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The Myth of Sacred Writing Time

By Stephen Berger

I would like to address a problem that many writers contend with every day. It's a problem that can delay a project's completion by a few days, or it can stop work dead in its tracks, leaving it permanently unfinished. It can hinder a single project's momentum, or it can lay waste to an entire writing career. And the most amazing aspect of the problem is that most writers don't consider it a problem at all. What I consider a plague on the entire creative process is something many writers would consider an ideal, a work ethic, something to struggle to achieve. If you're thoroughly confused now, allow me to elaborate. I am talking about the Myth of Sacred Writing Time.

Most of us spend time studying and struggling to master certain aspects of the craft of writing, such as story, plot, character arc, dialog, archetypes, hero's journey, you know the drill. These subjects are noble and necessary if you hope to be a competent purveyor of the craft. They are what I call 'external' skills. The great mistake many writers make, however, is stopping once they feel they've learned said skill-set. Now this is not to say that good writers don't attempt to hone their skills by writing, or that they're not open to learning whatever they can about the above, external subjects. The tools that are so often neglected are 'internal.' By 'internal,' I mean mastery of the 'inner self' -- a writer's individual habits, her beliefs about her own writing, her relationship to her own creative process.

All of the above may sound like New Age gobbledygook but, as I'll demonstrate, these principles have vast practical application. The one application I'll focus on here concerns the time (or the number of pages) you set each day for yourself as a writing goal. Even if you don't have a set page/time quota and your method is just to sit and write, you'll still find great value in the techniques I'll discuss.

So, back to External Knowledge. Typically, you take courses, read books and find an idea for a story. You are now armed with the tools you need to create an amazing piece of work. All you have to do is go off and write, right?

So, do you? Are you writing consistently, every day? Is your output a steady, dependable stream of pages, or is it more like water sputtering from some old plumbing -- occasionally gushing, but most of the time trickling or even backing up in a stagnant sludge? If you're more familiar with the gush/trickle syndrome, then you might be a victim of the 'Myth of Sacred Writing Time.'

What is the aforementioned myth? It's the belief that in order to seriously pursue your writing it's necessary to carve out an IDEAL time, place and set of circumstances in which to write. Now on one level, this makes perfect sense. If my goal were to master the art of chair-making, I'd certainly be wise to find a workshop and set aside time each day to build either a specific number of chairs or spend a specific amount of time building the chairs. This appears so obvious it almost seems beyond question. Yet, the act of writing brings with it some special circumstances.

To illustrate, see if the following scenario sounds familiar: You're starting a new project; you want to get it out and not lose any momentum. You start out strong; either writing several pages a day, or for a set amount of time, say a couple of hours. You vow to keep it up, cranking out the same number of pages or spending the same hours writing every single day. You won't let ANYTHING stop you...

... Until something does. Inevitably some other work or some out-of-town guests or the kids or SOMETHING gets in your writing way one day. No problem, you vow to yourself, you'll make up for it tomorrow, DOUBLING your output or hours. And you do...until something else interrupts you. Before you know it, you're in the hole for an impossible quota of pages/hours, you've lost critical momentum and, to top it off, you feel guilty that your Sacred Writing Time keeps getting trampled. The net effect of all this is exactly what you wanted to avoid: a loss of momentum. You're stopped dead in the middle of your project, you can't even start to get back to your writing time, and you feel like a failure. The insidious problem that Sacred Writing Time causes is the feeling that if you can't do it CORRECTLY (that is, get in at least a good portion of your pages/hours) every day, you end up not doing it at all.

While intuitive and noble in concept, Sacred Writing Time is almost impossible to maintain. The solution? Lose it. Don't have Sacred Writing Time. Instead, choose a new model. Write JUST A LITTLE BIT, but do it every day. Even if your writing quotient is MINIMAL (and I mean minimal, as you'll see below), it will still get done.

Think about it. There are numerous things you do throughout your day that seem to get done, day after day, and yet you don't even think about them. You don't have to set aside Sacred Shower Time or Sacred Reading-the-Paper time. They're just habits. Similarly, if you write AS LITTLE AS 1/3 OF A PAGE A DAY (or even JUST A LINE OR TWO), your writing will become internalized, a habit, and soon it will become something you do without having to even think about it.

Now at first blush, this may offend the sensibilities of serious writers. It's like saying that practicing your craft is on a par with taking a shower or watching TV. If this is your reaction, I would ask you to consider if adhering to your own Sacred Writing Time has paid dividends for you. If not (or if you feel you could improve your writing output in any way), I'd ask you to put aside your prejudices and try something that truly works.

The method I've developed is called Momentum Writing, and it works like this: For the next 21 days (researchers have determined that it's necessary to perform a new action for 21 consecutive days before it can be internalized as a habit), write A FEW LINES, no more. This isn't as easy as it sounds, but it's essential (often when I give this exercise in a workshop, overachievers think they've done extra-well by writing a whole page.) Again, WRITE ONLY A FEW LINES, three or four at most. Then, for the NEXT 21 days, write only 1/3 page. Continue this way, adding 1/3 page of writing to your quota each 21-day cycle, until you're writing two pages a day. Once that two-page limit has been reached, you will be able to write two pages a day automatically, habitually and, most significantly, without your Sacred Writing Time.

Once you've achieved the two-page level of Momentum Writing, there are other benefits. On many days, you'll be writing three, four, five, seven, ten pages at a sitting, and it won't feel like work, it will just be what you do -- a habit, automatic. You'll be able to write in the spaces of your day, or when you have a free moment -- the tiny places that you would never attempt to achieve Sacred Writing Time. And even if you only write 1/3 page a day and no more, you'll still have over a hundred pages of text at the end of a year.

But what about those days when even two pages are impossible (and there will be those days)? On those impossible days, simply write JUST A LITTLE, a line or two, as in the early part of your Momentum Writing training. This will preserve your momentum and, when circumstances permit, you'll be able to go back to your two-page-a-day habit effortlessly. It's essential not to think of two-pages-a-day as a quota. Instead, two pages will be what you automatically do. You won't be keeping track, only stopping after two pages have been reached. Rather, you'll just notice that you seem to average two pages a day. But if you do come up short, it's not a problem. As long as you write SOMETHING, ANY AMOUNT AT ALL, you're maintaining momentum.

Finally, lest you think that banishing Sacred Writing Time lowers the respect you have for your craft, remember this: The only way to become a better writer is to write, and Momentum Writing allows you to do just that, consistently. The fact that you haven't sanctified a place in your life for it should be of little concern. You're doing what all successful writers do -- adopting habits that work. Ultimately The Work, and working, is what it's all about.

Meet the Author: Stephen Berger