A student told me recently that everyone has at least one book in them. I didn’t want to squash his spirit, but I disagree. He certainly may, but lots of people don’t. The truth in that platitude is that everyone has a story to tell. It’s just that not everyone has the skills and stamina required to write it. Or wants to, for that matter. Those who do usually have something in common: routine.
Take Stephen King, possibly the most prolific modern writer. He’s published more than 87 books. I’m not much of a horror fan, but I like King. His work is entertaining, funny, and smart. He’s also notorious for his writing routine.
In On Writing, he admits that he writes every day when he’s writing. That sometimes means weeks or months of not writing. But when he is, he works four to six hours a day, every day. In his words, “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
King tells the story of how he started writing Carrie but decided to throw out his draft. It was hard for him to write. He didn’t like his characters and didn’t think he could write from the perspective of a teenage girl. His wife found his work in the trash and convinced him to continue on. That experience followed by the book’s overwhelming success taught him that not writing because it’s hard, emotionally or creatively, isn’t good practice.
“Work every day” isn’t glamorous, but it’s the most useful advice about how to finish a creative project I’ve received. Time is just logistics. It’s there for us to find. Half an hour before work, an hour after the kids are in bed, or maybe a whole weekend closed up in your spare bedroom. It’s not always easy to find, but it’s there.
The hard part is shifting your mindset. Over the course of our lives, we build mental and physical habits, which create grooves in our brains. The longer we practice these habits, the deeper the grooves. Instead of sustaining harmful habits, we can build better ones through self-examination and dedicated practice. Eventually we create new grooves and the old ones start to fade.
Not sure where to start? Try this: Find a comfortable seat and close your eyes. Imagine you have an entire day to yourself. You decide to go for a walk. You slide on your slippers and walk. You walk and walk until suddenly you realize you’re lost. But somehow it feels right. You’re where you’re supposed to be.
You see a structure up ahead. As you get closer, you see a note addressed to you, inviting you into the creative space of your dreams. As you enter, notice what the space looks like. Is it open and sunny? Closed off and cozy? Small and utilitarian? Or large and luxurious? What tools are available and where are they? How do you feel when you enter this space?
You get to work on your project. Before you know it, you’re creating away. How much time has passed? What are you working on? How does it feel to be working?
Now, open your eyes. Take a moment to reflect on your dream space and the time you spent there. What made it special? What was it about that space that gave you permission to create freely? Now, make a list of five ways you can bring elements of that space into your own. How can you recreate that coziness, openness, or sense of flow?
Each day, make a small change toward creating your ideal space - anything from shopping for a new houseplant to rearranging the furniture to leaving home altogether. At the same time, start dedicating time to create. If you don’t have a routine, start with 15 minutes. Add a bit every day until your routine is sustainable.
Building a creative routine is simple but not easy. It’s especially difficult when life is difficult. To be candid, I’ve been having a hard time. I’m guessing some of you have, too. Six months of being inside, not seeing the people I love, and working non-stop has taken its toll. I didn’t think I could write this post. It didn’t feel genuine to tell you to develop a creative routine when I’ve been so in need of a break. And to be clear, take a break when you need one. But the funny thing about this type of work is it’s for you.
So I sat down to write, just to see what happened. I was surprised to find that the words came and even more surprised that I felt better. When things seem overwhelming, routine has a way of grounding us. At least for this moment, we know what comes next. Creativity gives us space to dream. To be someplace outside our house or neighborhood, if only for a while. To express our anxieties and create something better. And it’s dreaming that will get us through this, one word at a time.