Habits – good and bad, and how to make them work for you as a writer
Months ago I read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, and took note of her suggestion that a writer should write for half an hour first thing in the morning, before getting out of bed, brushing their teeth or having their morning coffee, cigarette, meusli or whatever else would start their day in an acceptable fashion.
It sounded frankly impossible. But my partner starts work at seven, so he leaves home around six-thirty, and in the spirit of enquiry I asked him to wake me every morning. I put a shorthand pad and pen by the side of the bed, and started the experiment.
I did make one change to Brande’s suggestion. I wrote the title of the story I wanted to work on at the top of the first fresh page in the pad before I went to sleep. Now, in the morning, I start work immediately, (without brushing my teeth either, a thing I would have considered impossible a year ago!) and I write for thirty minutes.
It took six months to establish the habit. At first I would write nothing, or write drivel, or drift into making lists for the day ahead. Sometimes I would write for half an hour and find all I’d done was recapitulate some part of the story already written. Persisting became a real chore.
Somewhere around the fifth month I discovered that I could do this thing I’d thought impossible – I could write for thirty minutes, on a subject I’d decided the night before, and produce coherent text. It was as if my subconscious suddenly realised that it was meant to be in partnership with my conscious mind, just for that half hour, and delivered the narrative goods as a kind of waking dream.
During the holidays, of course, I don’t get woken in time for my half hour’s writing before the day starts and my productivity drops by about 15%. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to show me just how valuable this habit has become – breaking the habit, in other words, reinforces how important it is to my writing life. I look forward to tomorrow, when he’s back at work and I shall be returning to Brande’s excellent system.
So if you have writing habits, whether good or bad, remember that it takes most people around six months to establish new ones, and remember to break your habits from time to time, to find out whether they really are contributing to your writing output.