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Writing Life: on Building Habits

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo. The spiel: (1) write 50,000 words in the month of November. Real authors always hit that magical 1,667 word count, every day for thirty days straight. It’s a great idea in practice. Just like many other writers, I have a bunch of story ideas in my head at various stages of completion. But while many swear by the program (the website claims over 310,000 participants in 2013), I’ve found that NaNoWriMo doesn’t do it for me.

I’ve tried the program once or twice, and always make it around 15,000 words into the process before the word count becomes arbitrary, I hit a mental block, or just miss a day and fall badly behind. Here’s why NaNoWriMo doesn’t work for me:

1. Focused on one project only (rather than useful writing in general), prone to writer’s block
2. Over-focused on word count and production
3. Harsh penalty for missing the odd day
4. Focused on word quantity over other measures of writing progress.

I propose MacroWriMo as a solution.
MacroWriMo is the practice of writing at a specific time, every day, forever. Call it whatever you want: the habit building is what we’re really after. The daily routine of writing keeps you creative and engaged: like a pianist’s scales keep his fingers loose and limber. I like that NaNo forces writers to, well, write, but I want to adapt that feature to a bigger context. More than I want a specific project done, I want to build habits that will shape me as a writer for longer than just thirty days. Rather than a sprint, I want a daily three-mile run.

Here’s how writing every day solves all of the issues above:

Focus on as many projects as you like

Because I’m looking at personal development instead of a specific project, writer’s block doesn’t need to trouble me. Stuck on the book? Write a sonnet, or a journal entry, or an epic poem. There’s not an arbitrary limit on what you are supposed to be writing because the idea is to get you writing, not getting a project done. I enjoy many different types of writing, and want to be exercising my creativity in many different ways.

I’m more concerned with keeping my creative expression limber and in shape than finishing projects. We are investing in ourselves as writers, not in a specific project. Sure, with daily writing projects will get done, but in the long run we’re ingraining in ourselves the habit of doing what we love. So no need to beat your brains against one story for days and days, falling miserably behind. Take a day to write a Shakespearean sonnet, or a song about rutabagas, or whatever else you dream up.

An appropriate focus on production

Part of the reason I’m trying to write daily at all is definitely production. Without tangible writing to show for it, my call on the title ‘writer’ becomes more and more tenuous. But I think a daily writing routine avoids a pitfall of NaNoWriMo: there are no word deadlines. There’s a place for these if there’s a specific project, a deadline to meet, or any other valid scenario. But for day-to-day, general writing development, I don’t want to be bound by a word count or a quota to meet.

Instead, I’d suggest time as an appropriate measure of your daily writing. Myself, I’m going to try to add an extra thirty minutes to my morning routine, to make sure that I have time to sit down with a notebook and get my thoughts out on the page: every day. If you can keep up the daily routine, production will naturally follow, and it won’t be rushed, but will come out at its own speed.

In fact, where I’d like to end up is a place where my daily writing doesn’t go towards any of my projects. I’d like to keep this time open to doodle with words, so to speak. Even as projects get done outside of this time, my daily writing will continue to be the spark that keeps my creativity going. Daily writing ought to inspire you to write more outside of the time, not be seen as a quota to be achieved.

That’s why I’ve chosen to put my time at the beginning of the day: not just so I can get writing in and be done, but so that I’m in a writing mood all day long. It’s the same reason I have my devotions first thing, every day. I want to apply the same concept to my writing.

Room to breathe

Miss a day? Relax, you’ve got 364 more. NaNoWriMo is on such a compressed schedule that any missed day puts you behind and doubles your quota for the following day. Before long, the stress snowballs and you’re burned out midway through a half-finished, mostly crappy book. I know this because it happened to me, twice.

A daily writing routine gives you a longer view of the situation and a whole lot more room to breathe. The odd day happens, whether because of a doctor’s appointment or a late night over the weekend, a project at work or school — relax. Real life happens and “100% success” is unachievable. You are cultivating the habit of writing, not checking off as many days in a row as you can. Don’t sweat the odd missed day. Even if you only have time for a simple journal entry analyzing some thoughts, it’s pen to paper and it counts towards building the habit. Practice makes perfect.

I have decided to write every day because I’m not happy with where I’m at right now. My creative juices don’t flow easily, it’s painful and difficult for me to express myself creatively, and I miss the worlds that my mind explores when I write. I want to carve out spots in my day for the interests that are important to me, and writing has been neglected until now.

Are you a writer that’s neglecting your daily practice? Join me on this experiment: let’s cultivate a habit of writing each and every day. I’m excited to be creating some more poetry again, especially experimenting with new meters and rhyme schemes, as well as some more free verse. There are a few long-dormant stories that have been stirred up that could definitely use some daily attention. Let’s do this! Leave a comment if you’re interested in giving this a whirl.