Habits, Routine, Process, Wellness

Happy October, everyone! October is my favorite month of the year– at least, it is when I slow down enough to notice the crisp fall weather (a bit warm here, this year), enjoy the tastes and scents of fall food, and snuggle into my warmer clothes. It’s also a month when I look closely at my own habits, routines and wellness procedures to make sure that everything I’ve put in place during the start of the school year is still working for me. This year, I’m taking that process a step further by interviewing fellow writers about their work/life process for my DIY MFA column. Before subjecting my writer friends to the interview, I decided to test out the questions myself here on the blog.

What is your keystone habit (the habit that makes all other habits possible)?

If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m irritable, impatient, and unable to produce creative work. Going to bed early and winding down beforehand so that I don’t lie awake is absolutely my keystone habit.

Is there one wellness priority you never skimp on?

I can’t imagine not exercising. If I go more than a day without some sort of activity, I start to feel listless and moody. Unless I’m sick for a prolonged period of time, I’m exercising for a minimum of 20 minutes every work day, and longer on weekends.

What’s your daily writing routine?

I write immediately after waking up, and it’s usually the most productive time of day for me. Sometimes I start with some journaling, and other times I dive right into my WiP. During my lunch or prep break, I’ll do a second session on my WiP. My third writing session is focused on lighter projects: blogging, writing my newsletter, connecting on social media. I stick to this schedule every work day, but I make it a rule to keep Saturdays as rest days, and on Sundays I spend more time planning and less time in the flow of writing. The weekend routine keeps me in the rhythm and helps me regroup for a strong streak of writing days during the week.

What are your essential writing “tools”?

Pen and paper for brainstorming and writing out story beats. Sometimes a big whiteboard with markers for mind-mapping. Scrivener for everything else. All are essential to the process.

Where do you write?

I had to give up my office when my daughter was born, so I write in bed in the morning, occasionally at my desk in the living room (if no one else is awake), and in my office at work. Our next house will have an office space for me!

What’s one aspect of your process that you learned the hard way?

That I can’t have the same process for all stages of my manuscript. Sometimes I need to focus on word count, sometimes on time (pomodoros), and sometimes on chapters completed. I also need to take seasons into account. My teaching job is more mentally stressful during the fall and late spring, so those months are best used for shorter-term projects. First and second novel drafts are better done during the winter and early spring when I have the discipline and the mental space to commit fully. Summer is a good time to work on passion projects– I have to be very invested in my summer work in order to keep rolling through the disruptions of vacations and long days with the kids. Fall is when the most submissions take place (not just for me, but for the industry).

What’s the biggest thing that gets in the way of your writing?

Creative drain. Whenever I feel particularly taxed by work or family concerns, writing becomes very laborious. I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in bad writing, and that’s what happens to me when I haven’t been creatively recharged. Sometimes recharging involves physical care; it always involves mental care.

Which would you give up first: writing, sleep, or breakfast?

I’ve already said that my keystone habit is sleep, but the reason I go to bed early is so that I can get up early to write, so I guess I’m choosing writing over sleep there. I’d never make it through the day without breakfast, though. So I guess I’d give up sleep first. That sounds wrong, given that it’s my keystone habit! Maybe I need to reevaluate that answer.

How do you maintain mental health during tough times?

Short answer: journaling.

Long answer: I have a natural tendency to contain my emotions, which leads to mental health problems. I function better when I release those emotions, partly through writing, but also through conversation. When things get rough, I reach out to my friends, family, and occasionally my former therapist. Mental health is harder for me to get a handle on than physical health, but it’s also more vital to my overall happiness.

How do you get into a creative mental space that fosters new ideas?

I leave town. Seriously, I get my best ideas when I’m on vacation. Taking a nap helps, too: just yesterday, an amazing idea came to me just as I was drowsing after a mid-day nap. My normal schedule doesn’t allow for such moments, so vacation/relaxing time is essential.

Since we’re heading into NaNoWriMo, have you ever done a marathon writing session? What did you learn from that process?

I “won” NaNoWriMo last year, starting it just 9 days after giving birth to my daughter! (Read that story here, here, here and the conclusion here.) It turned out to be a great time to do it, because my daughter was a much better sleeper than my son was as a newborn. I wrote while she napped on my lap. From that process, I learned that I love writing fast, as long as I have a rough outline in place. I kept outlining a few chapters ahead of where I was writing, and it helped me maintain the flow. I didn’t meander or waste time on unnecessary scenes. Doing NaNoWriMo helped me re-think my whole first draft process. This year, I don’t have time to commit to a word count, but I plan to write a scene every day of the month in November. They don’t have to be long, but they do have to help me shape the characters for my next novel. I’ve already done some work on this novel over the summer so I feel confident I can keep up the schedule. (I can always keep the scenes really short on tough days!)

Please share thoughts about your creative process with me! I love to hear how other people work.

Have you signed up for my newsletter yet, The Perspective Post? This month’s newsletter, released on Tuesday, 10/10, is all about habits. Find a link to the newsletter here, or sign up for monthly emails on this page. 

4 Responses to “Habits, Routine, Process, Wellness”

  1. I love how self-aware you are. It’s clear you’ve put a lot of thought into your writing career, and it’s paying off in both the amount of work you do (on top of your job and young family!) and the success you’ve been having. I’m inspired! I was much more haphazard in my days as a writer/editor with a young child at home. I have regrets about this, but I think one reason my career played out as it did then is that I saw myself primarily as a mom with my writing coming in a distant second. “Momming” came first and writing got tucked into spare bits of time, but not as thoughtfully as you seem to be doing. I regret that I didn’t take writing more seriously then. It’s taking some doing to see myself as a professional writer now as I put more juice into that aspect of my life.

    • Leanne Sowul says:

      Thanks so much, Kathy. It’s taken a lot of time for me to be so self-aware, and I think I’ve gotten better at understanding my mental and physical needs. I’m still working on understanding my emotional needs. I think it helped that I was already a committed writer when my first child was born, and I also knew that writing was important for my sanity, which is important for mothering. So I made it a priority. I also had the benefit of extended maternity time so I had the space to work on my writing routines while I was mothering a newborn. I’ve been lucky, but I think I’ve made the most of that luck. Life can only get better with more writing 🙂 Best of luck with honing your own routines!

  2. This is a great interview, Leanne, and like Kathy said, your self-awareness shines through. I’ve learned to acknowledge and act on my wellness needs, though it’s taken me a while to create the good habits that help me address those needs. And while my writing routine isn’t perfect (the day job still comes first as a time priority, after all), I’d like to think I’ve learned to make the best of it.

    Btw, if you’re looking for more participants in your interview project, I’d be happy to help. 🙂

    • Leanne Sowul says:

      Thanks, Sara! Yes, writing life is never perfect, but we keep striving for the best we can. There’s always a balance of time, whether you have too much or too little.

      I may take you up on that offer! I have my first two interviews set up, but it would be fun to interview you 🙂

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