honoring our own rhythms: daily writing practice

Here is my second morning of getting up first thing and blogging — a new daily writing practice for me. Usually my daily writing practice looks like this: wake up, make some peppermint or ginger tea or some decaf coffee, grab my notebook (now edged with coffee stains after I put my coffee mug into my bag before it was entirely empty), light a candle (if it’s still dark; that’s mostly in the winter) and settle into one of three spaces in this new house: a corner of the couch, the straight-backed chair in the living room, or one of the decimated ironwork chairs out on the little patio that were left for us when we moved in. That last has been especially exciting since we moved from Oakland — given where we lived, right on Lakeshore, across from Lake Merritt, there wasn’t really space for me to sit outside my home and be in some quiet.

Here, though, I can sit out in the back, and maybe the baby next door is awake and I can hear hear shouts, how she’s testing her voice, how she’s learning the indelible strength of her lungs, and I can hold hope for her that she never has cause in her life to unlearn that knowledge, and maybe there are car doors now and again slamming shut as folks get in to go to work, or stop at the cafe across the street for their breakfast and coffee, and maybe I am up late enough that the guys across the street at the concrete place have opened their screechy roll-up door, have started shouting across to each other what is getting loaded up to go where, maybe one of the workers has rumbled up on his Harley, but otherwise, what I hear are birds. And there are moments of quiet in amid those. I hear the mourning doves and the jays, but more it’s the other birds, the quieter, songier ones, whose names I don’t know yet. Part of this writing, maybe, is an impetus to learn their names.

Mostly, over the last year or more, my daily writing practice has been just to write three pages, Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” three pages, freehand and freewritten, filled with whatever free association comes to mind. A kind of post-dream-time core dump, just getting whatever wants to get out on the page, out onto the page. (often it’s relationship processing, a place to spin out whatever I’m struggling with just to take a closer look, or feel I’m getting a full hearing somewhere.) Sometimes I would feel like I was getting into some “useful” writing, like, writing I felt I’d be able to use elsewhere, in a blog post or review or workshop, but more often than not, those three morning pages were only useful for my crazy head, a place to get the rattling thoughts out. I like the ritual of it, and by that I mean regular practice, and a sense that inherent in that regular practice was some devotion to self and space. In those three pages, I could get spacious. (I could forget that, really, all I had time for was three pages, written fast fast, before I snapped the notebook closed, tossed it back at my shoulder bag, rinsed out my coffee cup (or, more often, took the still-undrunk coffee or tea with me into the bathroom), and started getting ready for my workday.)

For me, this regular practice of morning writing is a way to reaffirm my dedication to writing — a saying to writing, “my first and best breaths are still yours.” Early morning is my favorite time to be awake and writing; I’m happiest when I can be at the notebook well before the sun is up. Of course, that means I have to be in bed, and actually sleeping, fairly early, which my usual work day doesn’t accommodate. Still.

Someone asked, at the Healing Art of Writing conference, one of the participants, she asked how one develops a writing practice, how one gets in the habit of writing. She’s new to writing, and she wants to do it right. She’s heard, maybe, that the way you become a writer is you write every day, no matter what. I understood what she was asking: how do you get to this place where you’re a real writer, where you can actually do this thing?

Jane Hirshfield responded to this question, and talked about her own writing practice: she doesn’t especially have one — well, not one that looks regular and regimented, anyway. She said that she writes when she’s drawn to write, and when she is not drawn to write, she doesn’t force herself: when she tries to force writing that’s not ready to come, the writing’s not good, doesn’t work for her at all. Amid all the voices telling new writers that they must make space for writing every day, I’m grateful for Hirshfield’s example, her reminder that, as creative folks living creative lives, we get to learn and honor our own rhythms, trust how the words want to flow in/through us, and make our lives work in that direction.

It was about 1993 when I started writing, journaling, again regularly (and honestly I don’t differentiate between writing and journaling — it’s the same instigatory practice for me.) I wrote, then, because I missed writing, because I’d tucked it away, that drive and urge, in deference to my stepfather’s ridicule, and had focused on computer science and other more “realistic” skills/studies. In 1993, I was beginning, slowly, to break away from my family and from my stepfather’s control, and I went back to my notebooks, in part because that was the very and only safest place to tell my whole story (even though he was over a thousand miles away, I didn’t trust, for quite awhile, that he didn’t have tentacles of control into my entire friendship network, into my therapist’s office). The notebook was the only safe place for me to be. And I wanted there to be a record of what I’d experienced, what I’d done and what had been done to me. The notebook was a place for me to rage, to ask the questions no one had answers to, to say, exactly, all the secrets that his abuse had force fed me.

I started read books about writing; I read William Stafford, read Natalie Goldberg, and understood that I needed to do this thing, this sitting down with the notebook thing, on a regular basis, a daily basis if I could manage it. I liked the idea that, when the muse came knocking on my heart door, there would be a time and a place when I could let hir flow through me onto the page, because I had practiced, I had honed my skill. Also, I needed my writing self to know that I was back, that I recognized and honored her, that I was ready for her to reemerge.

So being at the notebook in the morning, each time, is a returning to that place of presence and safety, a returning to that place of nonjudgement and discipline, that place of structure and freedom.

It’s not necessary to write every day in order to call yourself a writer — your writing rhythms might call for something different. You might work better in the slow energy of the afternoon, or the quickening of first dark. You might prefer just to write on weekend mornings, if you don’t do other work on the weekends, in order to have hours free and stretched out and open for your words. You might prefer not to have any set schedule at all, instead just following the pull of your urge, waiting for some writing to push hard against the insides of your fingers, needing you to set it free into the world.

Whatever it is, your rhythm, keep listening and feeling it, honoring. That’s another part of this practice, for me: listening to self. Especially for those of us who’ve been trained away from attending to our deep selves, our own rhythms and intuitions, that’s one of the best parts of practice — re-hearing our true selves, and attending to what we hear.

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