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?




9 thoughts on “How To Develop A Sustainable Writing Practice”

  1. Read this with a fresh put of tea to hand, by the way, about to start half an hour of novel revisions. The hard thing to convince myself of is “no block of time is too short”–but tea helps.


  2. Waking at 3:00 a.m. to write? That’s hard core! I suppose that would be a time of quiet and solitude and fewer distractions.

    I generally write best when there is something I’ve been itching to get down and I am eager to get to my next writing session. I make notes of these things during the mundane times so I won’t lose them when I have the scribbling chance. But if not, I can generally get into the mental “place” of my stories by reading what I’ve written (half of which always seems unfinished) and then going with that flow. Also, a pot of iced tea (unsweetened, of course) helps. As does simply putting the butt in the chair and staring at the screen.

    My writing sessions usually don’t last more than three hours. Not sure if I don’t have the endurance or if the creativity is exhausted by then, but I take what I can get.


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