Every February thousands of songwriters converge on February Writing Album Month. FAWM founder Burr Settles lives by the Jack London quote which has always been part of FAWM culture: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
To many artists it seems nonsensical to sit down and intentionally crank out 14 songs in 28 days.
That’s not creativity; that’s just work. they say.
Seven years of participation taught me otherwise.
Of the songs I perform in my house concerts more than 80% were written during FAWM. Some of my favorite musical artists ever are fellow FAWMers. As Phil Norman said one year, “when you do that many laps you spend some time in the shallow end of the pool.”
You can also get real deep.
Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit teaches us that when we consign some activities to the realm of habit, requiring no further thought, we free up willpower. More habits means more creativity.
Willpower is an exhaustible resource. If your day starts by
deciding whether or not to get out of bed, then
deciding whether or not to write, then
deciding where to write, then
deciding what to write and how long to write,
you have now used up virtually all the willpower you had available. Not only will writing be extremely difficult today but you are statistically much more likely to have chocolate cake instead of salad at lunch time.
I’m serious. That’s how fragile willpower is. Research has shown that while test subjects who were asked to remember a two-digit number chose healthy versus decadent foods at about the same rate as people not under a willpower load, those asked to remember a seven-digit number chose the thick chocolate cake nearly every time.
Remembering five extra digits can destroy your willpower. Imagine that string of not-so-imaginary decisions I listed above. If you are wondering why you never seem to get any writing done, this is most likely why.
Rituals are a special type of habit. Rituals are habitual actions which send signals to our unconscious about the path we’re on, the actions we’re about to take. This is why ritual is a powerful tool of military and religious institutions. Rituals are special habits which amplify willpower. That’s right — if you wear the same shirt when you sit down to write, drink the same type of tea from the same cup, play that special piece of music — if you observe a handful of rituals before you begin to write, your brain will feel a powerful compulsion to complete the ritual. You will feel compelled to write.
Developing the habit of writing
Every time you promise faithfully you’re going to sit down and write tomorrow morning, and you don’t, you are developing the habit of not writing.
It is imperative that you stop this now.
Until you are ready to commit to creating a new habit and supporting rituals, do not plan to write.
Intentionally skip your writing session until you are ready to commit to building a habit.
If you continue promising yourself you’re going to write, then not writing, this is not harmless. It is damaging. As Best Beloved says to me on occasion when I’m doing something particularly silly, “Knock it off!”
Now that you’ve stopped feeding the bad habit of not writing, let’s create a new habit.
Pick one to three days and times this week that you can commit to sitting down for five minutes to write (you’ll learn why the five minute limit is important tomorrow). While it’s best that you write at the same time each day, both to develop habit and to honor your energy rhythms, it’s more important to pick times you can commit to. Write them down. Schedule them like you would an important client meeting or vital medical appointment.
Keep those appointments. If you don’t I’m going to ask you to take a week or two off from even trying and come back to this exercise again. The only way to break the bad habit of not writing at your scheduled time is to replace it with a new habit — not to perpetuate it by pretending to replace it with a new habit, then doing what you’ve always done.
Once you have successfully kept this schedule four weeks in a row (I believe it takes, not 21 days, but 28 days to form a habit) you can add more time or more days. As long as you continue to honor every single commitment to your writing time, feel free to increase it incrementally until you’re spending as much time as you wish you were writing.
At that point you will have created a habit which will be hard to fight.
Rituals do not have to be logical. They only have to affect you emotionally so they are connected to the parts of your brain which don’t depend on logic and reason which are so easily derailed by emotion.
Consider the kinds of things that trigger you emotionally. You may have noticed above that a warm beverage, comfortable clothing, and appealing music incite me emotionally. While I have not yet done this exercise myself, you can bet my rituals will involve a beverage and music and maybe even my favorite Pendleton.
If you are aware of little habits already in place in any previously successful writing sessions, such as getting a cup of your favorite beverage or whatever else you do as you’ve been preparing to sit down and write, think about how those can be integrated into your pre-writing ritual. It’s important to remember that these are not choices you should make every time you’re going to write. A pre-writing ritual is something you will do in precisely the same way every time you write. Again, it doesn’t have to be logical and practical, like turning on music or turning off the ringer on your phone. Maybe you’ll sharpen a dozen pencils when you don’t even use them to write. Maybe you’ll move the lamp from the left side of your desk to the right and turn it to the lowest setting even though it’s broad daylight. Whatever you choose to do, it really should be something that you emotionally connect with the joy you feel when you think of yourself as a writer.
There’s a lot of information here. I suspect that developing habits should come before searching for (or stumbling across) rituals. Take this slowly. Like any major change in life, it will take time.
It will be challenging. You will have setbacks. But if you are determined and have the right tools at your disposal, eventually writing will become a habit and you can use all that spare willpower on your creativity.