Valerie Reed Hickman is the recipient of a Writing By Writers Wolf House Residency and the winner of the 2019 Sewanee Review Fiction Contest. She lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin.
I’m a fiction writer with a day job. This means that on a good morning, I get maybe an hour of writing time before my workday begins. So I’m tempted to leap right into it — the house still cold, coffee barely poured — trying to get as much done as I can before it’s time to open up my email. But I’ve found that, however strong the impulse is to just start writing, both the quality and the quantity of my writing are improved when I set aside a few minutes at the outset for a warm-up.
Here’s how I got to this point. I would get up every morning with the best of intentions. But often, when I sat down at my desk, I felt unable to begin. I was sleepy; I was preoccupied; whatever writing I’d done the day before seemed like it had happened in some other lifetime, on the far side of twenty-four subsequent hours of tasks and to-do lists. How much easier it was to think about what I was going to cook for dinner that night, or make myself a note to pay the electric bill, than to put pen to paper and try to create a world out of thin air.
Then, a couple of months ago, I saw a post in an online writing community asking if anyone had tried doing “morning pages” — one of the practices recommended in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. I’d been through the whole book a few years ago, finding some of the ideas more helpful than others, but the morning pages, in particular, had turned out to be surprisingly beneficial. So one morning, feeling especially stuck, I decided to bring them back into my routine.
Cameron’s recommendation is to write three pages, longhand, every morning. The pages can contain whatever you need them to contain, but think “brain dump” rather than “detailed chapter outline”: the point, as Cameron presents it, is primarily to clear your mind of whatever clutter has accumulated there overnight so you can get down to business.
For me, at least, the morning pages are also part of a process of shifting into a different mindset altogether, one more conducive to creative work. For this, a certain lightness is required, a willingness not just to press pen to page but to lift it up again, to skip ahead to the next thought and then the next. We’re not looking for well-articulated connections or transitions here, logic or narrative flow. If I fill half a page with meandering thoughts about whether to buy a new coffeemaker, and then the next sentence is a half-remembered song lyric (the coffee cup, I think about you), and then I’m suddenly describing the bookstore I worked in when I first came across those lines — then I know I’m doing things right.
I’ll admit that I don’t do the full three pages; I fill a single sheet of paper, front and back, in a smallish notebook, more or less 8×7. But yes, the longhand part is important: I can type a lot faster than I can write by hand, and it’s easy, maybe too easy, to spew words out onto the screen. Writing by hand, I find that I’m less likely to edit as I go, less likely to try to sound polished or respectable, less likely to second-guess myself.
So this is Step 1.
Step 2 was Step 1 until I figured out it needed to be Step 2.
Step 2 is poetry.
More than one novelist I admire has recommended that fiction writers make reading poetry a regular habit. In an interview published in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, Jami Attenberg talks specifically about beginning her writing day with poetry whenever she can. Since reading the interview, I had been trying to make this a habit of my own, but I couldn’t get it to stick. When I made poetry the bridge between my morning pages and my fiction writing, everything changed.
Reading poetry is crucial for any writer for a hundred different reasons. First and foremost, it helps attune your ear and open you up to all the beautiful, surprising things language is capable of.
But poetry is also interesting for a writer of narrative prose simply because poetic logic is often very different from narrative logic. A poem might connect two ideas or images through rhyme or figuration, or simply by setting them next to each other. If my morning pages — with their leaps and runs — prime my mind for this kind of thinking, reading poetry shows me what these kinds of thoughts can achieve.
Each day I spend about fifteen minutes on this, all told — morning pages and poetry — and it has benefited my creative work enormously. When I finally turn to whatever project I’m working on, I find myself more able to focus, more ready to think in the way that fiction demands. I feel, well, warmed up. It turns out that what I needed was a buffer between the swirl of thoughts I wake up with and the stiller, slower, stranger eddies of my writing mind.
I realize that especially now, when so many of us are juggling artistic practice with work and worry and kids doing Zoom school in the kitchen and a hundred other things, this might all seem like a pipe dream. If you’re lucky to get even fifteen minutes to spare for your writing, and you use them up just clearing your head, you’re never going to get any actual writing done. But the warm-up is scalable. If you only have fifteen minutes, free-write for sixty seconds. Read one poem. Take one minute to close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. The amount of time you spend isn’t the point; the point is to create a habit, a reliable boundary, that helps you move from one mindset, one version of yourself, into another.
There is a space of ease and possibility where creative work thrives. I think these habits have been so crucial for me because they help me enter that space. They help jar my brain out of its usual cacophony of tasks and preoccupations and allow it to become more expansive, more fertile, more surprising. When this is the frame of mind I bring to my fiction, it’s also more possible for a story to take a surprising turn, or simply to leap ahead without worrying about how to explain the leap. (If it turns out to need explaining — that’s what revisions are for.)
The poet Jane Hirshfield has a pair of essays, collected in her book Nine Gates, arguing for the necessity of having both “a mind of indirection” and “a mind of concentration” in order to make poetry. Concentration, she says, must be understood as “a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” It’s this state of awareness that I’m seeking during that bright hour every morning when I sit down to write. By taking a few minutes to warm up first, I make it more likely that I’ll find it.