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(Re)Igniting the Writer’s Life

are-we-in-bliss-yet [1]A lot of people I know want to be writers but don’t have a practice of writing. Maybe they had one once and lost it. Maybe they’re just getting started in the craft. Either way, they don’t regularly carve out space and time to put words on the page, but they wish they would. It’s easy to understand why they don’t: life interferes. Maybe it’s a job. Spouse. Kids. Obligations can take many forms.

Often, obligations form a secret conspiracy with a writer’s fear to keep that writer from writing. The logic goes like this: I’ve already invested such time, energy, brain, or sweat today into [INSERT OBLIGATION HERE] that I’m totally justified in just chillin’ like McMillan and not feeding my need to write.

Justified, yes. Happy, no. Why? Because that need needs to be fed and it won’t shut up when it’s hungry. This puts many a writer in a tough, tough spot: We want to write but we fear to write. If you’re in this bind, my heart goes out to you, and I really want to help you over the hump and into, or back into, your active practice of writing.

Often all it takes is a catalyst, a little exercise you can do that will transition you easily and painlessly from not-writing to writing. Fortunately, I have just such a tasty template right here. Simply follow these steps:

1/ Recognize the conspiracy between outer events and the inner fear to write. Recognize that we often use the excuse of [OBLIGATION] and many, many other excuses to serve our fear of writing and impede our practice. Nothing can be done about that. Fear is part of the package, a standard accessory in most writers’ lives.

2/ Acknowledge this fear and move on. Recognize and accept that you’re in a “gentle conspiracy of non-productivity.” Now get over it. That’s yesterday’s news. Today’s news is all about moving on.

3/ Set up a writing day and time. Put it in your calendar. This isn’t a lifetime commitment, just a one-off. And here’s good news: For this exercise, even a half-hour window will do.

4/ Set an appropriate goal for that time. You only have half an hour; you won’t be writing War and Peace. What you will be doing is experiencing or re-experiencing yourself as a writer. Without value judgments. Without any investment in outcome at all. Your appropriate goal is just this: to feel how it feels to write.

5/ Set a doable task, something you can get through in half an hour. One I like is the exploration of an explosive moment of change.

6/ Now here comes the (easy) writing part. (Easy because the goal and target are so clear.) First thing, create a new character. Any one will do, so make any old choice. You might call him or her Sam.

7/ Assign your character an emotional state. Sam is sad.

8/ Now just ask yourself this simple question: What could change your character’s emotional state? It’s Sam’s surprise birthday!

9/ Next, note the new emotional state. Sam is happy.

10/ And that’s a moment of explosive change: a transformation from one emotional state to another, facilitated by a new piece of information. Write one page about that.

Well, there it is. You’ve started, or restarted, your practice of writing. Good job. 

Now possibly you’ll look at what you’ve written and say, Well, that’s a piece of crap. Know what? Doesn’t matter. Remember your goal-setting: not to write anything particularly good or particularly bad, but just to feel how it feels to write. Anything connected to the thoughts of that sucks or I suck is just a value judgment, and fortunately value judgments have no place in this exercise, so you can set them aside. If you wrote a page, you won the game. How monumentally not suck is that?

So now what do you do with this restart? Restart again. Set aside another small window of time (maybe 30 minutes; maybe 37). Do the same exercise. Solve another, similar problem on the page. I promise you something: You’re going to be amazed at how much more easily the problem solves the second time around. Why? Because you have the experience of the first time to draw upon. You know how to invent a character out of nothing, just by making an arbitrary choice. You know how to assign that character an emotional state. You know how to introduce a pivot – a new piece of information that triggers a change in emotional state. You know the character’s new emotional state. And you know how to fill a page. It’s not a problem. You already did it, just recently.

After you’ve done this exercise twice, you can do it again (and again and again and again) and/or move on to something else. You are now building your practice of writing, and you’re doing it the same way the pros do it: one writing session at a time. Maybe your sessions aren’t as long as you’d like them to be – but they’ll lengthen. Maybe you’re not as efficient or as fearless as you’d like to be – but that will change. And that’s the beauty of the whole game (and why you always win, no matter what). To have a practice of writing, all you need is a practice of writing! And it’s right there in front of you, hidden (at the start) in the inconsequential corners of your time. Session by session, exercise by exercise, skill by skill, word by word, you build your craft. You become a practitioner – someone with a practice of writing. Congratulations. You have achieved your goal.

Folks, if this template helps your practice of writing, I’m happy. If you don’t even need it, I’m happy as well. But if you know of someone who could use it, won’t you please pass it on? That will make me happier still.

Have you ever fallen out of your practice of writing? What challenges did you face in starting up again? What strategies did you use to achieve that?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!