Is Writing/Life Balance Possible? Pt. 1: Building and Sustaining Momentum in Your Writing Practice

This post is part of a two-part series, synthesized from “The Takeaway,” a panel at Aspen Summer Words on June 20, 2019, which was meant as advice for conference attendees returning from a literal and figurative mountaintop experience to juggle writing with everything else in life. Among the topics discussed were how to sustain energy, how to create time and space for your work, and how to avoid the siren song of social media.

Panelists: Meghan Daum (THE PROBLEM WITH EVERYTHING; SELFISH, SHALLOW, & SELF-ABSORBED), Tom Barbash (THE DAKOTA WINTERS; STAY UP WITH ME), Brooklyn’s first female poet laureate Tina Chang (HYBRIDA; OF GODS AND STRANGERS), Laura Fraser (AN ITALIAN AFFAIR), and Nick Flynn (ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY; THE TICKING IS THE BOMB). Moderator: Ellie Scott, Aspen Words.

How to Sustain Writing Energy

As we all know (and try to convince our families), writing requires a great deal of energy. This energy is mostly psychological and emotional, but I’ve been known to surface from a writing session starving and dehydrated.

Much like Newton’s First Law of Physics, there is a key difference between a writing practice with momentum behind it and the considerable amount of energy a writer has to put in to get the ball rolling.

It’s the same principle that makes it easier to go for a three-mile run for the third day in a row than to go for a run for the first time in a month. #SelfDrag 

So, how do we gather this momentum? By setting a routine. Ask yourself: ‘Which hours of the day work best for me? When am I at my most creative and focused?’

I have always wished that I could be a morning writer. There’s something romantic and sun-dappled about writing in the morning, like a product advertised to yuppie Millennials, but I can’t do it. I hit snooze a zillion times and then feel bad before I’ve even begun.

Instead I have to lean in to the fact that I will never get any good writing done before at least my lunch break.

“What are they selling? Who knows? Who cares? All we know is you’re going to feel like a million freakin’ bucks if you buy this thing.”

“What are they selling? Who knows? Who cares? All we know is you’re going to feel like a million freakin’ bucks if you buy this thing.”

The first two weeks of a new writing routine are the most critical.

Once you’ve figured out your ideal writing time, put in the BIS (butt in seat) hours and build your momentum. If you can show up consistently, then your overall writing energy should be easier to gather and sustain.

A simpler answer from the panel: just get to work! At home, there are no expectations that you’re writing. As my workshop leader Rumaan Alam (RICH AND PRETTY; THAT KIND OF MOTHER) said, “No one cares if you write but you.” So, set and voice an intention. For instance: “I will write every day during my lunch hour.”  

In addition to setting an intention, having a writing community and creating a dedicated writing space and/or having a writing ritual are good ways to support your practice. 

I say “and/or” because, if you don’t have a private room or area you can dedicate to writing, you can create a sacred writing space wherever you go by performing a ritual to get started. Novelist Tom Barbash invested in a good set of headphones and listens to white noise ( when he’s working. Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang makes tea to herald the start of her writing time; I light a candle. Any of these can become Pavlovian triggers that tell you, “Okay, I’m in my sacred headspace. Now I can write.”

You should steep yourself in a writing community for added support, but poet and memoirist Nick Flynn takes care to apply a Buddhist tripod of concepts—sangha, dharma, meditation—to his writing life. In his case, sangha signifies his writing community; dharma is the text of writers that inspire him; and meditation is his daily writing practice. He endeavors to keep all three in relative balance so that one doesn’t take priority over the others.

How have you gathered an enduring momentum for your own writing practice? Do you find comfort in your own work, in the work of others, or in your writing community?

Comment below, and stay tuned for part two (coming soon!).

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