A while ago, when I lived in Taiwan, I developed what I now realise was a nearly perfect writing routine.
At that time, I was still fairly new to this writing thing, but I was already very eager. I lived alone in a one-bedroom studio on the roof of an apartment block, and most days I wrote first thing. I made a cup of coffee, ate a banana, and wrote until lunch time, or until I felt exhausted or hungry. In order to reliably access the internet, I had to descend and get coffee in a local cafe.
Of course, I still felt like I wasn’t writing enough, but I now see that this was a pretty crazy worry to have. Back then, discipline and routine were fairly easy to maintain.
I can remember looking out over the sunny Taipei rooftops some mornings, knowing I was writing well, and knowing it was only ten a.m., and so I could keep going, keep writing for hours more.
It was a blissful moment then: the memory, too, is blissful.
Since then, I have maintained various versions of that writing routine. We writers hear a lot about routines, how artists work best when they produce work at the same time and in the same way each day.
But I imagine for most readers of this blog, such mechanical regularity is hard to keep up. There’s actual life to attend to: family members, pets, jobs, and emails to check. And sometimes, even if you have the hours free to work in, there’s so much going on that concentrating remains tough. In a comment on a recent post on this blog, hlgibsonauthor wrote:
I sit down to write and the only thing that comes to mind is: I have X number of hours before kiddo arrives home from school/hubby from work before dinner needs to be planned and made, cleaning, laundry, pets, homework, Boy Scouts, karate, maintaining author platform via social media…
Plus (sigh) there is the undeniable capacity of the online world to be distracting. It’s distressing to become aware of how much of one’s day, and one’s daily sense of well being, is based on checking updates and notifications, many of which are a lovely reminder of friends and colleagues’ closeness, and most of which are forgotten a moment after you distract yourself to check for them.
If you have an iPhone, and you want to feel a little ill, install the “Moment” app, which tracks how many minutes you stare at your phone everyday. I installed Moment, and in advance of turning it on, guessed how much I would look at my phone before bedtime. My estimate was substantially off, shall we say.
With these thoughts in mind, since the start of this year, I’ve been trying out a more deliberate practice of mindfulness. Rather than just hoping that when I get to my desk, I will simply start writing, feeling focused and free, instead, I’ve been looking into rituals, rather than routines.
When one looks into the rituals that creative people use, meditation appears everywhere.
For a writer like Sam Spurlin, meditation is tied to the famous “flow” state, the condition of mind most suited to creative work. Meditation is useful as a practice because it builds up one’s power of focus and concentration. In Spurlin’s 10 part guide to reaching flow in one’s daily work, meditation takes up most of point four:
4. Develop Your Ability to Concentrate
At its core, being in flow is a matter of regulating your attention. When you’re in flow you’re using your full attention on the task at hand without letting it spill into other concerns or activities (which is why a lack of distraction is so important). Since flow is so reliant on your ability to concentrate, doing anything to strengthen that ability is a great idea. In my own experience, my meditation practice has helped develop my mind to the point where I can more easily become engaged with the task at hand and find flow in what I’m doing.
Action tip: Try starting a meditation practice. Start with just a few minutes a day and work your way up. A great guide is Mindfulness in Plain English (plus, it’s free!).
Or, if you listen to Tim Ferriss’s podcast, in which he interviews a succession of successful people, one near-constant is that his guests praise the benefits of meditation. Basically everyone he talks to practices some form or other: it’s eerie to hear each new interviewee, whether they come from finance, jujitsu, or professional writing, mention the importance of meditation in their daily work.
From Ferriss’s interview with the wonderful and inspiring Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings, I heard about the meditation and spiritual leader Tara Brach. Popova lists her decision to start listening to Brach’s talks and guided meditations as the single most positive change in her recent life. I don’t know if Brach will be your cup of tea; to me, she is pretty amazing, and her talks require no particular knowledge or belief or disbelief. I’ve started listening from the earliest recorded sessions, going forward from 2010 or so, as I take the dogs out for their walks.
So I’m giving this mindfulness thing a try. “Meditation” covers a wide range of techniques, but here’s what I’ve started doing.
Before I start a morning writing session, I unplug the Internet from the wall and play a piece of music, a modern classical piece that a friend gave me a long time ago. While it plays, I just try to pay attention to my breath, how I’m breathing in and out, any sounds outside and the thoughts in my head. However long I can maintain that state of thoughtfulness is good enough, and even if I don’t get to the eleventh minute of the song, it’s fine: I’m starting small. And then I get to work.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
How about you? Do you do anything like meditation?
a fresh opportunity
to pay attention 🙂
I think all of us, on our “easy” writing days, practice some form of meditation without realizing it. The trick is to recognize it and practice it at will. For me, it’s the distractions and everyday problems of life and not “writer’s block” that keep me from having a productive writing session. Finding that quiet, introspective, lost-in-my-own-world state is something I definitely need to work on. Great post.
I live in Hong Kong and though the scenery is quite different to that of Taiwan, to my understanding the similarities between the lifestyles do resonate with me. So thanks for sharing this!
Writers block does sometimes occur, but in those hectic and busy moments, I try to envision everything around me as an experiment or screenplay – then in my head, narrate everything. Like freeze-framing a moment in words.
Thanks for sharing my work, Daniel. I’ve recently started using an app on my iPhone called Headspace (https://www.headspace.com). I didn’t think I was interested in an app that offers guided meditations but I decided to give this one a spin and so far I’m really glad I did. The guided meditations themselves are pretty good but there are also extremely useful explanatory animations that are almost like having a meditation teacher in the room with me. Anyway, I don’t work for this company but I figured it might be interesting to a beginning meditator such as yourself (I know it has been for me!)
Highly recommend it, often forget to do it. I’m sure that says something about me.
I agree with you in so many ways and like you I started to do something with my morning and evening routine now that I have time in my hand to try something unhurried but I also struggle — it’s just being mindful that I need to keep on moving forward that’s important.
I love Tara Brach’s meditations and talks. She is quite enlightening and inspiring.