Whether you are just getting started as a writer, or you’ve had lots of experience, writing practice is a tool you will want to have in your kit. Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, calls writing practice, “the bottom line, the beginning of all writing, the foundation of learning to trust your own mind.” I use writing practice in three main ways.
1. Morning Brain Dump
First I use it as a brain dump in the morning. Both Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, and Dorothea Brande, author of Becoming a Writer, recommend this practice. Stumble out of bed (or leave your notebook or computer on your bedside table) and write first thing when you wake up. Before you check email, before you read anything, write. Write for a particular amount of time (15 – 30 minutes) or for a particular number of pages. Set your intention, commit, and do it.
There are so many reasons to do this practice. Cameron suggests this as a way to recognize and learn to disregard the inner censor that stands between you and your creativity. It takes practice to ignore your resistance and continue your creative efforts. Writing first thing in the morning helps you to write through, no matter what.
Brande used this morning writing practice to harness her unconscious mind. In the gap between sleep and full wakefulness, the mind is easily trained to simply record the turnings of our less conscious thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
I do this practice for 15 minutes almost every day. There have been gaps, but when it’s missing, I notice it. I set my daily intentions, write down bits of my dreams that seem significant, and I get all my complaints and whining out of my head and safely into my notebook where it can’t interfere with what I’m trying to do.
As a homeschooling mom, my life is pretty unpredictable. My days look like loosely organized chaos. If I don’t schedule time to write (which I require to keep my inner cup filled), it’s hard to find the time. Whatever else is happening in my week, I meet with my writing partner over the phone on Sunday evenings. We explore a wide range of topics. This is my playground. There are no requirements other than the rules of writing practice. We show up, and pour ourselves out. The aim is not to produce anything publishable or that will be shared with anyone but my partner. The aim is to write and bask in the pure joy of it. The image in my mind is of wild horses in a mountain pasture at the beginning of spring. Wild, free, complete enjoyment of the sensual experience. All that exists is the writing because I have merged with it. The pen in my hand, the ink flowing on the page, the way my brain feels when the writing is hot.
3. Solving Problems, Getting Unstuck
I use writing practice to solve problems. When I am stuck in a particular piece of writing, I pull out my notebook and pen, set a timer, and go. I don’t stop until my timer goes off, and if I get stuck, I repeat the topic or write, I’m feeling stuck. My conscious brain lets go, realizes it isn’t needed, and what I really mean to say appears on the page. I can literally write my way out of anything, if I give it enough time.
Here are some tips on getting started with writing practice.
1. Choose your tools.
Handwriting is a different process, and engages the brain differently, than striking buttons on a keyboard. One method isn’t better than the other, they are just different. Experiment to see what works best for you.
2. Set an intention.
Are you writing for 15 or 30 minutes? Are you writing for 3 or 6 pages? Set the intention and stick with it no matter what. Keep your hand(s) going. Your resistance will come up. Keep writing through it. The practice of recognizing and writing through resistance is essential to a writer.
3. Write without regard to spelling, grammar, or punctuation.
No crossing out. You are not trying to achieve a finished product. You are dumping the contents of your mind onto the page. As Goldberg says, “You are free to write the worst junk in America.” I promise that if you allow yourself to be perfectly imperfect and practice regularly, some seriously good stuff will come.
4. Let go completely.
Don’t hold back. No one is looking over your shoulder. No one ever need read these writings. They are just for you.
5. Write your first thoughts.
This is the freshest expression of your deep mind. The thoughts that come after are generally watered down, censored for an audience.
6. Go for the jugular.
I am stealing this directly from Goldberg because it is the clearest expression of this sentiment. If you touch something that scares you to death or makes you sob, dive right into it. That is the heart of writing.
7. Reread what you’ve written later.
After you’ve had some time to cool off, go back and read what you wrote. Circle or underline things that spark your interest, that keep coming up, or that evoke feelings in you. Copy those down in a separate document or at the end of your notebook. Use them as topics in the future.
Experiment with writing practice, do it for at least a month, and figure out what works best for you. With regular practice, you will take your writing to new places, beyond your current imaginings. We’d love to hear about your experiments in the comments below. And, if you'd like to build your commitment to the craft through community, we've got something for you.