Many writing teachers will tell you that if you want to be a serious writer, you need to develop a regular writing routine. Pick a time and a favorite spot in front of a window and write there every single day. When I hear this advice I get a little depressed because nothing about my life or work-habits are routine. Even now, when everyone is forced to stay home a lot more often, I have an irregular schedule of Zoom classes, and even when I do want to write I don’t always have the energy. Fortunately, there are some great poets I admire who feel the same way.
In the first season of The Poetry Saloncast, Kelly Grace Thomas and I interviewed six contemporary poets about their writing practices and then discussed the learnings and takeaways. What we found out about routines and schedules varied across the board. There were some who wrote on a regular basis, some who wrote more sporadically, but there was one trick that almost all of them had in common to keep their creative juices flowing – and it wasn’t sitting in the same place at the same time when they wrote everyday.
Writing on the Regular
Some of the poets we hosted on the show were textbook in adhering to what most advice givers would call a disciplined writing schedule.
The incomparable Alexis Rhone Fancher – poet, photographer, poetry Editor for Cultural Weekly and founder of Submat Central submission services- described hers as follows: “I wake up. I Mediate ten minutes. I make a cup of coffee. Then I go to work. It’s almost Pavlovian. . . and I’m fortunate. The muses show up, and then I let them have their way with me.” For her creative process, the more regularly she returns to the well, the easier it is to call creative inspiration in.
Douglas Manuel, author of Testify, says that in grad school he too was able to create a regular routine that he followed daily. However, since entering a Ph.D. program and taking on a rigorous teaching schedule, that routine has turned into a slightly more irregular practice of doing a free-write for at least 15 minutes every day. Some days it’s more. Some days it’s less. Sometimes it’s only 3-4 times a week.
Writing on the Irregular
Like Doug, most of us have other obligations that get in the way of our work. Fancher herself notes that before she retired from work in advertising, she didn’t have that kind of routine either. Fortunately, it may be that not everybody needs it, or would necessarily get the same value from it. Brendan Constantine notes that he’s never had the opportunity to go away for a real writer’s retreat and is worried that it might not be good for him. Rather than having a strict schedule he notes, “I write an awful lot on the armrests of chairs in waiting rooms, or between shifts at my jobs, or in the cafeteria or library where I teach, or on my knees at a coffee table…”
Jeannine Hall Gailey, author of Field Guide to the End of the World, says, “There are some poets who write a poem every day. I’m not one of those. I’ve always felt like if you sit down and force yourself to write, you’re probably not going to get your best work. . . but I’ve always been a pretty steady writer. I write a couple poems a week. I’ve always written at that speed, and it seems to work.”
Some poets even embrace procrastination. Hannah Gamble, winner of the Ruth Stone Lily Prize says, “I put (my writing) off as long as is possible. . . until avoiding it is too vexing. It always feels terrible. 95% of me is saying I don’t want to write a poem. I’d rather have fun or do anything else. I’d rather trim my nails. When I need to write, it feels like there’s a great cluttering in my brain, so it would be better to push it cleanly out so that it can stop bothering me.”
And Armine Iknadosian, author of All That Wasted Fruit told us, “I’m famous for procrastinating. If I have a deadline, I’m very undisciplined. If you really love me, and I have a deadline, you will have a talk with me about why I need to do this immediately. . . That is my achilles heel, that poetic sensibility of being lazy, in my head all the time, and daydreaming and thinking instead of doing.”
DEVELOPING THE WRITER’S LIFESTYLE RATHER THAN THE WRITER’S ROUTINE
In spite of their more sporadic writing practices, poets like Gamble, Constantine, Hall Gailey and Iknadossian all have books out from reputable publishers. Even if they struggle with it, none of them shirk putting in the honest hour. The difference is that they seem to write when the inspiration comes and the ideas are ready. So the big question is, how do they get that constant flow of poetic stimuli?
Douglas Manuel in his interview, reflected on the different facets of being a writer; He’s one type of writer at a desk writing a first draft, and he’s a different kind of writer editing that draft into a powerful piece that will move and inspire his readers. As the founder of The Poetry Salon, I might add that he’s yet another variation of writer interacting with a creative community in facilitated workshops. All of those aspects are vital to living the writer’s life, but it goes beyond even that. As Manuel notes, it’s more about developing a writer’s lifestyle.
A bricklayer taking his kids to Six Flags for the weekend isn’t being a bricklayer that afternoon. When they aren’t at work, they are able to be free of their labors. Writers and artists are different. For a writer, even when they aren’t at their writing desk or holding a notebook in hand, they are still “at work,” because, as Iknadossian noted, they are still looking for inspiration, either consciously or intuitively. For example, Manuel described walking through downtown Long Beach one afternoon, when he became aware of a passing scent of jasmine, which reminded him of the place he grew up in Indiana. He didn’t have time to sit down and write a poem, so he took a note on his phone, and only later sat down to follow the memory into a poem.
That is the one vital practice that almost all the poets we spoke to have in common – they take notes. They carry a notebook or use an app on their phone to write down those free-floating ideas for poems so they are ready to go when it’s time to create. Iknadossian never stops combing the world for great material. “I’m always looking for inspiration. I’m always watching and reading, whether it’s a film or the news, or the blossoms outside. I’m always aware, I’m not just a person in the world. I’m not practical minded. I’m more, ‘Where’s the poetry in the world?’ It means that you are open to the inspiration around you and to the idea that anything you see might eventually become a poem.”
Fancher says that she takes notes every day. “80% of them wind up in my poems, maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually.” This note-taking ensures that these poets are always engaging with the world in one way or another as active artists and observers. It means when they do sit down to write, the ideas are already there.
And the engagement doesn’t stop at taking notes. These writers also read frequently, have poetic friends, or even teach their own classes. This too provides a constant stream of inspiration and poetic engagement. And even if you don’t already have a large writing community or a position teaching at a university, reading poetry as part of your “diet” is something anyone can do.
Train Your Brain to Find Inspiration Everywhere
It was this very idea that titled our latest ecourse “How to Think Like a Poet”. As important as I know it is to educate oneself on techniques and poetic forms, the key as I understand it is to train your brain toward a heightened awareness, where you recognize and receive poetry everywhere. Instead of being concerned with “turning it on” or “turning it off”, you’re increasing your appreciation of the world, enhancing your observation, sensitivity, language, and connection with others. This, more than a regular routine, seems to be the most important quality that these successful writers possess. They are always thinking like poets, even when they aren’t taking direct action to fill paper with words.
So for those of you who are worried that you can’t carve out or stick to a strict routine, take heart. As it turns out, writers do not have to be militant about setting a start time for a writing session every day. As you become more serious about becoming a dedicated writer, you should focus instead on becoming “poetically minded” — training your brain to notice details, textures, sensory perceptions, interesting bits of language, potential metaphors, and the stories hidden in everyday happenings. Then, write them down immediately, habitually, in your phone or notepad. When you do have time to sit and write, the inspiration will already be there.
If you develop this practice, you’ll be a writer while scrolling through Facebook, a poet pouring coffee, an artist even while filling out an Excel Spreadsheet. However you decide to schedule your days and weeks, you can always be a writer by keeping your eyes open, and keeping that notebook by your side.
One more note in closing, I want to return to something Douglas Manuel says. Lately, I’ve been hearing from a lot of writers that, while they do want to write every day during the pandemic, they don’t feel ready to edit or turn out polished “product.” They just want to process their feelings as these strange times evolve. To those who feel this way I want to note that this writing “just to process” can be hugely therapeutic. The researcher James Pennebaker suggests writing as little as 15 minutes a day can reduce blood-pressure… even if it isn’t “good” or “finished”. Douglas Manuel also notes that no writing is wasted writing. If you engage with the poetic self, at any level the magic will work eventually. – “All bad poems help you get to good poems.”