The Writer’s Life: What happens when your writing routine stops working?

I’m home from traveling (thanks so much for joining me!) and I’m getting ready for the Colorado Flash Fiction Retreat with growing excitement. 

AND if I’m honest, I’m struggling to find my post-travel writing routine, trying to find my footing through the inevitable wobble of movement, summer, impending school schedules, and knowing whatever rhythm I manage to establish will probably have to change again as soon as the university calendar kicks in. 

Ug. Can you relate?

What happens when your old routine stops working? I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met who felt lost when their old routines stopped working. We beat ourselves up: I should have a routine. I should have a routine. Should should should: shame shame shame.

But there are three things I know about writing routines:

ONE: Writing routines ARE helpful for our creativity–that instinct to want one is valid. Our creative selves like some measure of predictability. It likes knowing you’ll be in the chair every day at 9 am, or 4 pm, and it also likes knowing you will be back in 23 hours to continue the conversation. And that consistency will also create a sense of continuity–never away from your work for more than 23 hours, your unconscious will help out in the off-time by continuing to puzzle on your ideas–so the more consistent you are, the more you will find yourself overflowing when you sit down to write each day.

TWO: The routine itself doesn’t matter, only the consistency matters. You can write in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, at night. You can write at home, in an office, on the couch, in bed. You can rent a hotel room by the month for writing, like Maya Angelou. You can do sit-ups and pushups while writing like Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve personally written entire books from 8-10 pm when everyone was in bed, others from 1-3 pm, others from 10-12 am, and even one from 4-4:30 pm every day while riding the train home from work (Going Short). Every one of these routines “worked” once the rhythm was established. 

THREE: The most important thing to remember–routines are ephemeral. A routine that worked great for a period of time WILL stop working, either organically or prompted by outside forces. Finding the right creative rhythm is a constantly changing process. My own writing rhythms are not only seasonal but also are influenced by the academic calendar, travel, kids’ schedules, holidays, workshops or retreats I might be teaching, even the amount of light! For instance: In the winter I walk first, then write–because if I’m not walking by 4 pm it will be too dark. In the summer, it’s too hot to walk until 7 pm, so I have to write first. This means I’m writing in the heat of the afternoon in summer, and in the dark evening in the winter. Very different processes!

These changes can be frustrating, especially when you’re attached to a routine, but I’ve learned to try and embrace the wobble. An important but overlooked part of establishing creative routines is going in knowing they are as ephemeral as a sunset or a shifting sand dune. As frustrating as this feels in the in-between, it can be a good thing. It can keep us shaken up in a good way.

If you are struggling with your creative routines, here are some questions to ponder:

Today, July 2022:

  • WHEN do you feel most creative?
  • WHERE do you feel most creative? In a quiet room? Out in the bustle? Etc.
  • What pockets of time are naturally available in your current day? 
  • Have you had successful routines in the past? Is it possible to mimic those? 
  • And if not, what else might you try? Think something unusual: early mornings, late afternoons, after dark, before sunrise, at the pool, on the bus…

Don’t forget that our biggest asset–our creativity–can help us reimagine and re-work our routines during these inevitable transition times, but it often takes a bit of experimentation, a bit of trial and error.

Whatever routine you decide to try, there will be an adjustment period. You may be constantly comparing yourself with the past versions of yourself. Keep showing up anyway and embrace the wobble: because once you get the perfect routine, something will shift and you will have to do it all over again. That’s just part of the messy, beautiful, creative life you signed up for.

So today, July 28, 2022, I’m writing at 8 am on my beautiful shady balcony. Two months from now, mornings on the balcony will be a much darker, much chillier affair, and 4 months from now it will be impossible. Summer mornings on the balcony are special and fleeting, so for the next month I will fully enjoy my 8 am writing on the balcony time.

Even a few weeks of a productive routine is a gift. So establish and enjoy the short-term routine that will serve you today and embrace the ever unfolding kaleidoscope that is a long-term writer’s life.

You got this!
xoxoxo Nancy

The Sliding-Scale Schedule: Making a Creative Routine in a Virtual World

As summer approaches, and some sort of quarantine continues, there’s been plenty of talk of productivity and the joy of creating “schedules” to maximize our (creative) time.

But most of our lives look pretty weird these days. The days aren’t regular, but they’re not vacation, either. Many of our imposed schedules from the outside are gone, and we are finding ourselves floating in an immense and frightening freedom.

So the question is: how can we have both accountability and kindness for ourselves?

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Now that my semester is ending, I’ve been asking myself this question a lot. I decided to do a little investigating into my stack of journals to see what my daily schedule looked like last summer when I was (both highly productive and) on sabbatical.

And that’s when I discovered something important: I didn’t have a schedule. I had a routine.

  1. I woke between 7-10 am and spent 1-2 hours in bed reading or catching up on social media (but nothing “important”).
  2. I got dressed and walked to the coffee shop and began to journal for the next 1-2 hours, depending on how quickly (or slowly) inspiration hit.
  3. I went home, ate lunch, and worked for 2-3 hours. This part of the routine worked especially well because the afternoon hours were the hottest.
  4. I finished working for the day and went exploring, walking, swimming, dinner, etc.

I realize this is an idealized routine, but the important takeaway is that because this was a routine and not a schedule, there were no set-in-stone times. I did NOT set the alarm to wake up at a specific time or say “I have to be at the coffee shop by noon” or whatever. Instead, the looseness of this routine vs a by-the-clock schedule meant that everything got done every day—but the daily particulars were flexible.

beethoven

We all have many routines already. Consider: many of us wake up and then drink coffee. One thing naturally follows the other—we wake up, we make coffee, we drink it. I have never set my alarm to make sure I don’t miss drinking coffee–coffee is part of the routine.

Or: I read every night in bed before I go to sleep. Sometimes I read for an hour. Sometimes I read for 15 minutes. Sometimes it begins at 10 pm. Sometimes it begins at 11 or 8. I never have to schedule reading time because it always happens last in my daily routine.

Not looking at the clock works for me. Letting one thing naturally follow the other in a predictable sequence works for me. Creative work needs creative breathing room. And yes, it also needs discipline. But when we make schedules we can become militaristic—we beat ourselves up, lording the clock and the whip to do those 30 mins of yoga/meditation/writing by a certain time instead of honoring that we are dynamic animals in an ever-changing daily flow.

That’s why I think a routine is truly the sweet spot in the middle. Think of it as the “sliding scale” schedule, a sequence of events. Rather than “I must be at my desk by 10 am”, it can be: “I must go to my desk after coffee.”

That said, some things must be scheduled. Work, classes, events have a starting time that we may have to work around. But for all the rest of the time, especially with summer birthing itself and many of us yearning for more productivity in this strange, in-between time, I encourage you to get investigative: throw out the clock, listen to your your natural rhythm, and discover your perfect routine. When in the day are you the most productive? When do you want to rest? Do you wake up ready to write? Or do you like to wake up slowly? Do you like to take a nap? Stay up late? Take a walk in the evening or after working? See if you can create a routine that really supports that flow this season, rather than imposing a schedule that may be counter to what you (and your creativity) really need.

Remember: Even the bunnies stay out later in the spring, regardless of what the clock says.
Here’s to your perfect routine!
(and check out some of the surprising routines of creative people below)
xo
Nancy

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Let’s Play a Game: Cancelled or Not?

1. Writing Wild in the Blue Zone Retreat to Costa Rica has been….
Cancelled/Rescheduled!
The new dates are May 8-14, 2021

The French Connection Retreat to France has been…..
Cancelled/Rescheduled!
The new dates are June 5-11, 2021

The High Altitude Inspiration Retreat to Colorado has been…..
Cancelled.
Shadowcliff has closed the venue to groups for now.

The June release of Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction from Ad Hoc Press has been….
Postponed!
This will likely come out in early 2021–stay tuned for a new release date. 

Workshops: Not Cancelled!
In honor of my delayed book release I will be running a fun, 5-day “Going Short” Writing Flash Fiction (with preview chapters from the book) workshop from June 22-26 for those of you who want to get your pens moving. Registration opens soon.

And I’ll be running another Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel course again in July.  Read testimonials from past participants.

Stay sane out there, everyone!