Writing is not about the routine
Why are we so obsessed with routines? It's the least interesting part.
Sometimes I get the impression that a writer’s success is perceived as a trick that can be easily replicated. Something that is easy to copy and paste. What’s your routine? What pen do you use? How often do you post? What is your desk like? What is the best writing retreat?
When we see another type of artist at work, a successful pianist for example — we don’t assume it’s all down to the type of piano they have, or the specific hour of the day they practice, or the chair they sit on. We assume it’s down to the amount of experience, the years spent learning and crafting, an element of natural talent, upbringing and the unique artistic flair of that one individual. And yet, with writers, we group them together; often romanticising and fetishising their equipment and their lifestyle choices. Some people think it’s easy. Some think you can learn the basics in an 1-hour online course. Some are annoyed when it doesn’t ‘work’, even when they have the right pen, desk and window view.
Whenever I’m asked to explain my ‘writing routine’ on a panel or mainstream media, I clam up. I really don’t like it when anyone wants me to wheel out a ‘formula’ for easy consumption:
a) because my ‘routine’ right now is lying on my bed in a massive jumper because my dentist appointment this morning got rescheduled and so I decided to write something in a spare couple of hours
b) it feels a bit much to launch into your ~spiritual relationship with your creative flow~ when someone is just making polite conversation at a wedding or in someone’s kitchen about your writing routine — so of course it is just easier to offer up the brand of notepad you use or whatever.
When people ask me about my routine in interviews, I usually offer up something about deep work and the hours I chunk together in the day via a Pomodoro timer because that is the best ‘routine’ that works for me. I use the Freedom app, bla bla, stuff everyone knows. I do get a lot done with my trusty old-fashioned timer and I enjoy making either side of my day productive (10-1pm, or 1pm-4pm). The other side of the day gets lost to chaos and admin and life. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner once wrote: “Everyone wants women to be mindful, calm, and deliberate. But sometimes a little chaos gets things done.”
The truth is I don't “know” how or why I write. I’ve never had a routine. I’ve written in lunch-breaks, on the bus, on my phone, on scraps of paper, during boring office jobs, on my sofa, at my desk, in cafés, on my Notes app. I used to be that kid who could fall asleep anywhere, and now I’m an adult who can write from anywhere. Every book I’ve written felt like it came from somewhere outside of me and I was able to get it down. I’ve also felt somewhat embarrassed at how easily ideas come to me and how fast I can catch them. I remember someone cornering me at a party last year, asking me about my books, drunk, frowning and slurring: “but how DO YOU write them all???? How?”
The answer is certainly not in the routine. My routine is a mess. I’ve had many magazines over the years ask me to do a ‘day in the life’ feature where they ‘follow my writing day’ and I’ve always declined. Because it doesn’t exist! I don’t have a structure at all, but I do have a very good handle on how I feel most days, and I am open to receiving. I am hyper-focused when I do something I enjoy. I don’t watch much TV. I find household chores incredibly boring and have a husband who is the tidy one. I listen to my inspiration, I tune in, I feel connected to something. I write quickly. I go where my curiosity is the strongest and I’m pulled by a magnet towards it. My inner critic is very quiet now because I tune it out. The inner critic was never me or my inspiration — it came from other people around me who I no longer care to listen to. I prefer the word ‘discernment’ — I can discern what is good, bad or needs improving. And I can do that kindly with compassion. I also don’t have time to sit there doubting myself constantly — I’ve got stuff I want to do! The inner critic zaps a lot of time, and you have to learn to lovingly rebel against it.
Instead of the word ‘routine’, I prefer ‘practice’. My daily practice these days involves finding ways to listen more. Deep listening is how you become more creatively connected— i.e. tuning into the frequency needed to create and hear what to write. It’s why I often walk around in a daze, bumping into things and people often comment on me ‘being miles away’. (Side note, this book is wonderful: The Listening Path by Julia Cameron.)
I’m much more interested in how people channel their creativity in their own personal way, not ‘routines’. In an interview clip with musician Jon Batiste, he explains the channel in which his art flows through every time he sits down at his instrument. I’m not interested in what hours of the day he works, I’m interested in his personality, how he stays connected, the way he shows up.
Jon: I keep saying this, but really my approach is — how do I become a vessel for the music to flow?
Interviewer: Like you’re a channel?
Jon: Absolutely. One thousand percent. It’s a channel. What else could it be?
Interviewer: You don’t look like you’re playing… you look like you’re listening.
Jon: And sometimes you miss it and you think “I gotta get back into my flow.”
There is so much more at play (i.e. learning to listen, tuning in to our own way of doing things) when it comes to expressing our creativity. This is why I’m opposed to offering advice or ‘quick tips’ because I don’t believe that is helpful or genuine. Be wary of people’s blanket ‘advice’ around creativity and writing because it’s an extremely personal thing — and no one ‘routine’ will solve it all.1
One piece of advice I do like, however, is that of writer Neil Gaiman who doesn’t offer any fluffy advice, but literally just tells you to sit there. Sit there until something bubbles to the surface. It’s not a case of ‘can you write’ but a case of ‘can you sit awkwardly for hours on end and see what comes out’?
“I would go down to my lovely little gazebo, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world. I’m not allowed to do a crossword, read a book, phone a friend…all I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing — or write.
But writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. You’ve been staring out the window now for about 5 minutes, and it kind of loses its charm. And you’re going ‘Well actually, might as well write something.’ — Neil Gaiman via Famous Writing Routines
Instead of ‘what’s your routine?’ maybe there are better questions we can ask: