Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Having a Writing Routine

I really enjoy how the internet lets me follow a link to a link to a link to find something unexpected but interesting or useful. I also enjoy the fact that even though I don't put down a trail of breadcrumbs so that I can trace my way back, I still end up safe and sound in front of my computer where I started. I was on one of those bunny trails this morning and ended up reading about the routines that writers follow when they are working. The last site I ended up on had compiled the routines of authors such C.S. Lewis, John Grisham, and Stephen King. This subject of writing practices has come to my attention several times in the last few weeks, so of course I thought this was an opportune moment to add my thoughts on it to the blogosphere.

Throughout my elementary, junior high, and high school career, the idea was hammered into me that to write anything well (except maybe a poem), one must first put together a numbered outline before sitting down to compose an essay, research paper, or novel. Deviation from writing ideas down in the exact order of the outline was discouraged. Opening paragraphs and closing paragraphs (tell them what you are going to tell them,  tell them, and then tell them what you told them) were the bane of my existence. Counting the number of simple, compound, and complex sentences in each essay to make sure it was "balanced" was a chore. My writing style was often praised by my teachers, but the writing process they had us follow was excruciating to me. If I had something to say, I wanted to just be able to say it. These rules and regimens did not exactly inspire a longing for "author" status in me. 

When the time came for me to take English Composition as a foundation class in college, I thought that it would be more of the same. Students would need to be reading, thinking, and writing on a higher level, but the process would not change. I was right and I was wrong. In the English classes I had taken previously, we had read works of several great authors. We had talked about the events in their lives that might have influenced their ideas. However, I don't remember us discussing the authors' personal quirks and eccentricities in general or specifically applied to how they set about writing. I'm sure I really believed that Shakespeare, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Rand, and Dr. Seuss all started with a numbered outline and did not deviate from the order without first consulting their editor, twelfth-grade English teacher, or the Elizabethan equivalent. They probably sat upright (with excellent posture) at a desk that had the essentials laid out in perfect order but without any frilly extras. 

Wow. Sometimes when I read what I have written about the ideas I had coming out of high school, I find it horrifying and scary to think that I was let loose on the world as an independent adult. I have got to be living proof that God protects us from ourselves. Anyway. Back to our writing routines.

Dr. Erwin was my professor in my first college English class. I don't recall that I picked him as a teacher. I think that his class just fit into the time slot I had available that semester. I had no idea what to expect on the first day of his class, but I can tell you now that I consider that man to be a force of nature.

Dr. Kenneth Erwin was teaching at our junior college as sort of a pre-retirement job. He had previously taught at the University of Texas. He was smart as whip and full of energy. He was a tall, wiry man with short gray hair and round wire spectacles that were larger but still reminiscent of John Lennon's glasses. And he had a uniform... not one prescribed by the college, but a uniform nonetheless. Dr. Erwin invested in a huge stock of long-sleeved henley t-shirts. They were all jewel-toned and had exactly ten tiny buttons going down from the collar. He had a hammered silver medallion (I forget what the image on it was) that he wore on a chain that was always looped through the seventh and eighth buttons on his shirt. His pants were always light colored - very light khaki, putty, or white. They were pleated cotton pants that looked baggy on his thin frame. Then there were the white leather tennis shoes. I have managed to find a photo of Dr. Erwin wearing something other than this uniform (for a special speaking engagement), but he was truly dedicated to this style of his. I saw him at a Barnes and Noble years after I had taken his class and he was still wearing his uniform. 

I have a few memories of that class that do not have to do with the writing process. That he had been a young adult during the 1960s was evident in Dr. Erwin's fondness for the word "groovy". He loved VW Beatles and he really enjoyed the works of JD Salinger. I'm sure we read plenty of literature in that class, but I can only remember the stories where Seymour Glass (See More Glass) kills himself and then the story where Seymour's niece drops his key chain in the pond.

The vivid recollections I have of Dr. Erwin's class are about how he instructed us to begin the writing process. When he first mentioned "writing process", I assumed we would start with our numbered outline. We did end up with outlines, but there was much more that our professor added to the beginning of forming our essays. 

First came the breathing exercises. Two minutes flat. Concentrate on hearing your breathing and nothing else. Correct your course every time a distraction enters your head. It was very important to do this so that our minds would be clear.

Next came free writing. That was five minutes of just jotting down ideas, whether they pertained to the upcoming writing assignment or not. A grocery list would probably have satisfied this requirement. And then we had to draw a picture of what this essay would look like. (Mine always involved stick figures.) These two activities always took place with the music of Ravi Shankar playing in the background. Dr. Erwin was convinced that all of these activities were necessary for us to put a well-written five-paragraph essay together. I thought he was nuts. I could only imagine that we would have had to meditate while standing on our heads had we been about to start work on a full research paper. However, Dr. Erwin was so authentic and sincere that I never would have said these things out loud to him. He truly wanted us to succeed in our writing and he thought he had found the path that we should follow. I did get an A in his class, so it must have worked well enough.

Unfortunately, Dr. Erwin only taught the first semester of English Composition. For the second half of the class, I ended up with a strict sit-up-straight and write-just-like-I-do professor. There was no music in the background or other exercises to get our creative juices flowing. The atmosphere was almost militant. The experience of going from one teaching style to the other completely disoriented me. Shortly after the second professor assigned Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning" as the topic for my research paper, I dropped out of her class. I've never understood the point of writing a research paper on a short story. It is a story. It is short. The man said what he wanted to say and I have nothing to add. My attitude towards writing research papers on longer works such as novels or biographies is not much better. I've always been of the opinion that you have to be a very special person with amazing insight to be able to correctly dissect another writer's works. I realize that makes me a minority, but there you have it. I'm a writer (I use that term loosely when applied to myself) who does not like to write about other writers' works. This attitude made it very hard to get through the rest of my college career, but I managed. 

I'm sure that my five - no, wait, it is six now - loyal readers are wondering how I manage to get coherent thoughts written down now. Do I use numbered outlines? Do I use breathing exercises? Do I still listen to Ravi Shankar as I draw pictures of what my essay will look like? 

The answer to that would be a big fat NO. I am the type of person who does well when involved with routines set and monitored by others (meeting agendas, programs, etc). However I do not do a good job of inventing and sticking to routines for myself. If I do anything that looks like a routine, it is probably some very low-level form of (undiagnosed) Obsessive/Compulsive behavior. There is also the fact that I have only been writing (blogging) since June and it is now mid-October. Maybe by this time next year - if I am still writing - I will have developed some type of a routine. I can pretty much promise you that it will NOT involve numbered outlines (or Ravi Shankar, for that matter).

I will tell you what I like to happen when I am writing. I like having that feeling of the Holy Spirit being here and guiding me that started a few months ago. It scared me at first, because I've never experienced anything like it before, but now it is comforting. Knowing that God is here with me when I am putting my words together makes it feel as if I am on the correct path. I like the thought that God might use my compositions to help someone else - even if I never know the how, why, or who of it. I think my writing time would be even more productive if I would begin with a prayer to invite Him in, but that does not happen very often.

I also like writing in the dark - hearing the pitter-patter of my fingers tapping the keys on my little pink Netbook. The quiet hours of night or early morning when my family is sleeping and the activity of our neighborhood is on hold for slumber are a perfect time for my mind to start throwing out all types of ideas. Sometimes I have ideas come to me in the daytime and I jot them on notepaper and shove it in my purse for later, but I always seem to be able to bring those ideas fully to life in the sleepy hours. This is wreaking havoc on my ability to rest, but I'm trying to work it out. Getting to bed early is helping. I can get up a little earlier and still be productive. 

Other than that, all I can say is that the disciplines my writing instructors have tried to instill in me over the years have largely been lost on me. I do appreciate good comma placement (even if it isn't me who gets it right) and access to a thesaurus. That seems like a small yield for all of their efforts, though, and I wish I could do right by them a little more often.

I would love to hear from my fellow bloggers. Do you have a writing routine? Do you set aside a specific amount of time to blog so that it does not interfere with the rest of your life? Tell me about the environment you like to be in when writing. Spare us a few moments and share what you enjoy when you are putting your words together.

As usual on Mondays, I'm linking with Jen at Finding Heaven and the rest of the Soli Deo Gloria Sisterhood. Tonight, for the first time, I'm also linking with L.L. for "On, In, and Around Mondays" at Seedlings in Stone. Please join me at both, won't you?


  1. Ohhh, good question.

    Sometimes, if I don't force myself into a routine, I become overwhelmed.

    So this is the routine: I wite in the mornings for the book I'm working on or big projects. I try to write my blog posts for the week during the weekend, and I try not to blog more than two days a week (visiting others). Sometimes if I'm only able to get 10-20 minutes on a certain day for visiting, I will add another day to visit.

    Now, you've made me wonder about the routines of others...hmmm.

  2. Carolyn, when you write in the dark do you use glow in the dark ink?

    I have no solid routine. I'm certain the results of that sort of approach are obvious. ;-)

  3. @Lyla Lindquist Lyla, you silly girl. Yes, my computer screen has glow-in-the-dark ink! ;)

    I love the results of your approach!

  4. Hi Carolyn,

    I post three times a week for my blog, and squeeze in other writing projects on the fringe hours. Like you, I also jot notes down during the day, too, in a journal by my desk.

  5. Oh, good question. I have a set day for blogging (visiting), and I usually write my posts in the evenings. I have a little journal to keep track of all my writing thoughts.

    Novel writing happens in the afternoon, or wee hours in the morning. I have to work around two little kiddos. :)

    Melanie Joy

  6. @Jennifer @

    Jennifer Lee is a writing-discipline rock star. As far as I'm concerned. I always want to maintain a solid schedule like she does. But I'm still in 4th grade orchestra trying to to tune my strings. I've conceded we don't all have to do things the same way.

    (We don't, right? ;-)

  7. Jennifer Lee is indeed a rock star! In shiny purple, no less!

    I'm hoping your are right about us not having to do things the same, Lyla. I'm enjoying finding my voice that is much like my Irish-storyteller Grandfather's. I don't want to end up getting shoved into a 500-word, no-Oxford comma box. That would ruin the fun!

  8. Really enjoyed hearing about your background. At least you got a semester with Dr. Erwin! Thanks for the link to the author routines as well.

    I used to just write in the morning, following my devotional and prayers. I found, though, over time that I was able to write at most any time. I do make many notes in my journal about ideas for posts, so I am never short of post ideas.

    I set aside time almost every day to write, with a purpose in mind, such as a blog post.
    I started with the Pomodoro technique, which can be found here:

    I have found that scheduling my day-yes, my day-with ical or another calendar gives me deadlines that work for me, as they give me a framework.

  9. Sometimes I write an outline or a little brainstormy thing. Usually I think about what I want to say for awhile, and then I write it. Usually the words just come. It does scare me a little bit though to think of writing something bigger, because that does require some organization and pre-thinking, neither of which are my strong point. :)


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