Creative Writing Tips: Show Up For the Work

I want to share some creative writing tips that jumped out at me while I was in Montpelier, VT for the VCFA Children’s Writing MFA mini-residency. Did I mention it was beautiful? No? Here’s a shot of their cute little capital building:

creative writing tips, creative writing technique
“Cute” and “little” are perfect adjectives for Montpelier, the smallest state capital and the only one without a McDonald’s, as six different residents, yes, six, told me.

Isn’t it gorgeous? We had a relaxing weekend of hanging out on the veranda at the Inn at Montpelier, mingling with the locals, meeting current VCFA students and alumna/ae, listening to readings and pitches, and otherwise drinking in the creativity of this little hideaway town.

Creative Writing Tips: Establish A Writing Habit

One thing that struck me about the program is how dedicated the students and faculty are to developing their creative writing techniques. (Hanging out at the Saturday BBQ were Walter Dean Myers, Tim Wynne-Jones, Coe Booth, M.T. Anderson, and more…what an amazing roster of talent!) But I did notice something that bugs me about creative writing MFA programs, and about establishing a writing habit in general. This is something I saw much more in my MFA program, and I don’t know to what extent it exists at VCFA, yet this weekend did get me thinking…

A lot of alumni coming back to Vermont felt liberated, as if they could think, breathe, create again. For them, their time at the program was such a richly creative time, and one where they were pushed by their advisers and classmates to really put in the work and get some writing done. Apparently, some of them stopped writing or wrote less or felt less driven after graduating.

The same thing tends to happen to people who can only write between 6 and 8 a.m., or people who can only use a certain computer, or people who can only go to such and such coffee shop, or sit in this one seat, or wear those pajama pants. Having writing habits and a writing ritual and ideal circumstances for creative work…that’s all good and fine, and might actually fall under the umbrella of frequently proffered creative writing tips. And, truthfully, having these habits and requirements is much better than having no writing practice at all.

Can Writing Habits Hurt Your Progress?

But there’s also a hidden danger. What happens when you leave the MFA program? When your seat is taken? When the dog eats your pajama pants? I know perfectly wonderful writers who have been driven into a serious block when their (self-created, mind) requirements aren’t being met. Any development of their creative writing techniques comes to a grinding halt. Which brings me to the idea of creativity as this fleeting thing, and my disdain for the idea of writers having some temperamental muse.

No. Here’s one of the only creative writing tips you need: you sit down and you write. First, you pay attention to what your mind is saying are your requirements (this mug of coffee, that chair, these pants). But what’s more important is that you establish a daily creative writing practice. When something goes wrong and your coffee shop closes because they’re resurfacing their floor, you don’t go into a creative tailspin…you go home or go to the library or sit outside and you keep writing. When you graduate from the MFA program, you don’t go into a creative funk, you rally your former peers into a new critique group and you keep going. (VCFA people: please know I’m not talking about you…if anything, I’m thinking so much more about my own MFA experience!)

When you start showing up for work without these obstacles (self-created, again) weighing you down, without a checklist for the Ideal Creative Environment that the world must meet before you can write, that “muse” (your work ethic, actually) will start showing up, too. You will, in effect, train yourself to show up creatively every time you show up physically to the page.

One Of The Most Valuable Creative Writing Tips I Can Give You

Just write. Write when it’s easy. Write when you don’t wanna (I didn’t wanna blog yesterday, so this entry is a day late…we can’t all be perfect). Write when it’s raining. Write when everyone else on the freaking planet is at a picnic and you can’t go because you know you have to write. (Here are some tips for finding time to write on those busy days.) Don’t rely on that program or those pajamas or this coffee shop. Rely only on yourself. Practice discipline.

Always evaluate your writing habits and try to determine whether they’re helping you in the long term or hindering you. Keep an eye on what you think you need and what you really need. Rally yourself. And when yourself is feeling cranky, rally a community around you. (May you all be blessed enough to create the kind of peer group that they have at the VCFA, truly an awesome thing to behold!)

The writing life isn’t a simple thing, but the good thing is humans can be taught, and creative writing techniques can be trained to flow, as long as you make yourself available to it and focus your work ethic.

You don’t have to get an MFA to hone your craft. Hire me as your book editor and I’ll help you develop your creative writing techniques.

8 Replies to “Creative Writing Tips: Show Up For the Work”

  1. I’ve heard this before, but put in a different way:


    Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard.

  2. amychristineparker says:

    I like this post. It reminds me of Stephen King’s On Writing when he discusses his cigar smoking muse who he’s made a place for in his basement. The muse doesn’t show up until all the grunt work has been done, the foundation laid. A sort of blue collar approach to the creative process which I love. Writing is definitely creative, but if you’re serious about it you also have to treat it like any other job. You have to write regardless of location, time, and atmosphere. All you need is pen and paper…which is really freeing. To me, it’s the best possible type of creating precisely because you can do it literally anywhere.

  3. I appreciated this post and can relate to it. I’ve been wanting to get into an MFA program for years. Not going to happen. I have a hard enough time finding snippets of time in which to write. I have five kids ages 3 – 18. I homeschool two of them. I have a spouse who is supportive, but doesn’t “get” my need to have undisturbed blocks of “me” time. (He always talks to me! Argh!) I feel victorious when I write a measely 1,000 words in a day. Usually it’s a lot less. But I try to write something every day. Why is it that no one but me sees my writing as a career, as a vital part of who I am — not just a hobby to pass the time? Drives me nuts.

  4. I understand the urge to have writerly “habits” meant to get you in the right frame of mind. I was always a person who liked routine – not to the extent that I couldn’t function if something went awry, but it did produce some anxiety until I got things back on track.

    Then I had a baby – and comfy routine vanished from my life!

    I write what I can, when I can. I have written on backs of fliers while sitting in my car waiting to go to a meeting. I have written with my toddler climbing on me like a jungle gym. I have written in waiting rooms. As you said, all you need in order to be a writer is something to write on and with – be it pen and paper or a word processor. Once I wrote in crayon.

    And, Laurisa, I feel your pain. Someone once told me that no one will take your writing seriously as a career until you do – until you think of yourself as a writer. So I started doing that. If I really want to focus on work, I lock myself in the bedroom while hubby and baby girl fend for themselves. If you have “me” time that people always intrude on, go somewhere they can’t follow. The bedroom, the bathroom, the car. When I do it, I tell my daughter “Mommy’s going to work.” The more you treat it as such, the more they will. And 1,000 words a day is great – that’s 30,000 words a month. You should feel victorious – any day you get words on the page is a good day!

  5. Dawn Buthorn says:

    It was a spectacular weekend. But you’re right–when you’re in the program (ay mfa program) those packets become your whole life. Once the deadlines are gone, it’s hard to get back into the routine of forcing yourself to write. Many of my classmates created artificial packets for themselves in order to keep themselves going. I think anything you can do to get your butt in the chair (whether it’s a particular coffee mug, pajama pants, or whatever) is a good thing, as long as you can get past it if something goes wrong (ie. dog eats pajamas).
    Btw, I love the VCFA guest posts!

  6. Caroline Carlson says:

    Thanks, Mary–this was just the post I needed to read today, on my first day back at the computer after my VCFA graduation. Half of my brain would prefer to sleep for the next century or so, but I went to Vermont in the first place in part to teach myself writing discipline, so I’m not about to give that up now. (And it’s kind of awesome to discover that, really, I DO want to sit down and write even without school-imposed deadlines.)

    So glad you enjoyed the residency! VCFA is a pretty special place. And I had no idea about the McDonald’s thing….

  7. Thank you. I’m one workshop, two electives, and one thesis from finishing my MFA, and finances have forced an indefinite hiatus, so I’m grieving and … not writing. When I do, which I try daily, it’s bad. I guess bad is better than none.

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