Tag Archives: creative habit

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There are certain books that, as a writer, I visit again and again. Some are works of fiction, some non-fiction – biographies and books about writing itself. On my desk, sit a group I revisit often. Some of the books have moved desk to desk with me for over a decade, others I edit every so often adding new finds or bringing back old favorites. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is one of those books that I recently re-added. In part because her voice reminds me a lot of a great professor I once had, but mostly because it’s just great writing about writing.

The actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.

I love that, even though I believe I need the tea as much as the ceremony. Just as much as I need these books on my desk – memory, reference, ritual – the creative habit in all its glory. The tea is a part of my creative process, too.

I’ve always been a big tea drinker, but in this last year – this wonderful, strange year full of unexpected change, frustrating health issues and challenging projects – the tea ceremony has become an integral part of my writing day. Be it writing a script or writing in script.tea ceremony henry james ©alexashersears

In all my years as a professional writer, this was certainly my least prolific in terms of how much was published, and yet, I feel fulfilled. (Well, as fulfilled as a writer ever can be. It’s hard to be content when you realize it will be impossible in one lifetime to tell all the stories you have within you. That you will have to savor the ones that make it even after being edited to pieces and accept that the best characters may remain in purgatory forever.)

And the tea (sorry Anne), the tea made a difference. At my desk, writing late at night with a decaf English Breakfast or many afternoons this holiday season with a big cuppa of Lipton Natural Energy on the sideboard in my dining room, a safe distance from the the dining room table covered in a sea of hand penned envelopes waiting to dry.

Sometimes, I needed the calm. Sometimes, I needed the energy and focus. Always, I needed the time to let it steep. To give myself those moments to collect my thoughts and be in the moment.

The other day I going through my desktop books and wanted to reference a line from Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing, in an email I was sending (Is it only writers who write to each other quoting books? I hope not.) Except it wasn’t on my desk. Or on a bookshelf. It was in my iPad, which I am finding can be a slightly more expensive way to read if I really love a book, as I’ve now ordered a print copy in addition to the Kindle version. For me, reading is ceremony, too. The words are important, but so is the paper. I need pages to dog ear and space to make notes in the margins. Sometimes I’ll find myself highlighting a passage six years later, noting the faded yellow of earlier notations. I’m always fascinated by what struck me upon first reading and what inspires me now.

Sitting here this morning, waiting for my tea to steep, I thought about my favorite new books of this past year. What has stayed with me? What have I gifted after reading? In fiction, there was Transatlantic, Z, and Havisham and the not quite as new, can’t believe I didn’t read them sooner, Rules of Civility and Eleanor and Park. In non-fiction, Still Writing, Why We Write and Karma Gone Bad.

Tell me, what were your favorites? I need to start my Goodreads list for 2014.

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Twyla Tharp wrote that in order to think outside the box, you first need to start with a box. For every creative project, that’s how she begins. Literally. With a box. And she fills it with the bits and pieces until they begin to meld into something whole. Every dance, every show, every work of art she’s created is then filed away inside its boxes. The boxes that allow her to step outside the box.

I love that.

As a writer, I do my own version of the box with every project. It’s not a box like hers, but I put away my own collection of bits and pieces as I build characters and story, research fact and fiction. Screenplays and other long form writing fills a larger space, but you’d be surprised (sometimes I’m surprised) at how many random scraps of paper with ideas and opening lines and other inspiration can accompany notes for an article, too. Writing is creative even when it seems anything but.

We are creatures of habit, aren’t we? Often so much so we don’t even realize it. Realize how many habits make up a day in the life.

There are some habits we need to break or they’ll break us. And sometimes a break from good habits can lead to nasty withdrawals.

I’ve never known much job stability, but I never expected it, so in a sense the instability has always felt perfectly stable. Welcome to my world: when I’m working, I’m working. When I’m not working, I’m still working. It’s only when my creative habits are interrupted, that I realize how much I depend on them to make sense of my work – my days, my purpose, my life.

But every so many years, something will happen that sends my collection of creative habits into the air like a handful of confetti. And then I find myself totally frustrated, and sometimes crippled with fear, because the ideas aren’t flowing and the inspiration is lacking. Absolutely nothing is happening.

And then I remind myself that I have to go back to basics. Habituate.

Like Tharp’s box, I start each project in a similar way. But sometimes, as stupid as it may sound, I need to remind myself to go get my damn box. Start at the beginning. Pull out the bag of tricks, which are far more utilitarian than magical. And once I do, everything starts to fall into place. I start to write and soon I’m on my way again. Because they do come back.

Old habits die hard. The worst ones and the best ones.

Especially the best ones.