“Writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they are quite different than people who must.” Harper Lee
When people ask me to describe my writing process – aka what is my writing discipline – my response is that I am consistently inconsistent. I have taught myself how to be a disciplined writer within the chaos that is my life.
Indeed, I called myself a writer before I honed my discipline. Today, I know and feel that I must write, as the great Harper Lee suggests. I must read and write every day. (A writer must read too. Period.) I have taught myself how to pay attention to the need in my heart to write. I have taught myself how to stop what I’m doing to write that line or stanza down even if it means pulling the car over on the side of the road or yanking my soap-soaked hands out of the dishwater. I have always felt the need to read and write, but it has taken years of practice to learn how to train my thoughts and therefore take action to actually stop everything so I can write (or read).
I am a mother of two human children and two furry children (Golden Retrievers). I am a wife and I have a job that I go to three days a week. We love watching films and we are busy with extra-curricular events. I don’t like the word ‘busy’, but it does the job in describing our family life.
I’ll be forty in May and it has truly taken twenty years for me to teach myself – through practiced discipline – how to include reading and writing into my life every day. For me, to meet my writing needs, I want to write every day. Perhaps that’s not what works for you. Maybe you’ve taught yourself the discipline of writing every other day or only on weekends. Whatever the case, I bet if we chatted about it; you’d tell me that it took some time for you to have figured this disciplined practice out.
THE FIRST TWENTY
How Long It Takes To Learn Discipline – Twenty Years
I’ve been writing in a journal since I was nine years old. As a child and into my teens and early twenties, my disciplined writing practice was writing in my journal. I also did loads of writing for school. When I was in university, I wrote for the paper, and I was beginning to dabble in submissions for literary mags and contests. I was not aware that I was building the discipline of writing every day through the vein of journaling. In fact, I felt like I never had enough time to write what I wanted – poetry, stories, novels, screenplays. I didn’t ‘count’ writing in a journal as practiced discipline. I didn’t count all the research and time given to writing papers and articles. My ‘thoughts’ weren’t kind and I felt like Time was an enemy.
It wasn’t until I had my first child that I began to re-write the story in my mind that ‘I didn’t have enough time’. Because, for REAL, I didn’t have time to do anything but be a mom! My body and mind’s energies were needed to care for our sweet son. But – it was hard because that need to write didn’t stop. It took me a solid two years to heal my body after childbirth (I got quite sick), and pay attention to the pockets of time that eventually showed up for me to ‘fit in’ writing.
I had to learn to embrace the small pockets of time when my son was sleeping or with the hubby, and use that time to write. There was no waiting for inspiration or following the music of the muse. There was only ‘you can write now, are you going to?’ Incredibly, it seemed that the most amount of solid writing time that existed came in twenty-minute chunks.
THE SECOND TWENTY
Twenty-minute Writing – The Practice of Timed Writing
Even if my son was napping for longer than twenty minutes, the reality of the situation was that there were always ‘other things’ that needed to be done during his nap and/or I needed to decompress, get my writing tools out and working, and then sit to write. I was freelancing at the time, and I had interviews to conduct and articles to write. I had to learn to clear my mind, clear the dining room table and make myself write in small amounts of time. Throughout the day, I wrote in short-bursts, and eventually, I was able to write and complete projects, make deadlines, and satiate my need to write.
I was still writing in my journal, and finally beginning to be grateful for this practice I’d taught myself over the years. Writing in my journal became a sacred practice that helped me change my thought processes around Time and creativity. However, there was one big mountain to climb that affected my ability to be in the moment and actually enjoy writing or reading or breastfeeding or sleeping – or whatever it was I was doing. Ah yes, the rugged Mountain of Guilt.
I felt guilty for not mothering when I was writing. I felt guilty for not writing when I was mothering. I felt guilty for not reading when I was doing laundry. I felt guilty for not resting when I was reading. I felt guilty for everything I wasn’t doing whenever I was doing something. It. Was. Awful.
Then I got pregnant again. Yay! I knew that life was going to change again. I knew that I would need to hone the practice of being in the moment without guilt.
THE THIRD TWENTY
Twenty-minute Meditation – The Practice of Guilt-Free Nows
It’s funny how incredible writing makes me feel. I can get inspired, exhausted, enraged, peaceful, grateful, excited…all the emotions when I write. And I can feel elated or exhausted when I’m done a writing session. The act of writing should be guilt-free in order for the writing to be done well. This takes practice. I’d learned how to do that over the years. But, I was only getting ‘filled up’ through my writing in short chunks of time and I needed to figure out how to find a similar ‘peace’ whilst I was doing other things.
Like washing dishes or folding laundry – the domestic things. Or playing a game with the kids or nursing. I wanted my brain to be quiet when I was doing whatever I was doing. This was really hard but what was harder was constantly being sad or frustrated or feeling ‘not good enough’ because of guilt. So I began practicing clearing my mind while I was doing domestic things. Like when doing dishes, which on average takes about twenty minutes (we don’t have a dishwasher) or longer, I focused on listening to music and singing along or looking out the window and watching the leaves shiver. I began listening to the thoughts in my brain and slowly quieting most or all of them. This is a type of meditation. Yes, sitting cross-legged on a colourful pillow and smelling incense burning as I hum ‘saatttaaanaaamm’ is also a form of meditation I practice, but it’s not the type of meditation I do consistently.
I decided to take the things I already do, and practice the art of meditation as I do them. All to weaken the strength of guilt and the nasty voices in my head that try to steal my nows. I began to feel like I was constantly in my head. It’s a divine place the ‘brain’ – the castle of our thoughts. It’s also the castle where are characters live, our stanzas and our plots. I was feeling out of balance. I needed to get back into my body.
THE FOURTH TWENTY
Twenty-minute Body Blitz – The Practice of Physical Fitness
For a few years, I made time to train for short triathlons. I made time to run, bike, and swim. I made time to go to a gym and heave weights in a body pump class. Group exercise was a perfect way for me to get back in my body. But it was too much. It was taking a lot of time, and even though it made my body feel strong, the guilt was stronger. My body changed after I had my first child, and even more after my second. Then when I hit 34, it was like some switch went off inside and my body felt age. That was nearly six years ago, and I am very aware of my body’s need for gentle fitness. As I continued to practice writing in short bursts, I felt like my body needed to same discipline.
Now I walk or do yoga or stretch for short periods of time. Twenty minutes is a great amount of time to get my energy flowing. I pay attention to my joints and my posture, and to the constantly shifting creaks and cracks that are the norm in my body.
Many writers I know swear by walking or swimming or doing something physical as part of their writing discipline. It keeps their mind-body health in balance, and it always helps their creative output. Twenty-minutes – that’s all it takes.
THE FIFTH TWENTY
Twenty-minute Naps – The Practice of Short Sleeps
This is a skill I’ve yet to master with discipline. I was recently at a three-day writing retreat and my writing partner included yoga, walking and napping into our daily schedule. I don’t nap. Can you believe this was the part of the retreat that was stressing me out? I wasn’t sure if my body would be able to stop and sleep. Oh, did I have nothing to worry about! We napped for twenty minutes the first afternoon. I got fully into bed! I even took off my bra! I put my head to the pillow, closed my eyes – and fell fast asleep. Who knew?! The second day, it was a bit harder to fall asleep so I put some music on. We slept for about thirty minutes. The third day, I was anxious about finishing the retreat (I didn’t want it to end!), so it was really difficult to fall asleep. I just kept my eyes closed and let my body lead the way. We slept for twenty-five minutes.
My writing partner swears by napping every day as part of her writing discipline. It was amazing to experience this part of her process. Alas, I haven’t napped since our retreat! I’ve thought about it, but my Guilt Mountain seems to block me, and the thought to nap smacks into it with a ‘not-today’ bang.
When someone asks ‘what’s your twenty?’ what they’re asking is ‘where are you?’ Where are you when it comes to writing discipline? Have you figured out that you write best in the early morning before the birds are awake? Or are you a night owl writer? Is your day job long and exhausting so you write on the weekends only? Have you learned the practice of quieting your thoughts and crushing the Guilt Mountain? Are there twenty-minute muses you use as part of your writing discipline? How does discipline support your ‘must’-ness to write?
The discipline that I have been practicing over the years has had to bend and re-shape to: the amount of time I have to write each day, the strength of my thoughts to be in the ‘nows,’ and to the ability of my mind and body to be in balance. So while currently I have more than twenty-minutes a day to write, I still use the twenty-minute muses as part of my writing discipline. There is no way around writing and reading when it is a need like breathing. That’s what it’s like for me. I need to write like I need to breathe. And my writing practice is disciplined to meet this need.
Vanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. Her book Look at Her (Black Moss Press) was released in the fall of 2016. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. For all things Vanessa, visit her websitewww.vanessashields.com.