Words are great. As a writer, I deal in words. They are my currency, but even I acknowledge that words are not actions, nor can they take the place of actions. There’s a saying: you can’t think your way into right action, you have to act your way into right thinking.

That’s where habit comes into play, and habit, for a writer, is perhaps more important than sheer unadulterated talent. Genius, after all, remains unexpressed without individuals being diligent enough to express their thoughts on paper (as a writer), to put their art on a canvas (as a painter), to move creatively through space in cohesive patterns (as a dancer), or to express themselves in virtually any other art form that demands creativity. Madeleine L’Engle famously pointed out, “Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it.”

In the most recent Writer magazine, author Andre Dubus III, who wrote House of Sand and Fog, talked about best practices for writers. In his mind, being a creature of habit is a good thing. I had heard that Charles Dickens spent the first part of his day at his desk arranging and rearranging pencils at his desk, and this meticulous organizing freed up his mind to think creatively while occupied with a seemingly mundane task. It’s ironic how much we worry, as a society, about time-wasting activities. Perhaps we need to look how we can turn those activities to our advantage. Andre Dubus III himself approaches writing intuitively without an outline in his head, but he does have a plan of carefully constructed habits to bolster him and lead him creatively. He settles into what he calls his Cave, and begins each day by reading poetry, then listens to music while he transcribes what he has written from the previous day. He will allow himself to tinker, tweak and rewrite, but when he finishes, he sets aside his editing jobs, turns off the music, and, interestingly, puts on noise-canceling headphones. He always writes his new days pages in pencil, and is very specific about the kind of pencil and pencil sharpener he depends upon. Many writers are likewise superstitious and adhere to strict routine. The key, for writers, indeed for all creative persons, is to find a routine that works and honor it.

So many wannabe writers are undisciplined, myself among them. Because I’m in grad school, getting my MFA in creative writing, I’m forced to produce material, but there’s no guarantee, once I graduate, that I’ll continue to write unless I’ve put in place habits to serve me along the way.

Today, October 2nd, is my birthday, and as it is the beginning of fall, and the beginning of a new school year, I also consider it a good time to make my New Year’s Resolutions. Here they are: this year, I would like to lose 40 pounds and write between 100 and 150 new pages by the time I turn 45 next year. Pretty simple, and you have to bear in mind how far I’ve come already, but, as the Robert Frost poem says, I have “Miles to go before I sleep.”

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