I have also prepared my own list of rules for my students. My list isn’t in any way a presumption of expertise and is offered only as evidence of experience. I tend to teach by example. These habits have worked for me and I want my students to use them to cultivate the practice of writing.
1. Write every day. This is a cliché, of course, but you will write more when you tell yourself that no day must pass without writing. At the back of a notebook I use in my writing class, I write down the date and then make a mark next to it after the day’s work is done. I show the page to my students often, partly to motivate them, and partly to remind myself that I can’t let my students down.
2. Have a modest goal. Aim to write 150 words each day. It is very difficult for me to find time on some days, and it is only this low demand that really makes it even possible to sit down and write. On better days, this goal is just a start; often, I end up writing more.
3. Try to write at the same time each day. I recently read a Toni Morrison interview in which she said: ’I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best, creatively.’1 It works best for me if I write at the same time each day—in my case, that hour or two that I get between the time I drop off my kids at school and go in to teach. I have my breakfast and walk up to my study with my coffee. In a wonderful little piece published on the New Yorker blog, Page Turner, the writer Roxana Robinson writes how she drinks coffee quickly and sits down to write—no fooling around reading the paper, or checking the news, or making calls to friends or trying to find out if the plumber is coming: ‘One call and I’m done for. Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write.’ I read Robinson’s piece in January 2013, and alas, I have thought of it nearly every day since.
4. Turn off the Internet. The Web is a great resource and entirely unavoidable, but it will help you focus when you buy the Freedom app. Using a device like this not only rescues me from easy distraction, it also works as a timer. When you click on the icon, it asks you to choose the duration for which you want the computer to not have access to the Net. I choose sixty minutes, and this also helps me keep count of how long I have sat at my computer.
5. Walk for ten minutes. Or better yet, go running. If you do not exercise regularly, you will not write regularly. Or not for long. I haven’t been good at doing this, and have paid the price with trouble in my back.
6. A bookshelf of your own. Choose one book, or five, but no more than ten, to guide you, not with research necessarily, but with the critical matter of method or style. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself who are the writers, or scholars, or artists that you are in conversation with. I use this question to help arrive at my own subject matter, but it also helps with voice.
7. Get rid of it if it sounds like grant talk. I don’t know about you, but I routinely produce dead prose when I’m applying for a grant. The language used in applications must be abhorred. Stilted language, jargon, etc. I’m sure there is a psychological or sociological paper to be written about the syntax and tone common in such things—the appeal to power, lack of freedom—but in my case it might just be because, with the arrival of an application deadline, millions of my brain cells get busy committing mass suicide.
8. Learn to say no. The friendly editor who asks for a review or an essay. Even the friend who is editing an anthology. Say no if it takes you away from the writing you want to do. My children are small and don’t take no for an answer, but everyone who is older is pretty understanding. And if they’re understanding, they’ll know that for you occasional drinks or dinner together are more acceptable distractions.
9. Finish one thing before taking up another. Keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas for any future book, but complete the one you are working on first. This rule has been useful to me. I followed it after seeing it on top of the list of Henry Miller’s ‘Commandments’. It has been more difficult to follow another of Miller’s rules: ’Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
10. The above rule needs to be repeated. I have done shocking little work when I have tried to write two books at once. Half- finished projects seek the company of their own and are bad for morale. Shut off the inner editor and complete the task at hand.
Excerpted with permission from Writing Badly is Easy by Amitava Kumar, Aleph Book Company.