How to Be a Great Writer? Turn Off Your Phone. How to Develop a Writing and Reading Habit in an Age of Distractions

None of us read enough. None of us write enough. I know that I don’t, and I’m not alone.

I have been asking my creative writing students how much they would like to read and write, and how much they do read and write. Not one student has replied that she spends as much time as she would like.  This problem is common these days, across disciplines and career paths: the feeling that there isn’t enough time.

This isn’t new. Seneca, the Roman Stoic poet who lived from 4 BCE to 65 CE, put it this way in his essay “De Brevitate Vitae” or “On the Shortness of Life”: “Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because this spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases for the rest of us just when we are getting ready for it.”

I’ve felt this most keenly for the past couple years because I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son. He’s incredible, but he’s also time-consuming. At one point I looked around and realized, I haven’t written anything in the last couple years. I certainly didn’t blame him, but I did find myself saying, several times, there’s not enough time in a day to do all the things I have to do, and want to do. Why do you keep wanting me to play with you, toddler?

Fast forward to this past year. I was teaching 8AM classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This meant that I had to wake up at 5:30 every morning, to be ready to go by 6:30, drive in to school by 7:00, and have a bit of time to get ready to go. About half way through the semester I realized I was waking up at 5:30 on two days, and 7:00 on the other days. If I just woke up at 5:30 EVERY day, I would have an hour or hour and a half 5 days a week to write.

All it took was waking up.

I know. I have talked to many, many students for whom waking up is the worst part of every day. But it’s nothing more than a habit.

The Power of Habits over Willpower

There’s all this fascinating new research on willpower. Willpower is a mental muscle we have to exert any time we have to make a choice. If you don’t do something habitually, if you have to decide to do it each and every time, it takes willpower. To say no to something or to make yourself do something requires willpower. What they’ve discovered is that willpower requires energy, energy that is easily sapped. If I have to make a difficult decision about what brand of salad dressing to choose at the super market, that makes it harder to avoid that extra slice of pizza at dinner. It’s harder to avoid willpower traps in the evening than in the morning, when we are refreshed. The more choices we make, the more mentally tired we get.

This is why habits are so powerful. I don’t have to exert much energy deciding whether to brush my teeth every morning. And I make coffee on autopilot. If I always get the same salad dressing, it doesn’t take any time or energy to make that decision. Think of it this way, when you drive to school every day, or to work, do you take a different route every day? Think about how much energy that would take, whereas I’m guessing that you got here today while barely having to think about it.

No Phone Illustration
Take a break from your phone to cultivate better writing and reading habits!

So it makes sense that if I can make my writing—something really important to me—as routine and habitual as brushing my teeth, it will be less of a struggle. The difficulty comes in when I have to make the decision every day about whether to write at any given moment. Because writing is hard, and it’s certainly easier to watch another episode of Daredevil or Luke Cage on Netflix, or play a game on my phone. But the less I have to think about it—the more rote it becomes—the easier it is.

This is why I tried an experiment in my fiction workshop last semester: my focus was in trying to make writing as much of a routine as possible. Because this is what I know: the people who make it as writers are the people who write. There are millions of people who want to be writers, but don’t write. This is true of anything: writing, violin, ballet, basketball.

Everyone’s goal was to write every day. We kept a log their writing and posted daily results on a weekly online forum. We realized how powerful it is to write even a small amount every day. Think about it: if you write for 30 minutes a day and manage 500 words, you would write 3500 words a week (a good-sized short story) or 182,500 a year (more than a novel). Not every word is going to be good, obviously, but still.

The end result? Most of the students said they wrote more in 3 months than they had in the previous 3 years.

If, as a class, we could develop daily writing habits, we would be much more likely to keep writing after graduation, in my estimation, especially once we also have the pressures of a career (and all the other obligations that will pile up).

Time & Habits

Because here’s the thing: there will never be more time. You might be breathing a sigh of relief upon graduation, thinking that you’ll now have more time. But you won’t. This will continue to be a struggle for the rest of your life.

This isn’t a new thing: Seneca was thinking about it when he wrote his essay in 49 CE and Arnold Bennett, the English novelist, was thinking about it when he wrote How to Live on 24 Hours a Day in 1910: “You say your day is already full to overflowing? How? You actually spend in earning your livelihood—how much? Seven hours, on average? And in actual sleep, seven? I will add two hours, and be generous. And I will defy you to account to me on the spur of the moment for the other eight hours.”

According to both Bennett and Seneca, the problem is that we waste time.

Seneca put it this way: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

He goes on: “Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms. But they allow others to encroach on their lives. You will find no one willing to share his money, but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property, but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

And it’s true: we horde our money and squander our time.

But while this sounds depressing, it’s not meant to be. I promise. Because Bennett suggests a solution as well: he points out that even though a person doesn’t particularly love their work, “he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day,’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.”

Bennett suggests that instead of thinking of those eight work hours as “the day,” we should think of those other 16 hours as a day within a day, “and during all these sixteen hours he has nothing whatever to do but cultivate his body and soul and his fellow men. During those sixteen hours he is free; he is not a wage-earner; he is not preoccupied by monetary cares; he is just as good as a man with a private income.”

And so. Let me bring this back to you. Bennett is telling us not to privilege these work hours and then treat all the time in between as secondary time for us to waste. We MUST live these hours deliberately. And this is harder and harder to do because there are more and more things that are vying to chop up your time into little pieces: television, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Youtube.

So what does this have to do with habits? What does this have to do with you as a writer or reader?

The Value of Writing and Reading

Let’s consider English and creative writing as “values” majors. There are many majors that are “results” majors. If I study nursing, it makes me a nurse. If I study engineering, it makes me an engineer. If I study accounting, it makes me an accountant. If I study English, it doesn’t make me English (sadly, for all of us Angophiles). This is exactly why some parents are nervous about an English major: it’s not 100% clear what the outcomes are.

Yes, I can talk about why companies want English majors. But at the end of the day, that most of us are not here because it will make us better job candidates, but because it represents a core value. We love literature. We believe, deeply, that life is better when we are surrounded by books. We believe that novels and poetry and essays teach us how to lead better lives and open up our lives to all new experiences. Literature makes the world better, and it makes our lives better.

Or, as Bennett puts it, literature nurtures our bodies and souls.

So I’m here to argue that we all need to make a commitment to keeping reading and writing as key pillars in our lives. And to go back to my earlier point, I think that means that we need to cultivate a reading and writing habit. Because there are too many temptations in the world, there are too many things that want to tear us away from books and from activities of value.

I’m going to risk being a bit of a curmudgeon here, but I want to talk about high value and low value activities. I’m going to consider a high value activity as something that you remember doing. Do you remember it after a year? A month? A week? Even a day?

What did you do last summer? I spent a month studying at Oxford. Sure. You’ll remember that the rest of your life.

What did you do this weekend? I went for a hike. I went camping. I had a dinner party with close friends. I read Jane Eyre. All things that I will remember a day or a month or a year later.

But there are so many things we do—and I’m definitely including myself in this—that are low value and that we can’t really remember doing even a few hours later. I spent an hour looking for new articles about how the Utah Jazz are going to do in the NBA playoffs. I played two hours of Clash Royale. I clicked through two hours of cat videos on Youtube. I read one million tweets. I liked all my friends’ Facebook posts without really reading what they said. I read 25 articles on Buzzfeed.

And I’m not against Facebook or Youtube. They are great fun, in moderations. But what is going to feed your soul more, a Buzzfeed article about things that men secretly do? Or a great novel?

So this is what I’m asking you to do. Deliberately cultivate your writing and reading habit. Look at your days and schedule time to read and/or write. Say, I have sixteen hours a day. I’m going to devote one of those, at least, to writing or reading, and in doing so I will enrich my soul. When I ask my students to write for half an hour a day, they often say they don’t have enough time. But I think there are very few of us that don’t waste at least half an hour on mindless pursuits.

Jeffrey Chapman

If I develop the habit of reading for an hour before bed every night, I no longer have to think about it. It changes the default from having to make myself read to reading without effort.

 

We know this. We know that our lives are better when we devote ourselves to this. It is easier and easier to be seduced away from these high value activities. I’m not suggesting to stop watching Netflix or Youtube. But do it deliberately, mindfully. And make time for that novel. Or a book of poems. And a walk on a warm spring day. Or a daytrip to discover a place you haven’t been to yet. Or a good meal with friends. Turn off your phone tonight at 6:00. See what happens.

This blog post was adapted from a speech I gave at the 2017 induction ceremony for the Sigma Tau Delta English honors society at Oakland University.

– Jeffrey S. Chapman

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