Thursday, January 29, 2015

Enter the Habit Vortex

Until two weeks ago, I’d been in a serious rut. My son was born in early 2013, and for the first time in my life I could legitimately say that I didn’t have time to write. No new parent does—in addition to not having time, really, for anything… including sleep. Who could blame me? I took solace in this excuse and let writing slide… for a long time. For nearly two years, I wrote almost no new words. When I had the time and enough guilt I would dabble with old stories, old ideas, but everything felt dry and dead. Trying to rework and infuse energy into old stories made me depressed. When I would try to come up with a new story idea, nothing surfaced. Even the most basic narrative escaped me. I couldn’t imagine a character or a conflict. Without any good ideas, I did nothing.

While caring for a baby first and now a toddler, I became addicted to podcasts. They were the perfect way to engage with something and also feed a baby, build blocks, or watch a kid remove all the cushions from the couch. And the best thing is that you can just press pause if you have to change a diaper. I love all sorts of podcasts and I listen to several each day.

A few weeks ago, one of my regular podcasts about personal development was talking about habit forming. The host was talking about his morning routine, how he woke up a little before 6am and had something like 12 habits that he would accomplish before 8am. Most were really simple things like 1) Drink a glass of water; 2) Make an egg for breakfast. But eventually, he had things like 8) Clear my inbox to zero; 9) Write out my objectives for the day. He said something about creating a Habit Vortex or a Cyclone before he lost me.

I know, all that seems really rigid and self-helpy. My inbox has something like 10,000 messages in it, and there’s no way I’m tackling that beast any time soon. But for a guy who just wanted to pick his writing life up off the mat, I thought, yeah, I can start a habit.

On January 13, I got up at 5:45am, I made coffee, drank a glass of water and wrote 500 words. Two weeks later, I’m still doing it. The deal I made with myself is that the words don’t have to be good, but I do have to put something resembling fiction or narrative on the page every morning. I open a new doc each day because I want to have a clean break with the previous day’s work. I don’t edit. I don’t think. My mornings are for new words. Having a finite amount of time is working for me. Sure, I’d love to have a few hours each morning. But for the time being, I only have about an hour before I have to start helping with the toddler and get ready for work. When I’m on a roll, I don’t stop at 500 words. I fill my hour no matter what. But if I’m not making headway, I’m forced to scramble. I have to.

There is nothing remarkable about the 500 words a day that I’ve written. Most of it sucks. Most of it is trash. But after two weeks I have more than 5,000 words, and a few of them are not bad. And that’s something, even if it’s just ideas flowing and characters interacting. And more importantly, I’ve gone from feeling like I was absolutely idea-destitute to feeling confident enough that 500 words each morning doesn’t feel all that daunting.

Enough about me, right?

We’re all coming from different places and have different challenges. Some of you might be trying to submit more work, go to more readings, or read more lit magazines. Whatever your writing goal, I encourage you to help it along by implementing some daily or weekly habit. Make it something specific and easy to digest on a regular basis. If it helps, give yourself a strict perimeter like I did. And if you’re willing, share it with us in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what other people are doing to help improve their writing lives--habits don’t have to be original in order to work.

Marléne, you’re up first. What’s your new writing-related habit going to be?


Tune in next time to find out what Marléne plans to habitualize, what her counter-challenge to Dave will be, and to hear from our first guest(!)—the multi-talented poet and translator (and much, much more) Julia Leverone chats with us about her writing life right now. Now get your butt in the chair, stop reading blogs, and write.

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