Guest Entry: Setting Yourself Up To Write

Artwork by Randy Gallegos. Mazemind Tomes

I have been spending a lot of time on my phone lately, especially in the mornings. I’ll find that it’s just in arm’s reach as I wake up, so I’ll unlock it and check various social media platforms for messages and news. I’ll check my sub box on YouTube, I’ll watch a pair of hands build a pizza oven on Facebook, and I’ll go back to any social media platform I’ve already checked and see if anything new has been posted, then I’ll end up back on YouTube. I’ll usually do this for an hour or two before getting out of bed and getting on with my day but, what I’m saying is this — I’m really, really good at being on my phone in the morning. I do it with stunning regularity, I remain keenly focused as I do it, and I maintain this focus for a long, long period of time.

               Part of me hates that I do this. I wish I were spending the time doing more productive things, or catching up with facets of my life that I’ve started to let slip away. In spite of that, I will still spend an inordinate amount of time on my phone in the mornings. It follows then, that I ask myself why on Earth I would do this. The answer I’ve arrived to is pretty simple — I’ve conditioned myself to do so.

               I’ve primed my brain to expect one to two hours of phone screen-time every morning before regular function begins and so, it drives me to do exactly that. Here’s what’s even more powerful though than this expectation — it’s convenient. Before I go to bed, I plug my phone in to charge so it’s fully charged every morning, and it’s always left within arm’s reach. Mind, none of this was done intentionally, it just kind of happened, and now I’ve gotten VERY good at spending the early hours of my day on my phone.

Even worse than the convenience and the conditioning though — I’ve set myself up with inexhaustible stimuli. Across various platforms, I’ve subscribed to content creators who provide and constant stream of information, I’ve wound up in loads of group chats that always have messages and conversations I can dredge through, and I’ve become invested in loads of specific and niche subjects which provide me even more information to process. I can spend the morning looking at new stretches to build a routine around, new vocal exercises to work out weak spots in my singing, and weird, low-percentage optimizations I can make to my World of Warcraft characters.

So, what does this all have to do with writing? Well, I hold one belief very dearly and it’s that every experience can be instructive, in some way. Naturally, this is not to say that every experience is inherently instructive or that it need be instructive — it just speaks to a deep-seated desire within me to understand the unintentional motions of my life, so far as my patience can withstand the effort thereof. It stands to reason then; in the same way I have set up a foundation, a ritual, and environment which drive me to spend time on my phone, so too can I set up a foundation, a ritual, and environment which drives me to write. And so too can anyone, really.

If we break down the phone example to its simplest terms, it is a combination of the following processes:

  1. Convenience
  2. Habituation
  3. Stimulus (Inspiration)

These terms are really interchangeable with the ones used in the prior paragraph, though I do find them more universally applicable and useful for this example, so I’ll be using them moving forward.

Now, let’s apply this theory to writing and see what we can come up with. You will likely have heard this example mentioned before – have a notebook handy, and write down anything that comes to mind. I’ve come to understand this suggestion as one of maximising convenience – the less effort it requires to do something, the likelier you will be to do it. If you have a great idea for a novel or a character, you are much more likely to write it down if you have materials handy, rather than if you had to exert any amount of effort to do so. I take notes on my phone whenever something like this happens, wherever it might come up. Then, every few weeks, I consolidate my notes in a file on my desktop, and take care to back it up somewhere else, either on paper or on a different device or online. In terms of convenience, I think this is all that needs to be done. Your ideas will become more constant and durable, and you’ll have established an immediate proximity to ideas which you are personally interested in. Remember – your inspiration is only fleeting so long as you do not keep a record of it.

Next, let’s figure out our habituation. If you’ve never heard of a concept of ‘sleep hygiene’ before, now would be a good time to explain it. In short, sleep hygiene asks us to consider our beds as places for sleeping and (for the most part) nothing else. That means no food in bed, no phone, no TV, no games, no reading. Nothing besides sleep. This correlates the act of being in bed more exclusively to being asleep, and makes the whole process of falling asleep and sleeping well an easier and more successful one. Sleep hygiene operates under the assumption that the fewer activities correlate to a location, the more consistently, habitually, effortlessly you will perform those activities in that location. So – find a place in your home that you rarely go to, set up an environment you can write in, and do nothing in that location besides writing. Whenever you want to write, go to that place with the intent to write, and the more likely you will be to remain focused and not become distracted. Better yet, set up a time of day in which you put yourself in that location, even if you do not want to write, and write anything at all. Even if what you write is utter tripe, you will have worked on developing the habit of writing. Correlating both a location and a time with writing will make it much easier to write when both conditions are met, even if you’ve nothing to write about.

If you’d like a glimpse into my own routine, it is as follows: I bring my laptop to a room on the other side of the house, alongside a pair of headphones, a bottle of water, and a cup of tea. I sit opposite a fireplace, which I will kindle before I start writing. I bring my headphones along with me, and take care to listen to music I’ve either never listened to before, or have listened to only while I have been writing. The combination of a same location, familiar music, and the smell of the smoke all prompt my brain to return to the state in which I am most productive writing. They are like breadcrumbs, and it is much easier to find my way out of the woods if I follow them.

Finally, let’s sort out our stimulus – our inspiration. I can guarantee that I’d be spending less time on my phone had I access to fewer social media platforms, fewer content creators, or fewer group chats. The access to all of these stimuli means that I can commit a significantly larger portion of time to the act of being on my phone, as the novelty, breadth, and depth of what I can access increases. Let me put it this way — if you’ve been shut in over the last few months, you may have been finding it harder to write. I believe this to be the result of a narrowing of available stimulus, with novel and varied experiences reducing in number. We criticize writers who tread the same ground again and again, and the reason for this is simple — it’s boring. We find it hard then, to write about anything at all if our immediate stimulus has become that familiar ground, trodden day in and day out in the exact same way every single day. The suggestion is as follows — cultivate the eye of a keen observer within yourself, taking care to notice anything and everything you see which you feel is remarkable or meaningful, even in the smallest of ways. I have made a habit out of going to the city every few weeks on my own such that I can gather stimulus which proves inspirational or striking. Just the other week, I saw a pitch-black tarp floating over the top of murky green water as if it were some skin slowly coalescing across the surface, I saw a thick rope tied to a bridge-railing and leading to somewhere unknown and out of sight beneath the bridge. I saw a couple with a stroller taking pictures of a valley as they stood on a thin metal walkway above a deep valley. I saw a Christmas display in the window of a travel agency adorned with wooden cherubs who moved up and down mechanically on a system of strings, their eyes painted on and empty. These discoveries were organic, unexpected, unfamiliar, and novel. Had I not been paying attention to them, I would have walked past and kept treading the same ground I have trodden every day – I would have been bored.

Currently, I’m working on a Master’s in Creative Writing and Publishing. I’ve been asked to have work written to present every Wednesday, every week, for a few months now. What’s written above has helped me hugely in keeping up the creative drive to fulfill the workload put forward by my university. I hope that any of It is helpful for anyone out there struggling with writer’s block, or just having trouble sitting down and putting their ideas to paper. In the spirit of practicing what I preach, tonight I will leave my phone in a different room and let the battery die.

~Igor Bunjevac, Igor Bunjevac

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