Sara Loewen: A Writer's Habits

I’ve been setting my alarm an hour or two earlier every day
to carve out more writing time. Five days into my new habit, it’s hard to say
whether I’m motivated more by word count or by the promise of coffee.
Iris Murdoch said, “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small
I’d heard that it takes three weeks to form a habit, but a quick
Internet search refuted the whole 21 days claim. Still, I thought I remembered a specific
number of hours-to-proficiency.
Here it is (from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success):
“for true expertise: ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the
level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.”
As long as I stick to my morning writing routine, I should
produce something really good 27 years from now.
Looking through a few books on writerly habits, the best
ideas I’ve found are probably these 3W’s: waking up early, walking, and word
count. For today’s writers I might add: avoiding that other www.
Mason Currey asks in Daily
Rituals: How Artists Work
—“How do you do meaningful creative work while
also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or
to set aside a small portion of each day?”
And when that isn’t actually a choice, how best to nurture a
creative writing life?
In a recent interview in the Georgia Review,
Julie Riddle said, “If I wrote when I felt like it—when I felt mentally sharp,
energized and inspired—I would rarely write. I’ve learned that if I sit down
each day and just start, regardless of how I feel, good things will happen.
Good things will happen.
I’m feeling hopeful about the potential of writing before
sunrise after reading about so many morning writers: Edith Wharton, Sylvia
Plath, Ray Bradbury, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, William Stafford, Wallace
Stegner. I’d like to see a display of all the books written while other people
were sleeping.
It’s encouraging to remember that slow and steady progress is
exactly that—progress.
Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, but she points out
that even if all she keeps from a full day of writing is a single page, single
pages add up over the years.
Gertrude Stein thought half an hour a day was enough writing
time. Flannery O’Connor’s routine was to write for three hours daily with the
goal of three good pages. Henry Miller wrote for two or three hours each
morning, as did Willa Cather and W.B. Yeats. Yeats, a slow writer, said he
never did more than five or six good lines a day.
After time and discipline, walking was most often mentioned
as a complementary writing habit. Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginia Woolf, Henry
David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Yeats, Charles Dickens, and William Wordsworth all
relied on walks to enrich their creativity. Wallace Stevens composed poetry
walking to and from work and often walked through his lunch hour as well.
As an added incentive, studies show that spending even
twenty minutes outside in good weather (what does that mean in Alaska?) leads
to better working memory and moods.
I find that once I’ve started an essay, I carry it with
me—revising in the car or the shower or at work. I think about it when I
exercise too, that just happens less often.
“Once your unconscious mind has really begun to focus on a
given project…things that fit your project seem to pop up everywhere you look.
Suddenly, the world seems to overflow with what you need,” writes Stephen Koch,
in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.
He also writes about the value of a daily word quota—calling
it the next best thing to an enforceable deadline.
Somerset Maugham set himself a daily requirement of about
1,000 words. Steven King suggests at least 2,000. Mary Karr makes herself to
write a page and half or to work for six hours, whichever comes first. Tom
Wolfe set his quota at ten pages a day, triple spaced. If he finished in three
hours, he could call it a day. “If it takes me twelve hours, that’s too bad,
I’ve got to do it,” Wolfe said.
Here’s the thing. To write November’s weekly posts, I
haven’t been taking walks. I’m not a fast writer; when I have a deadline I
usually choose to trade that time for obsessive revising. I may never set a
word quota. For now, it’s enough to force myself out of bed and down to the
glow of the laptop on the kitchen table.
My new morning writing habit may not lead to a finished
essay before 2014, but it does ease the ache of not writing. As we enter the darkest month of the year and this
season of giving thanks, it helps me start the day in a spirit of gratitude—for
words, for an hour of quiet, and for a cup of strong coffee.
Our featured author for November had been Sara Loewen, whose first book, Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands, was published by the UA Press in February.  She received her MFA in creative writing from the UAA Low-Residency Program in 2011. She works at Kodiak College and fishes commercially for salmon each summer with her family in Uyak Bay. 

1 thought on “Sara Loewen: A Writer's Habits”

  1. I just wanted to thank you for you posts–your thoughtfulness and warmth (and yes, your specific hints) encourage this sleepy writer/mother-of-three across the miles, through the morning darkness.

    I raise my mug of tea to you, Sara. May the words flow onto the page. You definitely deserve the coconut-sprinkled doughnut in the picture.

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