the pencil down and turned back to books and dolls.

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Flash forward to the next time I cracked my literary knuckles. I was twelve. It was summer. I'd just read Stephen King's Salems Lot and I was going to write a horror story about some evil tree ghouls. I thought, for some reason, that you had to describe every mundane detail a character does. You know. Brushing your teeth. Putting the cap back on the toothpaste. Spitting. Rinsing. Closing the door. Getting in a car. Pulling your seatbelt on until it clicks. Turning the car on, putting it in reverse - And on and on until I got so bored, I quit after three hours. At that rate, I'd never get to the good stuff - where the evil tree ghouls with bark skin and inky black eyes slinked out of their tree hosts at night to rob cradles and terrorize small towns. I set the pencil down again and turned back to books. And boys.

I was 17 and I had another assignment for AP English. We had to spontaneously write about setting for fifteen minutes. So I did. Then I was called upon to read what I'd written, out loud to the class. I wrote a first person scene about driving through the California desert at night. There was a visitor to our class that day, a young woman that I think was alumni. She had red hair. She stopped me after class and told me she loved what I'd written and that she wanted to work with me on some kind of college project or program. I agreed, but then I never saw her again.

Not long after that, I went not very far away to a liberal arts college.  I never got around to taking any real literature or writing classes. I regret this very much.  I focused on art because it came so easily to me. I did write in my spare time though, with being young, in an academic setting, and in love, I wrote a lot of terrible poetry - heavy handed erotic poems with weird symbolism that didn't really make sense. Cringe worthy stuff that exposed my sexual and emotional inexperience and my love for the work of .e. cummings. I happily and liberally submitted them to the college's literary journal. Thankfully, I never got any published.

2002, was the year the writing bug bit me hard. My mother was sick, dying. I'd taken a year off to go to New York and help fashion designer Anna Sui out for six months, then I went home to part time caregive and write the outstanding senior thesis paper needed to obtain my college diploma. The caregiving and writing went horribly. I almost didn't graduate. I moved out, into my future-in-laws so I could focus on writing a 50 page philosophy of life paper instead of the torturous tunnel of death that is watching someone's slow death by cancer and understandably, their subsequent Benzo addiction. Writing became an escape and direct line into understanding the subterranean depths of my mind. I found my voice, wrote a very unconventional "paper", and handed it in just in time to get married to my college sweetheart. A few weeks later, my college advisor, art and life mentor, father figure, and friend, Professor Billy Mayer, looked over his glasses at me when he handed it back with my diploma and said, "Humphrey, I hate to say this, being that you literally just graduated with a fine art degree, but I believe you missed your calling. You need to write more."

 I took his words to heart. I really wanted to write, the only trouble was, I had no idea what to write about. Someone gave me this advice:

write the kind of book you want to read

I moved to Pittsburgh and instead of writing, I attempted to balance traveling back and forth to Michigan to do what I could for my dying mother, all while trying to forge a new married life, make friends in a new city, find a job to pay the bills that were piling up...try to make my way in this world creatively, some how. I did none of it well. My mother died. I realized I married the wrong person. I had no local friends of my own. Whatever success I had in New York City wasn't translating over in Pittsburgh. My only sibling and I weren't speaking to each other, but I'd started working at an auction house. The workload was stiff, the pay was minimal, but the world was fascinating and the people were characters. The story I wanted to read started bubbling in a pot on the back burner of my mind, but it didn't have all the ingredients yet. It simmered there for many years while everything in my life came to a head, which can best be summed up with this Charlotte Bronte quote from a letter she wrote to a confidant back in March 1845 (two years before she wrote Jane Eyre):

"I shall soon be 30 and I have done nothing yet."

At age 29, I turned my life upside down, like one might do to a junk drawer. A divorce. A bunch of debt. For awhile I had nothing but for a very faint and distant hope for a better future. I clung to that and very slowly I began to fill the drawer back up, but only with stuff that was important. A new lover. A new job. New friends. A few matchbooks. Writing. After a while, I was able to breathe and think about writing again. I moved the simmering pot from the back burner, back up to the front and scratched my head. I surmised, adding a little of this and a little of that would make the story more interesting, but still it needed a twist that would drive a stake right through the reader's heart. I hemmed and hawed, discussed other possibilities with a close literary friend of mine. Then the final ingredient for that simmering story fell in my lap one night. I was about to fall asleep next to my lover when the sandman delivered a brown paper package all tied up with string. It bounced up and smacked me wide awake. After nearly ten years of thinking about writing, I finally had all the story pieces and courage to do something about it. The next day I started writing. I don't know the exact day, but it was late fall and the year was 2012.  I haven't stopped writing since.

When did you start writing? Did you always know you wanted to write? Or did it sneak up on you later on? Do you have a story simmering on the back burner? Do you think a writer needs a certain amount of life experience to write and write well?

 

 

 

 

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A Blog's Raison D'etre

I started this writer website while I neared the completion of the first draft of my novel, almost a year ago. It was to be my internet calling card for when I started hunting down and courting literary agents and publishers. In hindsight, I probably paid a nominal fee to assuage my vanity, a year, maybe even two, (god forbid, hopefully not more), earlier than necessary. There has been little traffic to this website compared to my fashion blog, which is understandable because I post semi-regularly there, and at least until today, not at all over here. But it didn't mean I didn't occasionally think about blogging on my "professional writer" website, but I always came up scratching my head.

What would I write about over here? I wouldn't presume to talk about proper grammar, Lord knows I'm a guilty syntax sinner, but I get by, and a little better every day. Nor would I talk about my work-in-progress. I didn't want to create a situation where no one would buy the cow because I gave the milk away for free. (The cow being the book and the milk being the plot of the story, should a lowly syntax sinner such as myself be so lucky). If you want people to read your words, (and boy oh boy, writers do) there has to be a raison d'etre for any blog and/or story. There needs to be a driving force that brings people back to your site, or makes them turn the page of your book. There needs to be a burning question - Will this blog post fill me with wisdom I can apply to my daily life and help me succeed? Will the heroine get her heart's desire, after a little bit of trouble?

Yes. Let's go with that. This blog will chronicle my journey from dreaming about writing as a child, to developing a writing habit in my thirties, to the nitty gritty, down and dirty revelations of the craft, to hopefully, eventual publication and how I got there. The ups, downs, failures, successes, but most of all the lessons learned, and the magical friends gained along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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