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Making Habits Work For You - Camille LaGuire
I had a screenwriting instructor who took time out at the beginning of every course to warn her students: if you have a bad habit or addiction do NOT do it while you write. Don't drink, don't smoke. Keep 'em separate.
It wasn't that she was puritanical and thought that writing time should be kept pure. It's that she was deeply addicted to nicotine, and she had learned the hard way -- if you smoke while you write, then you will never have the option to quit smoking. Your writing will become more dependent on it than your body, and any time you try to quit smoking, you'll be unable to write.
This is true of lesser addictions, even simple habits. For instance, long ago when I was a student -- and I lived in the country, and I had several part-time jobs -- it just wasn't worth it to make the hour drive home between classes or jobs. I came into town early in the morning and stayed until very late at night. In the middle of the day, I might have a two to three hour gap here and there.
And during that gap I went to Taco Bell and wrote.
It wasn't that I liked the food. At all. (I've come to like some of it since, I admit. Guilty secret.) It's that they were centrally located and they were the first restaurant anywhere in our area to offer free refills on pop.
So for most of my life I have associated the smell of cumin and taco grease, and the taste of pop, with creativity. Yep, it gets me right into the mood. Gimme a bad taco and I'll start writing. We are creatures of habit.
Unlike my teacher who smoked, I don't have to go to Taco Bell to write. Yes, I had a very hard time cutting back on my consumption of sugary beverages because of this. And there have been stressed out times in my life when going to sit in a fast food restaurant was a short cut to getting me in the mood.
But that brings up the other side of the equation. Habits can also help you. Most of us have little rituals of one kind or other when we start a writing session. Why not note them, and start evolving them into something to work for you?
For instance, right now I'm out of the habit of exercising before writing. I used to do it when my office was in a different place - and it was like magic. I'd play music -- usually something which had a thematic association with the story I was working on -- and I'd exercise to it, and pretty soon my mind was racing off into the story. I wouldn't even finish the exercise session. I'd be typing madly before the song was done sometiems.
But that ritual made me eager for the exercise, and I not only wrote a novel in a month, I also lost 15 pounds while doing it.
In the old days, people used to sharpen pencils and straighten their paper and read through some of yesterday's writing at the start of a writing session. Maybe make a cup of coffee or tea. This little ritual stalled the process just long enough to get the mind in the mood.
Most writers now days don't sharpen pencils. We check our email, and then our stats, and Twitter, and the forums, and.... These things are not good rituals. They lead us away from writing rather than toward it. You can cycle through it all day long and never stop. If you're addicted to that, you may have to unplug for the duration of your writing session.
But if it's just a habit, maybe you can replace that habit. Create a ritual which transitions you into writing. Make it a PHYSICAL ritual -- honest, they work best. Physical actions get onto the illogical part of the brain. Smoking, exercising, sharpening pencils. Or physically moving your location. Creating a snack or doing tai chi. Reciting the Gettysburg Address to your cats.
Find something to do before or during each concentrated writing session, and you will be able to short cut your brain into the right mode by simply doing that thing.
Just make sure it's something you'll want to keep doing, or you could end up like my screenwriting teacher -- stuck with a bad habit forever.
Camille LaGuire writes mystery and adventure fiction, and blogs about her writing process at The Daring Novelist. http://daringnovelist.blogspot.com/