How do you start writing?

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When you sit down to write, how much time do you give yourself to practice? I mean the off-record stuff: writing exercises and warm ups.

Now think of the way dancers or musicians interact with their art. The performance, the finished piece, is the culmination of hours of practice: boring warm ups, weird experiments, and repetitive rehearsals.

When is your writing rehearsal?

Be honest: are you the kind of writer who feels like writing exercises are a waste of time? When you sit down to write, do you always feel you should focus and work on your story?

Your story is important. Finishing it is important. The workshop — the critique and feedback — this is important, too.

But it is not of primary importance. Your finished work is simply the performance piece of your writing life.

There is so much more to your writing than the finished piece.

If you are:

  • learning about your voice and style,

  • writing and compiling stories for your first book, or

  • starting a new writing project

… you need to make time for practice.

It will feel unproductive. Maybe you even have a voice in your head that tells you that writing exercises are counter-productive, and you always skip them to get to your “real” writing.

Do musicians have this problem? Do dancers ever feel that they’re wasting their time when they warm up?

Look, writing practice isn’t going to check anything off your to-do list.

But your to-do list is not your art.


Here's why you should practice with warm-ups and writing exercises:

  • It shows you how to recognize your resistance as resistance. This is crucial, because if you don’t recognize it for what it is, then you won’t write very often. Or you’ll push yourself and suffer through writing in an ugly way.

  • You’ll know what a certain discomfort feels like in your body when you write something that feels honest. You’ll do this over and over again in your practice, and learn how it feels different when you write stereotypes and clichés. So even though it’s always going to be challenging, you become more familiar with the feeling of writing what feels real.

  • You’ll be surprised by your own writing. You’ll learn things about your characters, your sentences, and your stories that you didn’t expect. You’ll find delight and pleasure in your creative life.

  • You get better at it. Good writers are writers who practice writing.

It’s obvious, right?

So why do writers think that their art form is special and different and that it doesn’t require practice?

For the love of all things, please don’t skip the writing exercises. Just do them, okay? Practice. It’s actually how we learn how to do what we want to do. At any level.


Tutorial: How to write with attention and humility

Here is an exercise to help you get humble. It’s a warm-up. It makes a stunning daily practice. Try this before you start working on your “real” writing.

At a retreat some time ago, I asked my writers to start by writing down a list of ten things they noticed that day so far. Then each writer would read one or two observations to the whole group.

One day, a writer wrote, “The dark hole in the wall.”

She read this tiny plain observation out loud, and a palpable ripple passed through all of us. Because that dark hole, when it was observed purely and written without any mediation or explanation, existed in the air around us. We could feel it when she read it.

It was real.

The moss on the edge of that piece of wood, for instance. It’s meaningful, all by itself. A thread hanging off that boy’s sock — it’s important already. That slice of pear in your salad today? It has a significance all on its own. You don’t need to articulate meaning — just notice what it really is.


Do this:

Write down ten things that you noticed today so far.

If you write in the morning before you do anything else, don’t worry. Even if it’s only 4am, I promise you have noticed ten things already.

Be plain. Write plainly.

Don’t explain anything.

Don’t mediate your observation by writing what you think about it – just write it.

Don’t use metaphors. Don’t over-describe.

Don’t put any meaning into it.

Just write the thing you noticed.

Then write another thing.

Do this ten times.

This is showing, not telling. Try it. It can be surprisingly difficult at first — that’s part of the craft. That’s why it makes such a good compass when you’re in a first draft.

Your quiet, humble attention is the one thing you can count on.


This is how we start every session of the live writing practice classes I host. We write down our 10 things, then I call on two or three people to share them. These noticings wake up the class. They open us up, and get us ready for the rest of the 90 minutes of writing together.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you see “practice” happening in your writing? What does it mean to you, and how do you justify taking time to warm up? What happens if you don’t practice?

Share your stories, please, in the comments below.

xo,

Sarah Selecky



Important news about the Story Intensive!
WOO! Practicing the future together.

11 comments

Stephen D. Forman

Sarah, a few things: 1) I'm not writing much at length now, or investing time editing, yet I'd count these last few months as some of the most creatively fertile of my life. Every day, all day, I'm returning to my "story ideas" file or "Notes" app to store concepts, newly-minted words, character names, turns of phrase, or observations. Someday I'll pluck a winning ticket out of this pile, or maybe never. 2) I never feel as if writing practice (in the form of your 10-minute Writing Prompts, mostly) is a waste, or anything other than productive-- even if I dislike the "finished" product or come away with little to show for my time. On the contrary, I describe it *as* writing ("Honey, if you need me, I'll be in the den writing.") A single 10-minute exercise, which may be all that I set aside for the day, is enough for me to say, "I wrote today." 3) I will definitely take a swing at the "10 observations." One of my biggest breakthroughs during the Story Intensive came from your instruction on "mediation," a concept I frequently forget to remember. In fact, one evening recently, as I sat in my easy chair with notebook and pen in hand, my eyes wandered the room and I gave myself a challenge on the spot: pick 3 objects and describe them using as few words as possible. What's the essence of this lamp? I can surely describe it in 1,000 words... but which handful would I use that would allow someone on the other side of the world to experience it the way I am now? But as I re-evaluate this exercise today, I think I was mediating again-- placing *myself* between the reader and the lamp, using metaphor as shorthand. I'm not so sure... it's heady stuff. Thanks! Stephen
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Christine Colorado

very insightful. I never thought of looking at it this way, thank you for sharing.
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Carolyn McBride

I admit I am one of those who never gave any thought to writing warm-ups. I also admit to a lack of writing consistency. No warm-ups and I binge/starve myself for writing time, and I'm sure this affects my quality of work. I need an intervention maybe? Commitment? I don't know. But I will start with writing down ten things I noticed today and see where I go from there. Thank you for this.
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Elizabeth Westra

I always carry a small notebook with me so if I get an idea I can write it down. Often I look there for ideas or to inspire me. Sometime there's nothing there. Then I stop writing for a time. I like this idea, because I often notice things around me but then don't know what to do with it. Maybe noticing it is enough. What do you think?
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Ursula G. Kurth

This is a fascinating process! And challenging! My first try and my mind kept trying to make me doubt my noticing and telling me "oh that's not good enough" What?!!!! Unbelievable! Going for 10 noticings, I found much I would normally overlook. My list of 10: The spruce needle in the moss wall. A worn candy wrapper in my purse. A small tear at the top of a post-it note. A tilting Tour d'Eiffel magnet. The bowing Anthurium flower. A single sheet of paper on the granite counter top. A toppled mini dancing Ganesha statue. Index cards leaning against a wall. A tiny white feather in a pinecone. Light play in a glass of water. I'm at my office desk at work. Everything seems so much more present and alive, now, including me! I can see and feel the value of this practice. Thank you for sharing this with us! :-)
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Sarah Selecky

Hello Elizabeth! Here's what I think -- the state of mind we're in when we are noticing things (attentive, open, curious, present) is a more fertile place for our ideas, anyway. So simply noticing is more potent than we think it is. And taking the time to write down what we notice is more than enough. <3
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you Diana! I will. xx S
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Sarah Selecky

Christine, you're most welcome. I'm glad it rings true for you.
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Ursula! So great to notice the little voice that talks to you as you do this exercise. Your list is so beautiful! It feels alive and real! The more you do this, and simultaneously noticing the critical voice as you write, the more ease you will feel as you approach your longer work, too. Brilliant.
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What I am looking at now: My running shoes in front of the fire. I loved this post. Please share more!
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Cindy Bahl

This is brilliant and needed to be said. I know that I've read somewhere else about you suggesting writers do this. But had completely forgotten about the advice until I read this post. I'm guilting of this, not doing any warmups. Maybe because I felt like that was writing time I 'should'' be putting towards and project and a warmup was allowing myself to just write for fun or whatever? I'm not sure. But your explanation of why it helps to have this practice helps me understand it so much better. And allows me to justify taking the time to do it before I dive into a deep writing session. As always, you have some of the most amazing writing advice I've ever read. Thank you for an incredibly helpful post. I'm printing it out, saving it, and will put it on my calendar to re-read every week... until this practice becomes automatic for me. Thanks again!
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