I’m a binge-writer. I sometimes go multiple days without writing anything new or creative, and then suddenly outpour pages for multiple hours one afternoon or night. Though this has long been my creative writing process, it’s not always sustainable, and not so great for my sleep hygiene. This past March, facing a creative rut, I decided to use Lent as an excuse to shake up my writing routine by committing to write two new pages of creative work a day for 40 days.
Lent is one of the few Catholic traditions I still partake in. I like the idea of experimenting with habit and sacrifice for 40 days, especially at the tail-end of winter when things tend to get dull. This year instead of giving something up like meat or sweets, I made this new daily writing goal, thinking it would give me the kick I needed to generate lots of fresh material. According to my self-appointed Lenten rules, the two pages had to be:
Double-spaced in Times New Roman 12pt font (~600 words)
New – rewrites and edits don’t count
Shareable – private journaling doesn’t count (no “morning pages” here)
Daily – 4 pages written one day doesn’t give me a free pass to the next day
Well, Easter Sunday has now come and gone, and I’m pleased to report that I kept my Lenten promise. Between March 6 and April 18, I wrote two new pages every day, the one exception ironically being the two days I was at writers’ conference, when I let my eight-pages of handwritten notes count as well enough (not to mention I was thinking about writing all day). I now have 80+ pages of new material which consist of:
6.5 blog posts
4 completed short stories (including what might be the start of a new novel? Oh no!)
1 abandoned short story (it just wasn’t working, man)
3 articles for a to-be-released project
3 story craft analysis essays (assignments for a writing class I’m in)
Phew! I’m most excited about the short stories, as I’ve been reading more of them lately, and it’s a genre I haven’t explored much. They are all in their various rough stages, but each has given me a chance to play around with structure, narration, voice, and genre.
Beyond being generative, this 40-day writing challenge has been super insightful in regard to my writing process and preferences. I realized some things about my habits and style that I maybe wouldn’t have uncovered if I hadn’t committed to writing daily. Here are some take-aways from my 40 days of writing two pages:
1. Showing up to write is the most important part of routine.
Most days, first sentences were the hardest. I’d be tired, uninspired, unmotivated. Then I’d start fighting with the first paragraph and suddenly, like magic, I’d be finding my writing flow. Of course, some days I’d hit two pages and be like “Blech, done!” But more often than not, once I got over that initial hump, I’d happily write beyond two pages.
2. Two pages a day is totally feasible (for me), and I prefer it to a word count goal.
I’ve experimented with my writing routine in the past by setting daily word count goals. I think word count is still a good strategy for meeting crazy goals and deadlines, like NaNoWriMo, but two pages felt way more reasonable and rewarding. One page is pretty easy. Three would’ve been near-impossible on some days. Two pages was like Baby Bear’s porridge – just right.
3. Despite what all the “experts” say, I don’t have to be a morning writer.
Try as I might, I’m not just a morning writer, at least not at this time in my life. I even read the Miracle Morning for Writers and tried to channel David Bowie for inspiration (he rose at 6 a.m. every day in his later years). Still, I could not write a single decent thing before I had to go to my 9 to 5 job. I mostly stuck to writing in the weekend afternoons and on weekday evenings, sometimes well into the night – an ingrained habit that makes waking up to write even harder. I imagine some people’s creative juices flow best in the mornings, before the day job sucks away the energy. Not me, at least for now. I love night writing.
4. I write slow, but that’s how I write best.
One of the most tedious aspects of having a daily page goal was that it highlighted just how slow I am at writing. I edit sentences and paragraphs as I go, not so much for grammar but for lyricism and flow – for fiction or nonfiction both. Most days writing two pages required at least 1.5 hours, preferably two hours. After 40 days, I imagined that I might get a little faster. If I did, it’s imperceptible. But that’s okay. Turns out I prefer striving for quality over quantity anyway (see lesson #6).
5. My writing process isn’t linear, at all.
Along the same vein as point #4, my writing process in general doesn’t lend itself well to writing new material every day. There were many times I wanted to stop what I was writing and go back to rewrite what I had written, due to some structural or narrative breakthrough. In the first week or so, I would go ahead and rewrite, but as the days went on I accepted that I simply did not have the time or energy to rewrite material and write two new pages every single day.
6. I have little patience for “crappy” pages.
Many creatives talk about embracing bad writing as a way to kick perfectionism and stay productive. Tim Ferriss has his “crappy two pages a day” and Anne Lamott famously wrote about “shitty first drafts” in Bird by Bird. I tried to look to these examples, but I realized that I still have alarmingly little patience when I’m writing what I believe is crap or shit or just plain bad. Of course, I didn’t expect to write gold every day, but when stories or articles weren’t working, I was surprised how I came to resent the challenge and the time spent if I forced myself to continue with the two pages. Is this something I need to work on? Probably.
7. Beware of cutting other important activities for the sake of writing time.
Writing every day cut into time I would’ve otherwise spent doing some other activities. I watched almost zero TV (I don’t watch much anyway) and spent less time online. Great. But more unfortunately, I found myself reading less and journaling less – two activities that are important to me and for my writing. After 40 days, I hadn’t found a balance. In order to keep up writing two pages a day post-Lent, I’ll have to extend my rules to allow for journaling and find a better way of incorporate reading time.
8. Routine is amazing for the imagination!
At the start of the 40 days, I had two rough ideas for short stories that I wanted to write. Once I started writing them, plus other content, more ideas just started flowing, and I ended up writing two additional stories that hadn’t even been a glimmer in my imagination back in March. One of them ended up being a favorite. Turns out creative thinking begets more creative thinking. This makes sense. And writing daily was way more generative than sitting around waiting for the muse to visit.
Post-Lent, I plan to continue exercising this new daily habit, though I’ll no longer strictly adhere to only writing two new pages. I’ll also probably go back to having some of those longer marathon writing sessions that I prefer, when time allows. Whether it be fore writing, rewriting, editing, plotting, or even just brainstorming, I now appreciate the value of showing up routinely (lesson #1) and better understand how I prefer to write and write well.