How To Develop A Sustainable Writing Practice

I once had a workshop teacher who would light a candle in the beginning of each class in order to “invoke the muse.” I secretly rolled my eyes, thinking it was hokey. A year later, I found myself making tea in a china pot, taking it to my desk, and making myself stay and write until the tea got cold.

My teacher was right. Sometimes we need something external to signal that we are taking time from our daily life to write. (A door that closes and locks is another one that comes to mind.) Lots of people want to write, but what makes a writer is the ability to establish a practice and get their work done.

This is where sustainability comes in. It’s a buzz word, sure, but “long-ass haul” doesn’t have the same professional sound. You want to develop a practice that keeps you writing, not one that burns you out. I had a friend who said she was going to walk five miles every day. If she missed a day, she’d walk ten the next. This is not a sustainable practice, and she did not sustain it.

Ignore all Advice That Is Not Useful to You

Sure, one person might write only in the library, and another meditates before an hour of writing. Standing desk, timers, waking up at 3 am, in the car at your kid’s soccer practice. There are a thousand stories of how people get writing done. The only one you need is the one that works for you. Not the romantic image that you would like to be part of, but the actual system that will keep you writing in the middle of the summer and in the middle of the winter, when you have company or when the other members of your household are away.

Don’t know what works for you? Try a new approach every week. Figure out what works best for you, and stick to it.

There Is No Magic

Sorry. The fickle fairy, the muse, creativity blessing you and abandoning you in turn is a myth. Writing begets more writing. Reading begets writing. Write on a regular basis (whether that’s every day or a few times a week) and you will almost always be able to write something. Major life events do mess up your access to your writing brain, but be patient, it will pass. If grad school taught me one thing, it’s that I can sit down and write a decent poem draft in two hours given enough caffeine and pressure when I’m “in shape,” that is, writing regularly.

Not in shape? Start slow. Do low-stakes writing, like keeping a journal. Do writing exercises. Work your way up to a short story, essay, poem, or—lord help you—a book. Write a blog or a letter to a friend. During my last move I made up soap opera versions of my daily life to regale a friend. Moving was stressful, and that was all the writing I did on those days. But it was funny and creative. It was better than nothing.

How do you keep writing?




Writing, Writing Residencies

Should I Go To A Writing Residency?

Yes. Next question?

Oh, you wanted more? Writing residencies are one of the best things that ever happened to my writing. The other is Scrivener and possibly my MFA program. And perhaps a series of life events that I did not enjoy, but that gave me something to write about.

What Is A Writing Residency?

An official writing residency (as opposed to a DIY writing residency, which is also awesome and worth doing) is a place you apply to go stay for a certain period of time to write. They range from opulent to rustic, sometimes they provide food, other times they only provide kitchens. Size, expense, location, and number of coresidents all vary wildly.

Why Should I Go To A Writing Residency?

Yes, you can write at home or the library. But do you? Writing residencies offer a block of time where your only responsibility is to write (although your coresidents would probably appreciate it if you cleaned up after yourself in the kitchen as well). You have your own space, usually with a bed and a desk, at the very least. Often there is a common area and interesting places to explore and get your mind out of its ordinary patterns.

Residencies are a gift. For those of us who squeeze our writing around work and other responsibilities, the time is magical. You have days that you structure entirely based on your writing needs. You have time to write AND read. You can go into depth in your work in a way that you can’t when you snatch an hour at a time from your daily life.

What Should I Consider When Choosing A Residency?

Think long and hard about what you need to write.

Cost: Can you afford to pay for a residency? Are there scholarships? (Often yes.) Can you afford to get to the residency? Do you need a stipend? (Sometimes there are stipends!) Can you afford to feed yourself while you’re there?

Setting: Be brutally honest with yourself. Will you like living in a cabin in the woods or will it freak you out? What is your relationship with spiders? If you go to a residency in a foreign country, will you write or will you gad about? (No judgment.) Do you need to be in an isolated place so you sit your butt in the chair and write? Do you need the Internet? Do you need to be in walking/driving distance of a grocery store, urban center, national park, or coffeeshop? Can you haul firewood? What creature comforts can you not do without?

Food: Would you benefit from being fed at specific times or would you resent having to stop work and go to dinner? Do you want to talk to other people? Do you hate to cook? I have never been to a catered residency (I hear they’re great), but I’ve got a pretty good repertoire of bachelor dinners and don’t mind PB&J on a regular basis.

Level of Sociability: Do you like people? Do you like talking about writing? Do you want to avoid all humans and just get your work done? Do you secretly long for a glass of wine at the end of your writing day and conversation with other writers? In my experience, there is a lot of drinking at writing residencies. I’ve never seen anyone be intolerant of nondrinkers, but if drinking makes you uncomfortable, plan accordingly. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with coresidents at my various residencies, and I have some strong friendships as well. But I also have a couple eye-rolling crazy stories. Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad.

Your Level of Resiliency: How do you feel about solitude? Can you be somewhat alone with your writing for the length of your residency? The running joke is that you’re not allowed to knock on other writers’ studio doors during the day at Yaddo, because the writer is either napping or crying. It’s funny because it’s true. I have napped and cried, despaired and rejoiced at every single residency I’ve been to. Can you deal with the challenge of writing every day and the intensity that comes with it?

Where Do I Find One of these Magical Things?

Poets and Writers and the Alliance of Artists Communities

What is your experience at writing residencies?

(Photo: the porch at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Residency; I recommend the residency, but see above point re spiders.)