Writing has always been a release for me, and on occasion the words spill onto pages. But sometimes my writing practice is inconsistent and fraught. Typically this means I have some anxiety about what I am writing. The anxiety can stem from lot of things, for one I might not have not yet figured out what to say (and on that note, please go read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s recent brilliant essay on that topic). In other times, the external pressure feels too heavy. Yet, imposed deadlines in our profession often means I do not always have the luxury to wait it out.
Right now is a crunch time for me. I have a goal to complete my first book monograph manuscript by the end of the semester. This was the same goal I had least year before the pandemic hit. I gave myself the year to pause and do a #Covid19 pivot to talk about health disparities (see my perspective pieces in Health Education & Behavior and Gender & Society). Hitting the month anniversary of lockdown, I decided I would finally re-dedicate myself to book writing—what I am calling #MarchWritingMadness.
To make the process less maddening, I returned to some of the strategies I have built over time to strengthen my writing consistency and wanted to share here. They include creating accountability, finding your best time to write, using timers, and crafting a writing ritual.
- Have accountability partners
First things first, I work best with accountability. I am one of those competitive doesn’t-back-down-from-a-dare type people. I’m not kidding, much of my drive is about proving people wrong—but I digress. The key point is, I do better when I challenge myself but with community. I believe writing should be communal.
For #MarchWritingMadness I have the world, or really just few followers on twitter and IG who I am keeping up with for our goal to write daily on long forgotten projects. I also have been texting a grad school friend daily. We can share our writing wins and our writing struggles. This matters especially now, when we can’t write in coffee shops or libraries. Writing with people who are not with you physically can still feel like you are not writing alone. It is both comforting and motivating.
- Write at *your* best time
There is a lot of advice regarding why you should write every day (check out this advice from Tanya Golash Boza) – and there is some good reason why writing every day might not work for you (check out this advice from Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana). I say, write about your best time. This is most directly a response to the cute advice that you need to “write first thing in the morning.” But, writing first thing in the morning doesn’t typically work for me. First, I am not a morning person. Listen, the love I have for my bed as soon as the sunlight hits only strengthens. On top of that, my mornings are typically filled with me helping to dress and feed and prepare (or send) kids to school. Its hectic!
I do agree, though, some consistency is still good, so the key is to find time that works for you. I took advice from others and I reserved the entire morning for me time. That is, when folks ask my availability I do not (often) offer time before 12. This means I can do work that I need to do – as opposed to meetings, service, and teaching – and means I also can write in the late mornings, which works best for me.
During #MarchWritingMadness I decided that my writing would take place between 10-12pm each workday. It is often before I have meetings, possibly after I do some emails, workout, make breakfast for the kids, and such. It is my best time.
- Use a timer and minimize distractions
I am all for the pomodoro method. This typically means work uninterrupted for 25 mins, take a 5 min brain break and repeat. After four, your break should be longer, or perhaps you switch type of tasks. I have an app on my computer, on my phone, and a beautiful hourglass. Pick your method, and your length of time.
Just remember, like meditation, thoughts will come into your mind and you should work hard to push them aside. For me, that means having sticky notes nearby to jot down things as they come up, to be crossed off my list later. Sometimes I get the urge to check something – email, twitter, etc—but knowing a 5 min break is on the horizon means I can last without losing focus.
A tip for not losing focus includes minimizing other distractions, like notifications. You can put your phone and computer in do not disturb mode, or close windows that could draw away your attention. I have stopped all notifications; sadly, my habit to check the socials enough without the signals.
- Create your writing comfort zone
Rituals are wonderful incentives for writing. They can help get you in a writing mood and mode. For me, it often includes lighting a candle, wrapping myself in what I call a writing shall or robe, and most importantly COFFEE. I swear, even the smell of coffee makes me think “hmmn what should I write about today?” At that point, I am ready to work.
I also listen to music when I write. What music I listen to depends. If I am doing more tedious tasks, I can listen to things with lyrics and its usually hype music to get me through the mundane things, like references. When I am struggling with framing I often need all the focus I can get, so I shift to deep focus instrumentals, often hip-hop beats or jazz. When I am revising, I also like to keep it up tempo but without distracting lyrics. This is when I turn to non-English music. I be vibing to who knows what. I love Latin Pop or the curated Okay Africa hip-hop playlists. Part of me hopes I am learning some languages through osmosis, but who knows.
I do not like being uncomfortable when writing. I do not write on the couch. My bed is never for work. I need a desk and chair. I use a ergonomic keyboard and chair, and make sure the screen is at eye-level. My body should not be in physical pain when writing—the brain pain is enough!
When writing madness is more than mad-about-writing
These are my strategies for getting out of writing madness, or what I am thinking is a “mad-about-writing mode.” These are strategies that helped me. They are not bullet proof. You, like me, might have multiple interruptions given caretaking responsibilities. Maybe your university didn’t pay for ergonomic chairs like mine did. You might teach a lot (and on that note please check this out applicable blog by Jenn Sims). These strategies will not fit everyone, and they will have to be adopted, revised, and often flexibly implemented, but if you are struggling try them out and let me know if they help.
Finally, it is important to note that there are really big life events and hard moments that come up and will interfere with writing. Maybe the writing block is a mental block and you might need to talk to a professional. Maybe you are in a life crisis and your writing consistency is not the biggest priority. Our health as writers is always more important than what we write.