The novelist and short story writer Louis L’Amour had the famous line: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” It’s why we spend a lot of time at Writing Routines asking authors about how they get going, how they summon the muse in the morning (or evening), how they get those first words down. Most authors describe that first moment of turning the wheel as excruciating: they come to the page cold, and the warm-up isn’t easy. But once they get going, the faucet starts to flow and the words start coming out of them.
So with that visual in mind, here’s what seven writers do to turn the knob:
1. Songwriter Young and Sick has been called a “dual threat” in music and art, and he gets his work going in one of two ways:
“If I can, I get on my bicycle and ride to the beach and back while listening to a podcast or audiobook. If I can’t do that, then I usually walk to 7-Eleven and buy a Kombucha and a protein bar.”
“After my 500th cup of coffee, I’m usually ready to go. And I like to settle in with my dog either at my side or, as he prefers, around my shoulders like a 35-pound scarf. He’s a good boy.”
3. For Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, he took inspiration for his novel The Sympathizer by only starting his writing after reading a few pages of the book he admired,The Land at the End of the World :
“I was reading a novel called The Land at the End of the World by the Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes and it came to me at a very fortuitous time because it had been reissued in a new translation right when I was starting The Sympathizer and struggling to find a beginning and when I read that book it really blew the doors open for me. I fell in love with the rhythm and the voice and I wanted some of that for my own book. So what I did was I would read two or three pages of that novel every morning until I was so affected, so seized by Lobo Antunes’s prose, that I just had to write myself.”
4. NBA basketball player turned author Paul Shirley cops to the feeling that many of us get before we start: ‘existential dread.’
He says of his writing days:
“I try to start my days the same way: get up, eat breakfast, stretch/exercise, meditate, get to the place I’m going to write. Once I’m there, I’ll usually put on a “fun” song—something that energizes me, right before digging in. I’ve found that by keeping this routine the same (or nearly so), the “work” of getting into the writing has largely been taken care of. I still feel a small, nagging sense of existential dread (“what if today’s the day I forget how?!”) but I’ve made writing so much a part of my days that it feels like I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”
5. Former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser uses other poet’s work as his spur to action:
“I very often read the poems of someone whose work I admire. Just now I’m rereading all of the poems of Nancy Willard, who died recently. She has been one of my favorite writers for many years. I find that if I read a poem I am moved by I often feel like I’d like to strike up a kind of conversation with the poet, and my response may be an attempt at a poem of my own.”
“I can’t start without a proper coffee made on my magnificent Italian coffee machine.”
“When I first sit down to write, I often do a bit of intellectual squirming. Writing is usually not easy for me until I get into it.
My ritual is that I get out one of my quadrille ruled engineering pads and a sharpened Palomino Blackwing pencil (I keep a Staedtler manual pencil sharpener beside me), and I set out three short tasks. One of them is doing a Pomodoro (25 minutes) on whatever I’m writing.
The funny thing is, once I get started on the writing, I usually get into the flow and go for at least several hours. Then I do the other two little tasks. Then it’s out for a walk (if it’s not snowing) and back to make a list of three more things to work on. I start early in the day, around 6:00 or 7:00 am, so I try to quit around 4:00 pm and watch a television show with my hubby.”