Turn writing from a dream into a habit

By Geof Miller and Troy Hunter

Writer’s block: the epic struggle with the blank page.  The writer sits at the typewriter in despair, a wastebasket overflowing with crumpled-up pages.  Writer’s block sucks.  Of course, there’s an even more insidious ailment for aspiring writers.  It called “not writing.”

You can banish writer’s block and not-writing.  You can fill a blank page with useful material—scenes, treatments, character bios—anytime, anyplace.  You can turn your writing on like you turn on a light switch.  What is this miracle?  Psychotherapy?  Hypnosis?  Bourbon?  Nope, it’s this:

Digital kitchen timer

Digital kitchen timer.  $12.99 at Walgreens.  Keep it in your messenger bag or briefcase or whatever you haul your stuff around in.  Oh, and a spare set of batteries.

In a second, we’ll see how to use the timer but first, a bit of history.

Writing practice is a technique pioneered by Natalie Goldberg in her seminal book, Writing Down the BonesJack Remick and Robert Ray are two Seattle-based writers and teachers who make an annual pilgrimage (their words) to attend one of Natalie’s workshops in Taos, New Mexico.  They use writing practice in their writing classes, including those at the UW Extension, where we taught screenwriting.  We learned writing practice from them, used it in our own class and with our own writing.

There are three rules of writing practice:

  • Pen/pencil and paper only, no keyboards.
  • Do not stop writing.
  • No cross-outs or other edits.

That’s it.  Let’s see how it works.

  1. Think of a start line.  Start lines help guide the writing to come.  Here’s some common and useful start lines, but you can (and should) make up your own as needed:
    • The story I am writing is about…
    • The scene I am writing is about…
    • In the scene I am writing, the thing Stanley wants is…
    • In the scene I am writing, the thing Stella is afraid of is…
    • The problem with this scene is…
  2. Get your pen/pencil and paper.  Keyboards don’t work for this.  As Jack and Bob say, you need the flow of your hand across the page to release your mind.
  3. Set your timer.  Start with 4 minutes—it’s a nice, all-purpose length of time.  In a later posting, we’ll look at variations on the basic technique, including different time spans.
  4. Start your timer.  Immediately write down your start line—and keep writing.  Do not stop writing down words even for a second, until the timer beeps “done.”  If you don’t know what to write you can write, “I don’t know what to write.”  If you hate writing practice you can write, “I hate writing practice.”  If you want to kill us for inflicting this on you, you can write, “I’m gonna kill Geof and Troy.”  It doesn’t matter.  Just keep writing.  Do not stop for anything.  If the phone is ringing, if you just got a new Tweet, if the house is burning down, it’ll wait four minutes.
  5. When the timer beeps, stop writing.  Read what you just wrote.  Take the useful parts and edit as needed.

Do this whenever you can.  In your home office trying to write?  Writing practice gets your mind into the writing space.  Stuck on how to start a scene?  Writing practice helps you drill down on the fundamentals of the scene, fast.  Waiting in the car while your spouse/friend/kid runs into 7-Eleven for a Slurpee?  Get out your stuff and write for 5 minutes.  Anytime, anywhere, writing practice helps you turn writing from a dream into a habit.

How does it work?

Your subconscious mind is really smart, and it knows a lot.  While your conscious mind is busy planning, scheming, Tweeting and eating lunch, your subconscious sits back and watches the world.

Writing from your subconscious is a powerful place to start.  The problem is, your conscious mind is a control freak.  When you’re writing, your creative subconscious mind has all sorts of stuff to say, but your conscious mind, the editor, wants to start editing before your subconscious can finish the thought.  We’ve all been there.  You start to write a sentence—“The cat in the hat”—and then you think “Cat in the hat?  That’s stupid.”  And you do that over and over.  And then you go drink.

Writing practice does an end run on your conscious mind.  By forcing you to keep writing, by not giving you time to edit, it overwhelms your editor.  At first, your editor will just throw up its hands (so to speak) and quit.  As you do more and more writing practice, your critical editor and creative subconscious will learn how to work together—a state of creative flow.

The more writing practice you do, the easier it’ll be to drop into the flow.  Soon it’ll be like turning on a light switch.

That’s it.  It’s that simple.  Go get your timer.  Most Walgreens are open 24 hours.

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I still think your workshop...was one of the greatest things to happen to my writing; it had me seeing the written word in ways that opened up new and creative horizons. Thanks.

Jill Hoven
Writer

It was very well structured. The improvisation was magical. The actors really worked with character motivations and goals and took them to another level.

JoAnne Edwards
Writer

All four performers were terrific and I loved everyone's instincts, knowledge and professionalism. I felt I learned a lot, not just about how to improve my scene but how to make my screenplay better over all.

Karen Walton-Rolls
Writer

A storyboard of the scene was perhaps the most surprising and useful tool! It was absolutely inspiring!

Olesia Shewchuk
Writer

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