Presentation to VECCA Writer’s group
Elizabeth H. Cottrell
All information pulled from the three sources cited below (James Clear, Mayo Oshin and Nick Greene)
For the neuroscience on habits, James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones is outstanding (Amazon affiliate link).
One writing coach I had, suggested creating a simple routine with built-in triggers. For her, this was getting up, starting the coffee pot, going outside to breathe and stretch, and taking her coffee to her writing desk.
Greene, Nick. “I Copied the Routines of Famous Writers and it Sucked.” Vice.com website, January, 2019.
This article is a hilarious account of his one-week experiment. Here’s why he embarked on this experiment:
“Writers are obsessed with routines. With the exception of religion and perhaps grooming, no pursuit is as closely joined to the idea of the Holy Routine as much as writing is. It’s why writers’ routines have become an entire genre of web content. Frustrated scribes can easily find hundreds of lists online detailing the various schedules of their successful and productive counterparts, all laid out neatly like an instruction manual. The subtext of these compilations is always the same: You need a routine, so why not try one of these?”
Some writer quotes about their writing and routines:
- B. White: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
- Haruki Murakami: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing.”
- Ernest Hemingway: “I write every morning.”
- Henry Miller: “When you can’t createyou can work.”
- Kurt Vonnegut: “I do pushups and sit ups all the time.”
- Jodi Picoult: “You can’t edit a blank page.”
- Maya Angelou: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
- Barbara Kingsolver: “I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”
- Nathan Englander: “Turn off your cell phone.”
- Karen Russell: “Enjoy writing badly.”
- J. Jacobs: “Force yourself to generate dozens of ideas.”
- Khaled Hosseini: “You have to write whether you feel like it or not.”
- Stephen King: “I try to get six pages a day.
- Susan Sontag: “I will tell people not to call in the morning.”
- H. Auden: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”
- John Steinbeck: “Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day.”
- Ray Bradbury: “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row…before you go to bed every night, read one short story.”
- Alice Munro: “I have a quota of pages.”
- Simone de Beauvoir: “I see my friends”
- John Updike:“I try to stay with it even on dull days”
- Leo Tolstoy:“I must write each day without fail”
- Charles Dickens: “Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London”
- Anthony Trollope:”I require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour…”
- Bernard Malamud: “Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way.”
Clear, James. “The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers.” On his blog: https://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers
These daily routines work well for writing, but their lessons can be applied to almost any goal you hope to achieve.
- Pushing yourself physically prepares you to work hard mentally.Vonnegut did pushups as a break from writing. Murakami runs 10 kilometers each day. A.J. Jacobs types while walking on a treadmill. You can decide what works for you, but make sure you get out and move.
- Do the most important thing first.Notice how many excellent writers start writing in the morning? That’s no coincidence. They work on their goals before the rest of the day gets out of control. They aren’t wondering when they’re going to write and they aren’t battling to “fit it in” amongst their daily activities because they are doing the most important thing first.
- Embrace the struggle and do hard work.Did you see how many writers mentioned their struggle to write? Housseni said that his first drafts are “difficult” and “laborious” and “disappointing.” Russell called her writing “bad.” Kingsolver throws out a hundred pages before she gets to the first page of a book.
What looks like failure in the beginning is often the foundation of success. You have to grind out the hard work before you can enjoy your best work.
If you want more practical ideas for how to build new habits (and break bad ones), check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.
- Special thanks to Brain Pickings, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, and The Daily Beast, where I originally found many of these stories.
Oshin, Mayo. “The Daily Routine of 20 Famous Writers (and How You Can Use Them to Succeed.” Medium website: Aug. 15, 2017: https://medium.com/the-mission/the-daily-routine-of-20-famous-writers-and-how-you-can-use-them-to-succeed-1603f52fbb77
How to use these in your life
- Commit to working every day
Leon Tolstoy made a firm committment to do something everyday, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine”. Stephen King writes 6 pages and over 1000 words a day.
By being consistent every day or at least every other day, the pressure to create perfect work will be alleviated because you know it’s just another day’s work.
Don’t put too much pressure on the final outcome, just make a commitment in writing and focus on working on your craft daily.
- Tackle your most important thing first — in a workspace with minimal distractions.
There’s an interesting pattern in the daily routines of these famous writers. First, they all wake up relatively early in the morning, but, even more fascinating is that they block out the first three to seven hours of the day for focused, distraction free work.
Maya Angelou, for example, blocks out a time window from 7 a.m till 2 p.m to work productively before her day gets chaotic.
Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she was working and avoid distractions. Rumour has it, that the Iconic writer at the centre of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, hired a man whose only job was to plug her ears while she typed to keep her environment quiet.
Either way, do whatever it takes to do the most important thing first and keep away from distraction. Hide your phone, lock yourself in an internet free room, drive to a local library — do whatever it takes to get in that zone.
This way you can avoid wasting your best hours of high energy, concentration and willpower on unproductive phone browsing and internet surfing.
- Physically prepare yourself for the mental battle ahead.
Everyday, Murakami runs for 10 kilometers or swims for 1500m (or both) everday — in his words : “Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity”. Vonnegut did push ups and situps as a break from his writing routine. It’s like survival training in preparation for a battle.
The battle that takes place in our mind daily — the attachment to our work, an unwillingless to make necessary adjustments or the fear that people will laugh and think your work is stupid.
Find a physical activity that you can consistently stick to and push yourself outside your comfort zone with. This will help prepare you to aggressively and productively tackle the long hours of work or possibly rejection ahead of you.
- Create a daily quota to meet.
Anthony Trollope describes his daily quota from his routine, “I write with my watch before me, to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went..” Alice Munro also held a strict daily quota to complete every day.
Whatever number you choose, as with any big goal, it helps to break it down into manageable chunks.
Again, the most important thing to focus on is not the volume of work, but the consistency of work — 500 words only takes half an hour a day but over a year that’s approximately 182,500 words — the equivalent of 2 novels.
- Take breaks at regular intervals.
Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon — and what he observed during them fed directly into his writing. Likewise, Alice Munro walks for three miles every day to clear her head.
Taking some time off — from a few minutes up to an hour or more a day, can help you regain your energy and reveal new creative ideas for your work.
..Or as Hemingway puts it, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
In the end, you are unique and there is no particular daily routine that will be a perfect fit for you. Experiment and stick to a strategy that works best for you. And remember this…
“If you show up for the muse consistently, then she will start showing up for you.”
- Credit to BrainPickings, OpenCulture and Mason Currey, who brought some of these stories to my attention.