Writing Routine: The Best Antidote to Writer’s Block

In 2013 Mason Currey wrote a book called Daily Ritual: How Artists Work, an enjoyable collection of the range of quirks and idiosyncrasies of some of the most creative people in history. Although learning that Beethoven personally counted the sixty beans that would end up in his cup of coffee every morning will not necessarily edify you as an artist, the book does get us thinking about what it is about those predictable monotonies of our daily lives that in their own strange way serve to unleash the creative forces within in.

The periods of my own life during which I had set ironclad routines for myself ended up also being the most fruitful in terms of creative output. Why is this? Perhaps the answer lies in the often forgotten fact writing is, after all, hard work— and we may not always want to do it. Take your writing seriously, and you will see tangible results. Treat it as a hobby, and you will get hobby results.

Routine promotes writer’s flow

Routine is one of the best antidotes to writer’s block. It matters not whether you are a morning person or a night owl (both of which are, oftentimes, more the result of circumstance and less of some innate disposition). Ernest Hemingway liked to write in the early mornings, when “[t]here is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” For others, like George Sand, night was the only real opportunity to get it all down.

Routine is lambasted in the current culture as the mark of the humdrum, monotonous life of those who apparently seem to ask nothing more of life than their daily bread; but routine is a vital component to the success of an artist.

In fact, lack of structure is scary: when we have no idea where to begin and when, we end up losing much time in confusion. Structure and routine cultivate creativity. When we do not have to think about whether it is best to first go for a run or eat breakfast or do three hours of writing—in other words, when we know what must get done each day and in what order—we are saving ourselves not only time, but also precious mental energy and frustration.

Find a routine that works for you

In my case, it is jog-eat-write, so that by noon I have completed the bulk of my work. When I have completed my work, I feel good; and the better I feel, the more work I am capable of doing. It is a virtuous circle. Your routine can and will be different; whatever it is, however, the important thing is to stick to it. When you leave yourself with no alternative, you will muster the strength to get it done.

We know what we love, and we love what we know. Make writing a part of your everyday reality.

We know what we love, and we love what we know. Make writing a part of your everyday reality.

Building strong habits

You would not go to the office stinky and disheveled, so why wouldn’t you treat your art with the same respect? As you start your day, wash up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and remove the sleep from your eyes. Does this sound obvious? And yet, I am being neither facetious nor condescending.

We have all had those days where we slouch around in pyjamas until high noon and pretty much waste the rest of our day in laziness. They are nice every once in a while, but imagine how little we would get done if that were the norm.

If you write at home, it might be extremely tempting to lie in bed and write from there. And while many a successful writer has done just that, their success was due in spite of it, not because of it. A person can get back into shape in spite of a deep-rooted weakness for junk food, for instance, but not because of it. The bed is for sleeping, and like Pavlov’s dog, we are conditioned since our earliest days that the bed equals sleep. If we start working in bed, we may get our work done, but we may also be nursing the insomnia that will plague us later on. I know firsthand: I completed most of my university work atop my bed, and for years and years I struggled with the simple act of falling asleep. Get out of bed, start your day with your best foot forward, and be presentable to your characters—show them you care about them, and they will be your allies as they guide you forward in the plot.

A Healthy Body

Currie’s book describes some pretty funky daily rituals of some of the most creative minds, but hardly any are the mark of a healthy body or a completely sane mind. So what if Kierkegaard poured black coffee over a cup of sugar and swallowed it down? So what if Ayn Rand had her Benzedrine? It is not their quirks that made them successful; it was their brilliance, fierce imagination, and work ethic that led them to success. The strange habits for which so many artists are renowned are but a byproduct of years of experimentation of learning what helped them focus better. Who knows, maybe some artists are even superstitious, like Beethoven and the 60 beans, similar to the way a football player might kiss his socks before a big game.

Nabokov, when still a young man in his 20s and early 30s, would often stay all day in bed, smoking and writing; and of course, he was very, very productive. But this is the catch: you need not be a depressive with a glass of scotch constantly by your side to reveal your greatest creative self. Artists with addictions are great in spite of their addictions, not because of them.

Of course what I am about to propose is a great banality by now, but it is precisely for that reason that it begs to be repeated. As Stephen Covey wrote, common sense is not common practice. Promote mental acuity through healthy eating, regular exercise, and sound rest. Your mind needs a healthy body to house it. Long walks are not only pleasurable, but many an artist has found that the solutions to problems of plot and characterization appear precisely during such walks.

Protect your routine

A regular writing routine promotes writing—but this can only happen if you follow though with it. It is easy to break out of a routine, but very difficult to get back into one. Or, to put it differently, it is easy to dig yourself a hole, but very hard to get yourself out of it. Safeguard your writing routine at all costs, especially on weekends, holidays, and vacations, when it is so tempting to “free” yourself.

Getting even just a little bit of work done each and every day will eventually bring you to your finish line, whatever that may be. Routine, precisely because of its repetitive nature, makes your goal less daunting, so that a strict writing regimen helps to gradually wipe out all of the fears you may have about your own writing.

  • CK

    Dear Mrs. Ferreira,

    Routine just doesn’t work for me because my mind is always exhausted for some reason…and I sleep a lot because of that. If I don’t have an idea for my work, and if I’m not supposed to be somewhere…I’m probably asleep. What’s interesting with that though is that I get a lot of ideas during the transition from sleep to wake state; and when I get an idea/inspiration, I have to get to work right away! I have trouble forcing myself to be productive or creative…That required “mood”/drive has to naturally hit me…and I have yet to find out which factors play a role in this because it can legit hit me at the most random times and places (under the weirdest circumstances sometimes) –there’s no pattern! Or at least, I haven’t discovered it yet.

    • CK, I know what you mean (trust me). Like you, when inspiration comes it always when I am either about to wake up or when I am walking by myself. It is true that you can’t force yourself to be creative (it’s like trying to force yourself to fall asleep, and we all know that that never works), but the greatest artists in history have shown us that it is possible to learn how to tap into, and eventually have mastery over, the font of our own creativity. I suspect that it is the very monotony of routine that allows us to clear our mind of all of the humdrum (that so often swallows up all our time), leaving us fresh and ready to receive the gifts from our subconscious, those precious flashes of inspiration. It is for this very reason that people like Julia Cameron swear by journal writing (her “morning pages”): it frees us from superfluous thoughts and readies us to act upon our creative impulses.
      Keep me posted on any tips and tricks that work for you! 🙂