S. Lee Manning: I’m starting a blog on writing tips by telling you to pour yourself a cup of coffee. You may think it’s because I’m a coffee addict. (I am.) Or that I’m suggesting I need coffee to get my brain working in the morning. (I do.) But there’s also a more important reason.
I pour the coffee first because this is the first step in my morning routine, because it’s what for want of a better word, I would call a habit. And habits and routines are important – in life, and in writing.
As Gayle Lynds noted in her blog on writing tips, writing a novel is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I’ve read other writers who emphasize the importance of just getting your butt in the chair and writing. Sounds so simple. Why is it so hard?
I don’t know why. But it is hard. There’s days when that butt just doesn’t want to go in that chair. There’s days when I want to go out shopping and then check out the cheese grits for lunch at the new little restaurant in Montpelier. Or take a long bike ride. Or read a new book. Or watch the latest in the political spectacle that’s happening this year. Or, I don’t know, try baking French baguettes that resemble the bread I bought in Nice and Avignon at 10 p.m. each night. (Yeah, I know, don’t even bother on this one.)
That’s where the coffee comes in for me.
Every morning, I get up around 7 a.m, feed the cats, pour myself a cup of coffee, and watch the news for twenty minutes until the morning caffeine deprivation headache goes away (I already admitted that I’m an addict). Then I pour myself another cup of coffee and head for my desk and my computer.
I do a quick skim of my e-mails and Facebook, maybe write a post or two, and then I get into the writing. I start with reviewing what I wrote the previous day. I delete a little, add a little, and then I move on to a new scene.
I’m allowed to peek at Facebook now and then, but I’ve had to break the habit of spending too much time there – presenting arguments that will change no one’s mind and just waste my time. This was a tough one to break – I’m a lawyer by training – and I like to argue. But, I’ve stopped this habit. For the most part. Sort of.
Except for a few excursions to the kitchen for more coffee and occasionally food to keep my stomach from rotting (all the coffee), I stay at my desk until close to noon. Then I break for lunch with my husband and consider the possibility of an afternoon excursion. I may or may not write through the afternoon – but it’s an extra, not part of the routine. Sometimes, I do get so engrossed by the writing that I don’t want to stop. But it’s not something I can count on every day. For every day, I have the routine.
Sounds like work, huh? Because it is.
When I was an editor on Law Enforcement Communications, a magazine for police officers, doing what I had always wanted to do – there were days I didn’t want to write an article – no matter how interesting. I had to force myself. I complained about my occasional lack of enthusiasm to my father, who was a wise man. He told me that anything you have to do everyday, even if you think you love what you do, will sometimes just feel like work. That’s why it’s called work.
To get through work, I created routines and habits. It’s the same with writing – which is now my work.
Research suggests that creating a new habit can take anywhere from twenty-one days to eight months. It requires persistence and consistency. Create the routine and stick to it. Every day – or every work day, if you want to take weekends off. You can have the occasional sick day or vacation day, as with any other job, otherwise follow the program. Pour the coffee and sit down at the desk. Start. And while there will be times when the writing comes easily and inspirationally, there will be other days – days when it feels forced or painful. There are days when I hate what I’ve written. Still I know that the next day, I will pour a cup of coffee, sit down, and rework it – until I have a scene and then a chapter and then fifty chapters that I love. It will take days and weeks and months of following the routine to get there, but when I do, it’s worth all the work.