Gertrude Stein said “To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.” It seems to me that this is a quote about practice. The more you write, the more you are a writer. Writing is an act, a way of spending time and you can do it anywhere. In any mood. I’ve written at my best and at my worst. I’ve written at home at my writing desk, in coffee shops, at work, in bed, on my laptop, but most of the time in a notebook. I’ve written on the subway in Toronto and at the local laundromat. Whenever I can, I write.
At the beginning of this year, I set out to write a page a day. My aim was to fill a page in a spiral notebook each day and when I missed a day, to make it up as soon as possible. Sometimes I fell behind, sometimes I wrote more than a page. It’s almost the end of 2019 and I’m happy to report that as of today, I’ve already written more than 365 pages this year.
In past years, my writing practice has been pushed to the margins of my life. That’s when it’s been hardest to muster the confidence to continue and the know-how of where to start. I took on this project to always have a place to start and to write consistently, without an unintentional lapse in writing. And did I encounter writer’s block this year? No.
Here’s why: writer’s block is what keeps us from continuing but I had set out parameters of how I would continue from the beginning. The goal for me was to write about whatever came to mind and to write with any kind of quality of writing arose for that one page.
When I introduce a free writing exercise in a classroom, the two most common responses are, “What do we write about?” and “I don’t know how to write a poem.” I invite students to write about anything they want. It can be something that’s just happened or that will happen soon. I ask them to trust the process and begin. This writing project functioned to move me beyond these two stumbling blocks.
Usually I start as early in the day as I can, when I find I have a 10 minute window or more time. If I get interrupted, I pick up where I left off on the page or start a new idea. I focus on finishing the page with as little looking around as possible. I try not to check my phone or answer a call unless I have to. I go for the whole page and do more if I have time.
I was looking to generate a solid stretch of concentrated writing about whatever came to mind. It’s time and attention converted to writing material. Often, after having written about an idea, I am ready for the writing that comes next.
What to write about is a question that requires tools like prompts, or starting points. They’re usually quite easy to find once you know how to look for them. I like having the book 642 Things To Write About on hand for my own practice, and for teaching writing workshops. The simplest way to generate your own prompts is to write regularly.
I’ve had many writing projects over the years. Each project needs to be challenging enough to make it enticing to see the results accomplished. It should be incremental enough to work on over the course of a year or sometimes more. The whole project shouldn’t be something that could be accomplished all at once. The point is to develop an established writing practice.
Part of me searches for new or specific things to write about when I’m not writing. By coming back to the blank page over regular intervals, topics and ideas come to mind. I recommend using a writing project as a sustained prompt — give yourself a consistent point to come back to that’s not Twitter.
For those times when writer’s block comes from the question, “Will my writing be good enough?” it’s confidence that needs to be built and that’s a more complex process. Yet there are still tools.
Practice builds confidence. By giving my writing process enough attention over a sustained period of time, I find a way forward and each writing interval builds on another. I generate ideas, I track the details, and over time I build confidence.
By writing often, I prevent writer’s block but more importantly I get grounded in my writing practice and in my life. Using both prompts and regular practice is a powerful combination. Try it and let me know how it goes. I hope you tend to your writing practice in 2020. I encourage you to find a way to do so that works for you. May your writing life be well.