Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Four disciplines of writing

I have found that if, instead of vaguely thinking of a book I’d like to write, or toying with an idea, I am actually to get the books completed and submitted to the publisher, then it is imperative that I follow four disciplines.

My family and my husband are very, very important to me – more important than writing books. To be available to them when they need me, to spend time in their company, to contribute whatever I can to their wellbeing – this is what makes life, to me, worth living. My friends are also very dear to me; I purposely avoid making many new friends, because I do not give the time a relationship deserves to the friends I already have. That’s because I live in the wrong place. When way opens for us to live where we should be living, there will be time again for me to spend with my friends – and that will bring me joy.

I learned early on with writing though, that what I must at all costs discourage is the formation of a large acquaintanceship – a raft of people with time on their hands who like to drop in for coffee, or who call to solicit help in a project they can perfectly well manage themselves, or are looking for a pair of idle hands to be rechanneled into making chocolate cake and pasta bakes for church functions.

Church functions are great. Doing things together is great. Having a chat over a cup of coffee is great. But these are not the occupations that get books written – or, not the kind of books I write, at any rate.

I spend months and months just thinking, watching, thinking, drifting, thinking – and then the ideas have come together, and it’s time to write. Without the solitude for thinking, the ideas do not rise to the surface – the pool is too much troubled. Without the solitude for the writing, focus is lost and everything disperses, and what seemed so vivid loses its magic (which is a pity, because if I do get it down, the energy is captured).

The solitude is as gathered as meditation. It has to be complete. If there are people around the house, I can’t write. We have two lodgers living with us. What works best for me is if whoever lives here goes out to work the same hours as Badger; or at least they must be quiet people who have no desire to initiate conversation with me. They do soon learn!!! I can screen out a certain amount of background noise that doesn’t relate to me – long loud conversations on Skype in Spanish come into that category for me at the moment!

Since my soul strongly approves of house-sharing on ecological, theological and sociological grounds, I am motivated to get past the compromise of my solitude that the lodgers present. But construction and maintenance of intense, focussed, sustained, profound solitude is necessary for writing.

It is a discipline. I do get lonely. I do get exhausted by output, with that fractious, discontent, uncomfortable state of mind that belongs to convalescence and over-tiredness. But the discipline of solitude is imperative for the achievement of output.

I like to live in a clean, tidy house. I quite enjoy a little light housework, but quickly find any more than that onerous and oppressive. I get very cross and frustrated if I have to spend much time looking for things or tidying things. I like to be able to get a cloth or a brush, and do a quick whizz round – ta da! – all done!

The odd course of events in my life has also impressed upon me more than on most people the advantages of the flexibility that is attained by owning very little.

I don’t like to occupy my thoughts with things and events – what I am going to eat, wear, buy; maintenance chores that need to be attended to; hospitality, entertaining and social engagements that need preparation.

If I live simply: owning hardly anything, with a clear diary and an unambitious schedule; then I have hardly anything to clean, sort, tidy or plan. My life costs very little, so it doesn’t matter if my books sell in high numbers, so I can write from my soul not for the markets.

In the mornings I spend time in prayer, I exercise, I eat breakfast, I do my correspondence, catch up with online networks, check out ebay if I need anything, and do household chores. After that, if we need groceries, I go to the shops.

Then I have lunch, listen to the news if I’ve got the timing right, and do some kind of handwork. All this while, I am thinking, preparing, getting my soul psyched up for writing.

Then I sit down with a cup of tea, and I write until it’s time to cook supper. After supper, I chill out with a book, chat to Badger, maybe watch a film.

These simple routines are sufficient to service a simple life that just keeps rolling. The credit crunch doesn’t much affect me – having no debts and no significant outgoings means I can just roll on regardless. I am not distracted from my purposes by the changes and chances of society and the economy.

If something mega happens among the people God gave me to care for, then naturally I will stop writing and focus my time and love upon their wellbeing. Living simply makes life spacious, and releases choice.

Living simply reduces distraction, maximises time available, and creates freedom and flexibility.
Simplicity is a discipline. In an age addicted to anxiety, worry, targets, acquisition, achievement, status, image and busy-ness, staying free and focussed requires sustained purpose and clarity of intent.

I would not exchange or give up the way of simplicity for anyone or anything.

If I eat well and exercise, my thoughts are incisive and runny. My thinking is lucid and agile when I am well nourished and active. My mind is sharp and mobile when I am eating properly and my body has moved vigorously.

I said that same thing in three different ways because it’s extremely important.

If I eat badly and do not exercise, I become, tired, sluggish and I can’t be bothered – I become non-productive, and what I do produce has a negative, toxic quality.

I start the day with a big mug of water and two spirulina tablets.

For breakfast, I eat a bowl of high-fibre cereal with unsweetened soya milk and a cup of Earl Grey Tea. For lunch I have a big plate of steamed vegetable with cold meat or fish or a scrambled egg, followed by a low-fat yoghourt or rice pudding. For supper I have the same as at lunch time. I have drinks with lunch and supper – usually a glass of water, then afterwards a cup of Earl Grey tea.

I have snacks as well in the day – maybe a handful of dried fruit and nuts, or fresh fruit, or a slice of cake or a couple of biscuits. I like to have a snack at about four in the afternoon – and again this includes a cup of Earl Grey tea.

If I go to visit my mother and sister, we indulge in a carbohydrate fest that throws me off balance for weeks. As long as I stick to my routine of nutrition and exercise, all is well: I have enough to eat, I’, not hungry, I don’t feel full or bloated, and I am full of energy and calm. Once I get into this refined carbohydrate thing, everything goes pear-shaped: I set up a cravings cycle, I start to feel tired and uncomfortable, I don’t want to exercise, then my mind slows down and loses focus.

This routine of diet and exercise is a discipline. I have a very sweet tooth, and such foods as bread and jam, cake, cheese on toast, and pizza have highly nostalgic connotations for me: I am drawn to them for comfort – and they are lethal. I also have as much inclination to move as a sloth on bromide.

But I prefer the contentment and the mental equilibrium that is won by eating properly and taking exercise (30 mins a day minimum)

I used to focus on my goal – a finished book. So every time I sat down to work, I had a whole book to write. This was very discouraging, so I tended to put off beginning, because it seemed too huge to tackle.

I used to approach the writing of a book like plunging into a pool. I’d get everything done that needed to be done, wait till I had a good stretch of time clear, get my thoughts all psyched up to a good place, then get too it and write the whole thing in two–four weeks.

This worked, except that it kept being deferred. New things requiring my attention kept emerging to be dealt with before I could begin. People, with their moods and attitudes and psychic weather kept intruding upon my thoughts as they were gathering, and shattered the focus, dissipating and scattering my energy.

Then I took a leaf out of Fineline’s book, and began writing a thousand words a day. I can write a thousand words a day easily. So far there are one thousand, five hundred and eighty-two in this blog.

So I usually surpass my target by a long way, which makes me feel good – what Buzzfloyd calls a SMART target.

Even if I have nothing much to say, and feel that my output will not be great today, I still write a thousand words. Most times I surprise myself writing better than I expected; and often it takes off and I end up with two-and-a-half or three thousand.

I sometimes take a day off – or a longer stretch if time, maybe a week. But I find that time off consciously awarded has a much, much nicer feel to it than when I was always meaning to get some writing done, feeling guilty because I hadn’t, and always putting it off until tomorrow.

Writing a thousand words a day is a discipline. It takes time and organisation; it relies substantially on the other disciplines of solitude, simplicity, right diet and exercise. But it makes me feel good – and it is a discipline which has just enabled me to pay some hefty bills, take our family on holiday, and is about to pay for two large gifts for members of my family.

:0) A thousand words a day – because you’re worth it!


Buzzfloyd said...


I am going to start doing some writing every day, like you. But maybe not as much as 1000 words, because that is a lot for me at the moment, when my brain isn't working properly. I will start by aiming for 300.

Ember said...


I think it's the routine not the amount that does the trick.

The only thing with the amount is to make sure it is under your likely output, so it feels easy and doesn't put you off.