My Daily Practice | Karen Kao
|Image source: International Writers' Collective
Every term, my students at the International Writers' Collective ask: how do you develop a writing practice?
If you’re taking one of our core writing workshops, you already have a rhythm. It might be the last minute sprint to finish your exercise in time for the deadline. Any schedule is better than none. Try to hold onto it, even after the term is over.
Need a hard deadline? Set yourself a realistic goal. Need a spanking when you miss your deadline? Find a writing buddy. Do what works for you.
I have it easy. Writing is my work. This is what my daily practice looks like.
Unless you’re the novelist Jennifer Egan, in which case you reach for your journal and start to write. She doesn’t mind that her handwriting is illegible, even to her. She wants to surprise herself. There are monsters and plot points and character arcs to be found in the grey space between waking and dreaming.
Me, I need coffee and some time to putz around the kitchen.
Get back into bed.
This is the place where I do my best writing. Usually by hand (see 08.05). I don’t worry if today’s writing consists of a grocery list. Some days are like that.
The essayist John McPhee needs to find the through-line of his essay before he can set a single word to the page. He’s been known to search for his essay structure while lying on top of a picnic table. I think a bed is more comfortable.
Yes, I’m still in bed. Bite me.
When I first started writing full-time, my practice was to journal for one full hour. To push myself past the shopping list phase and into some degree of creativity. Lots of writers swear by the power of sitting still long enough.
If you can’t afford an hour, then maybe the Pomodoro technique is for you. Set your phone or your watch or your tomato-shaped kitchen timer for however long is feasible. If you’re still on a roll after the timer goes off, set it again and take off.
Nowadays, my practice doesn’t revolve around time. Instead, I use a word count. I’m not allowed to leave my computer until I’ve written X number of words. They may be the worst possible word combinations in the history of the world. But they form a branch I can hold onto as I try to climb into my story.
This would be about the time when storyteller Ernest Hemingway would start to drink. You may want to take a break too, from your daily practice. Suppose you’ve hit your daily word count. Now, let your manuscript rest. Words, like bread, need to ferment. Sugar turns to gas, gas creates pockets of air. Bread doesn’t like to be handled too much. Don’t edit yet. Go do something else.
I usually have a couple of projects in the air at any point in time: a short story, a character sketch, some long-neglected research. A switch from Manuscript A to Manuscript B can be a vitamin-energy-mood boost, all in one.
At night, I read. Great writers of the past and new talents streaking across today’s firmament. Poetry, novels, short stories, essays. Works in translation. The lives of others.
Some writers avoid stories too close to their own work-in-progress. I don’t fear plagiary by osmosis. But I can’t write if I’m not also reading.
MIX IT UP
As your manuscript evolves, so will your daily practice. For example, a first draft is about quantity over quality. Word counts beat the rhythm of my daily practice.
When I’m editing, word counts go out the window. I set goals instead. Measure the distance between my narrator and the action. Or, listen to dialogue: the shouts and murmurs and mixed signals.
Every writer is different. Every manuscript sets its own demands. But in the end, every day of a writing practice is the same. Rinse and repeat.
Note: My Daily Practice was first published by the International Writers' Collective on 1 December 2020.