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Why the best way to get creative is to make some rules

By Aimee Bender, Oprah.com
July 31, 2012 -- Updated 1528 GMT (2328 HKT)
Forcing yourself to write at a certain time -- sometimes in a specific place -- can help you improve your work.
Forcing yourself to write at a certain time -- sometimes in a specific place -- can help you improve your work.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • No one will make you write but yourself; schedule regular writing time each day
  • Tell friends about your 'self-contract' so they can help you stick to it
  • Exceeding your writing limit may be just as detrimental as not meeting it

(Oprah.com) -- Years ago I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend at the time, and initially we shared the office, back-to-back, each working away at our computers.

But he was a newshound, and he'd read Internet news extensively while I was writing, making thoughtful grunts at each article. Months went by like this, and other times he'd give up on the news and I'd hear him typing away behind me. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. I couldn't ask him not to type; it was his office, too. But the distraction was overwhelming.

And the office space felt too big to me, anyway. When we had looked for a place to live, I'd been intrigued by the idea of writing in a hall closet, creating a little writing chamber all my own. Some of the apartment buildings in Hollywood were endowed with beautiful, substantial closets, with tiny windows and sometimes even a built-in shelf, perfect for the printer! Ours turned out to be windowless and fairly small, so I gave up and hung my clothes in it.

A year later, unable to bear the drumming of fingers on keys, I drove myself to Target, bought a standing hanging rod, took the clothes out, cleaned up, placed a card table at one end, and, with some geometric maneuvering, shoved a desk chair into the other. By angling myself into the chair, there was just enough room to sit. We strung extension cords along the floor and ceiling, and hooked the computer up to a plug in the living room.

The first morning I stepped inside, I was dizzy with a strange new panic; the closet seemed too small, too dusty—and what was this ominous gray electrical box to my left? I kept the door half open. I told myself I'd give it two weeks, and then decide.

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I don't remember when the two weeks passed. I wrote in that closet for more than two years.

I'd always assumed that when Virginia Woolf referred to a room of one's own, she meant a light-filled studio by a lake. But the truth is, there can be something very useful about a small, dark space. Large meadows are lovely for picnics and romping, but they are for the lighter feelings. Meadows do not make me want to write.

Writing can be a frightening, distressing business, and whatever kind of structure or buffer is available can help a lot. For almost 17 years now, I've been faithful to a two-hours-a-day routine, every morning, five or six days a week. I get up, sit down, check e-mail briefly, turn off my e-mail and Internet, look at the time on the computer, write the two-hour marker on a little pad of paper on my desk, and begin.

Inspired by the highly regular routines of writers like Stephen King, Flannery O'Connor, Trollope, and many more, I tried to tailor mine to my own idiosyncrasies. In my rule book, I don't have to do anything except sit at the computer, but I'm not allowed to do anything else, and I usually get so bored I start to work.

I generally stop to the minute, because I'm so ready to stop, and because I don't want to mess with the rules. The rigid time structure, much like the idea of the cramped closet, is freeing, and for me, the more I can externalize the ritual, the easier it is to submit to it. It's all a declaration against the regular dread I used to feel all the time when I wasn't writing. Once the structure was formalized, the dread diminished dramatically.

A number of years ago, I cosigned a contract with a friend, Sarah Shute, a very good writer who wanted to work on her stories more regularly but found it difficult to prioritize the time. Writing every day can be a powerful action, a gesture of belief in one's own imagination, and she knew it. "I just wish someone would order me to write every day," she said. "Because otherwise I just don't do it." We were painting yellow stripes in my office at the university where I teach. She paused, brush in hand. "Would you ever do something like that?" she asked.

She went home and drew up an official document, using contract language she'd picked up at her day job where she was writing contracts all the time, only this one, instead of enacting some corporate agenda, was for her alone.

A few days later, we met at Philippe's famous French dip sandwich shop in downtown L.A., and she showed me the rules she'd chosen.

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She would write five days a week for an hour. As a firm reminder, every day, when she finished her hour, she would e-mail me one word: Done, and at some point during the day, I would e-mail back Check. No other words were necessary. All that was being acknowledged was that she'd sat at her computer for an hour with the intention to write, whether or not she did.

The contract would run for three months. She was allowed five vacation days, which she would mark by e-mailing me Vacation (1), Vacation (2), etc. If she was actually out of town and couldn't e-mail, we'd work it out. No Internet allowed. No phone. We bit into our drippy sandwiches and marked up the page, and both of us got a bizarre amount of glee, looking at that piece of paper. The more details the better. She must e-mail me by 5:30 P.M. She could write in a journal but never e-mail. She could revise, but only fiction. If she fulfilled the contract, she would give herself a reward.

Many people might find this kind of rule-creating revoltingly constraining, but for both of us, happily adding details as we drank wine and ate coleslaw, it was joyous. We signed and dated it, and laughed and made fun of ourselves, but beneath it all was something solemn and powerful. The next day, when I received the first Done, I felt a little thrill. Check! I wrote. I added an exclamation point, which I later amended. No exclamation points. No commentary except acknowledgment. I found I started to wait for her e-mails in the back of my mind, around 5 P.M., as it underlined my own commitment to my work when she sent me that one word.

Once she'd been on the contract for a couple of weeks, she told me her whole concept of weekends had shifted. "I can actually enjoy the weekend now," she said. "Because I am not allowed to write on the weekend."

I understand completely. If left to my own devices, a blank page and a free day and that meadow, little will get done and I'll feel awful about it. But put me in a box for two set hours and say go? It is one of the most steadying elements of my life.

Many psychologists have devoted time and writing to the concept of the therapy "frame," that set box of 50 minutes in a room where a person comes in, sits, talks, emotes, and leaves. It has been made fun of often: "Your time is up!" says the therapist, checking the clock, just as things get good. But aren't they related? Don't things get good sometimes when a person knows the time is almost up? Isn't it easier, right at the 45-minute mark, to say something of import, knowing you're soon allowed to go?

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In my experience, this seems to be true for writing as well. At readings, audience members sometimes ask if I keep writing past the two hours if I'm on a roll, but I don't. I figure that if I'm on a roll, it's partially because I know I'm about to stop. I believe Hemingway's great advice, about leaving the work when the going's good so that there's excitement when the writer sits down the next day.

Plus, if I start modifying the rules, the whole system begins to erode, and with erosion comes the fast return of dread and guilt. The integrity of the system itself is actually more important to me than the daily content, because content will return, and it mostly needs a reliable container in which to put itself. Our preoccupations do not go away, much as we might like them to.

In an essay called "The Analytic Frame, Abstinence, and Acting Out," Robert M. Young, a psychotherapist, takes it even a step further. Yes, he says, you need a set and specific time and space to explore, but why that's important goes very deep. "The analytic frame," he writes, "is the place where the madness is held so that the therapist and patient can have a space to think and feel about matters felt with a degree of intensity which is painful but still bearable."

Although psychotherapy and writing are distinct in many ways, they are two fields whose great resource is the vast plains of the unconscious mind and how this landscape gets translated into words. As a writer, you are often asking your mind to dream while awake, and if remembering dreams is difficult in general, then it seems to follow that it would be sometimes grueling to conjure up the murky depths on call, eyes open. Young calls it madness, which is a strong word, but it's not a bad one in exaggeration, because he's talking about creating a safe and bound space in which to explore all sorts of darknesses that collect in the recesses of the mind.

He's talking about what we do not understand, or know about, or have control over. And the unconscious, if treated well, is the writer's very good friend. Allowing it room is crucial. Allowing it structure can be the safest way to access it without feeling overwhelmed.

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I moved out of the closet after a couple years, and by then it was a huge relief; the closet, it turned out, was good as a novelty but hard to maintain. It was dusty in there, and I felt a little trapped. People laughed when I told them, said I was coming out of the closet and all that. It did feel liberating to get out, but my hope had been that the closet was actually a way to get closer to the scarier feelings: to combat repression, not to court it.

And in fact, I did write two of my darkest stories in there. Monster in the closet? Found a couple of those. Lynda Barry has a comic strip called Holy Terror, where her character Marlys provides excellent instructions on how to tolerate horror movies. "I learned a great way to watch scary movies...," she says. "Pretend you are the frustrated monster."

By going inside the closet to write, I was trying, in some very literal way, to follow her advice. But ultimately, the closet was a little too symbolic, too neat—it was too fun to show people, to show off, which had nothing to do with the actual two hours of work.

The idea of the contract, by the way, caught on. People wanted to do it. I haven't looked at one in a while, but at that time I kept forwarding Sarah's template* along, and several other writers took up the task, individualizing it to their needs (two pages a day, four hours a week, no nonfiction allowed, only nonfiction allowed); they, in turn, started up contracts with others they knew. The two steps are fairly direct: Make or modify the contract in a way that is suitable, and realistic, and then find someone to take on the e-mail/notification role, someone who will acknowledge what you are doing, and know that it is hard, and that it is important. Someone who will call you on it if you stop.

It's an externalized discipline, but it's a formal step on the way to making the contract with the self.

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Another budding writer I knew was curious. We were at lunch, and she was intrigued by the contract idea, but halfway through the conversation, she leaned forward over her place setting and whispered, conspiratorially: "This contract is only for good writers, right?" The question caught me completely by surprise. Um, I said, after a minute, no. The contract is for all writers. It's completely separate from what is good and bad. It is entirely about investment in process. It's not about publication; it's not about workshops, or prizes, or critics, or book jacket photos.

But in the prioritizing of voice, things shift. They improve. As far as I'm concerned, if a person desires to write, it's worth trying to find a way to do it, even five minutes a day, and what happens to the writing afterward is a separate issue. The act of doing it has enormous value on its own.

With all its wonderful bureaucratic stick-in-the-mud specificity, the contract is then also a fighting gesture against the ever-present idea that writers walk around with alchemy boiling in their fingertips. That we are dreamy wanderers carrying a snifter of brandy, with elegant sentences available on call. It's such a load of crap. Sure, there are writers who work this way, who embrace their writerliness and are still able to get work done, but most I know have found their voice through routine, through ordinariness, through some kind of method of working.

Guilt and dread, after all, are creativity killers. And isn't the greater mystery here supposed to be about the work itself, as opposed to the person and his dreamy wanderings? Routines are not mysterious. That's why they're fun to talk about -- because we can. And if the fantasy of writerhood is punctured, the focus, then, can shift to where the most interesting and magical mysteries arise: on the page itself, in the paragraph or sentence or scene that comes from a place unrecognizable in the mind.

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