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The Habit of Art

There are two habits to cultivate as a writer. One is the necessity to get a productive routine down to start and complete projects. The other is described by Flannery O'Connor as "the habit of art."

She was continually pestered by her students to tell them when they should write, for how long, and how to fit the writing into a normal, busy schedule. She wrote her response in an essay called, "The Nature and Aim of Fiction."

The habit of art, she explained in her essay, concerns a "certain quality or virtue of the mind," which combined with a writer's talent, could heighten writing to a point nearing perfection.

Habit is devotion, then, combined with the desire to work hard at the highest level of intelligence and imagination the writer is capable of.

The habit of art, to use her phrase, is something difficult to teach.

It is my experience that the habit of art should be learned first. Study and test yourself. Read the masters and try to eumulate them. Kick them away and go on your own. Fight for your best self. Don't let society, parents, peers, or other bad habits interfere.

Training the mind in this habit is like training for Zen Buddhism or yoga. If you do it enough it's fairly simple to slide right into position at any time, any where. It's the pain getting to that point that holds a lot of writers back.

The habit of art could be defined as the best thoughts generated by the writing mind. The art, then, is the act of leeching out the best from the rest and getting the best down in hard copy each day. As the old Greek tragedian put it, "drop by drop wisdom is distilled from pain."

Out of the thousands of thoughts a writer has any one day, which ones will be saved and used? At the beginning of a writers career the thousands of thoughts are used. Then experience kicks in and the writer tries to escape most of the thoughts. Then he learns to discipline the thoughts into useful activity. He exhalts if there is one gem, one jewel left in the stinkpot of the thousands of thoughts.

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Then there are the habits that make a writer more productive. When the writer is inspired it's unlikely she will learn these habits. But when things go bad the lack of them are the likely source of her failure.

Samuel Johnson noticed that the grip of habit is too weak to be noticed, but soon becomes too tight to be broken.

The first good habit to learn is to, in fact, write. At the beginning of the writer's life there is a wild passion to get all the words out and you never believe the infinite supply will run out. But it does, so you need to have a structure of habit in place to face the infamous blank page.

Here are some sound tips:

  • Write something, anything the moment you sit down to write
  • Don't try to write a novel in one session. Find out the best time for you to be productive and use that time very well.
  • Adhere strictly to a realistic writing schedule.
  • Work first on the parts of the project that seem easiest to do.
  • Start by writing the title in order to focus in on key concepts. Titles are important psychologically.
  • Polish the first paragraph to provide focus.

Why is it that when a writer cleans up her copy she feels not simply better but more productive? It must be that it feels like something is getting done when there is a meaningful re-arrangement of the words. The babit that liberates the writing self is one fully convinced that whatever you write can be eliminated or changed.

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I am a wonderful procrastinator and cultivate it at every opportunity. I try to wrestle the bad habit to the ground and always fool myself with the thought that the act of writing is very pleasurable. "I can write standing on my head in a railroad car," I convince myself while I watch some trashy TV program. But it isn't the writing that is the problem, it's the aftermath.

It's the revision, the polishing, and the editing that sends me down to chop wood or go online and read gossip from Court TV.

To counteract the art of procrastination I try the following:

  • Set due dates for each part of the writing project.
  • Schedule a personal reward for meeting each due date.
  • Talk with supportive others about weekly writing plans.

Well, I tell the cat at any rate that I am going to write a good deal this week so stay out of my way.

The reward part is often overlooked. We don't want to believe we are cats or dogs, leaping around our master's feet for a snack on doing a good deed. But, it often works as long as the reward is something you ordinarily wouldn't give yourself. A good glass of wine, for instance, is not a good reward for myself. But a CD with either great information or music is a reward I covet.

 T h e    L i s t   I s  A  H a b i t  T o  L e a r n

Lists are often the most meaningful poetry one can write. They can also be a waste of time. A list is an effective habit only if you act positively on each item on the list. It's a very effective way to break down a large project and get it under control so you feel you have a fighting chance of succeeding with your grand vision.

It can also be a way to provoke a new project and build it up until it magically fleshes out on paper or screen. Don't give yourself orders, give yourself some guidance that will take you to a successful conclusion to the project.

Making a list is a basic use of the technology of writing. And what it does is free up creative energy that would be spent trying to figure out what to do when you have something in front of you. Trust the list. Make friends with the lists you make.

I have made lists that I became very enthusiastic about only to see them slip away for fifteen years. The list has to be accompanied by a reasonable commitment to do the deed.

And yet some of those lists have been very useful a few years after I wrote them out because I was not ready to execute the list when I made it. It's easy to fall into the trap of loving the list but hating the deed. I've done that plenty of times, always to my regret. The list is a pump of adrenaline but has to be accompanied by physical and mental acts.

T h e   F i v e   M a j o r   H a b i t s   O f   P u b l i s h i n g 

1) Conception of the Piece: This is a constant battle that a writer must wage by habituating him or herself in being "always on." Ideas are the life-blood of the writer's craft. Anything you perceive needs to be turned into an idea of one kind or the other. It is only the world in front of you and your ability to deal with it through experience and/or knowledge.

2) Laying Down the Tracks: Get the idea out and running on paper or the screen. Note down all the resources you will need to flesh the piece out to its full. Without this habit ideas are useless.

3) Looking into the Marketplace: At the moment a writer identifies what the piece is about she should be consulting the marketplace and finding editors who might be interested. This is a habit that must be learned as soon as possible. Ignore the negative signals that come by way of rejection. We all feel the sting of rejection. It initiates us into the cruel world.

4) Stroking the Piece: Lick the writing into a form that is comforting and rewarding for a reader. Never get into the habit of believing what you write, off the top of your head, is the finished piece. That bad habit comes from egotism.

5) Prepare to Present the Piece: Offer the editor a piece of writing that can't be rejected. Make sure the presentation is done correctly. Have someone proofread what you write before sending it along to an editor.

In my earlier days it was the easiest thing in the world to conceive of a writing idea and then start to throw words down on a piece of paper. That was no problem and I did it consistently for a long time. But then came searching the possible markets and the polishing and here is where the non-habits I had tripped me up. By not searching markets I had no real incentive to finish the piece of writing. The chain of habit was broken and a lot of material ended up in flat yellowed folder that went no where.

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               [ CODA ]

Make writing a consistent series of habits that gives you a sense of where you are at any moment during the process.

Make it a habit to focus on a small group of basic themes.

Make it a habit to continually rewrite what you've written.

The physical and mental habits of writers are as diverse as the number of writers that exist.

Habits are simply an admission that we are animals after all. Perhaps that is one reason we resist admitting we have them. We are shrewd animals and try to turn habits to our advantage. That is the key. We are going to have habits. The more conscious we are of them the greater the possibility we convert them from bad to good ones. Those, in other words, that help us realize our dreams.

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David Eide
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