Four ways to boost your writing skills when you don’t have time (or willingness) to write

I don’t like going to the gym, but I love being active. At this time of year, my main “arms” exercise is carrying logs for my wood stove. You’d be surprised how even a focused burst of activity every two days can build muscle.

Similarly, I don’t love sitting down to write for long stretches, but I love short bursts (in praise of Pomodoros!) and I love having written. The practice of writing is like strengthening a muscle. There are plenty of ways you can strengthen that muscle that don’t include sitting down with a pen and paper or opening your laptop on a dark morning.

Just as you can incorporate mini exercises into your day, you can incorporate these four methods of writing support so you’re ready when it’s actually time to write.

  • Practice mindfulness. It was -5 when I got up this morning. The lawn was covered with white frost, the water in my cat’s bowl was frozen, and leaves were falling with the sound of breaking glass. I know all this because I paid attention. If I want to write about what late autumn is like on a small island in the Salish Sea, I have this bank of details. Kerri Twigg teaches everyday mindfulness (follow her for excellent tips). She and I are teaching a workshop on Dec 3 on “holding space for creative expression” that includes writing and mindfulness…info and registration.
  • Look to common knowledge. We used to know a lot more than we do. Not better or worse, just different. How to garden and farm; how to sew and can; how to perform basic mechanical upgrades. We’ve lost a lot of this knowledge that used to be passed between generations. But because it is so ingrained in us, my experience is that learning these older skills feels like accessing a deeper, familiar part of myself. It’s like suddenly knowing and re-learning what I’ve forgotten, filling gaps in my own narrative. My story of being here becomes stronger, and I can take that deep knowledge and comfort to the page.
  • Allow deep dives. When I was a teenager, I *loved* doing deep dives into topics that interested me. The 1920s film star Louise Brooks, earthquakes, Richard Linklater’s films…at certain points in time, I was an expert on all of these subjects. Writing rewards such deep dives. Allow your curiosity to drive you…even though it makes little sense to know a lot about a long-dead movie star, I love knowing the details, and this buried knowledge often resurfaces in my writing.
  • Keep a diary (of any form). The cartoonist Lynda Barry writes on the benefits of keeping a diary of what you did, saw, and overheard. I advise keeping this diary on paper, but you can also keep an audio diary or a Google Doc open…whatever works for you. The point is to notice and to single out the details. That weird scrap of dialogue you overheard in the grocery store might make it into your next story.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: