A Writer's Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life

A Writer's Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life

by Judy Reeves

ISBN: 9781577319368

Publisher New World Library

Published in Calendars/Readers & Writers

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Sample Chapter



Eighty percent of success is showing up.




The most important part of writing practice is writing, getting the words down on the page. Don't stop to edit, to think, to rephrase, or to rewrite. If you keep your writing hand moving, you'll bypass the censor, the editor, the critic, and if you're lucky, maybe even the ego.

This isn't to say writing practice is "stream-of-consciousness" writing where you attempt to get down every thought that passes through your mind and the writing that emerges is a jumble of disconnected thoughts and images. During practice sessions, stay focused on the topic and the image that arises, and keep the pen moving as it explores that image and then moves on to the next. Sometimes you'll rocket through the topic on a surge of power that started at liftoff and keeps you at warp speed the whole ride; other times your writing will be more like a lazy river on a Sunday afternoon, peaceful and easy and sun-dappled. The trick is to, at any speed, just keep writing till the end.

Don't stop to reread what you've written until you've completed the practice session. Each time you stop, you move out of the place of intuitive trusting to a cerebral place of judging, evaluating, comparing. There is a time for that, but not during practice sessions. Writing practice is for writing.

Just keep the pen moving until the time is up, or until you feel complete.


You've set aside the time, you're sitting in the place you've chosen to do today's practice session, and you're comfortable. Maybe you're with a writing friend. Pen and notebook are at hand, and you're ready to begin writing. Here's what you do:

Date your page, find the topic for today's session, and write it at the top of your page. Then, before you start to think about how you want to approach the topic, simply grab the tail of the first image that sailed into your mind when you wrote it down, and begin writing. Let the words spill from your pen easily and naturally. Don't worry about staying in the lines; don't worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don't worry about anything. Just write. When you come to a natural slowdown, ease your grip on your pen (you may be surprised at how tightly you're holding on). Breathe. Let the next image come to you. It may be an extension of the first image, or it may be something new that was born out of what you've been writing. Whatever image appears, don't resist. Just fall into it, and keep writing.

Above all else, don't stop to think and don't go back and reread what you've written. If you can't think of the name of a place or a person or some other fact, make up something or draw a line. If you run into a blank wall, rewrite the topic, repeat the last line you wrote, or write, "I don't know what to write next." If you keep the pen moving, you'll find your place again. Just keep writing until the time is up or until you feel complete. If you can, read your piece aloud after you've finished (see Guideline 11, p. 199).

Congratulate yourself. You honored your commitment to practice and, by doing so, you honored yourself as writer. If it didn't go as smoothly as you wanted, don't worry. There's always tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow.


Despite the proliferation of computers, especially lightweight laptops, and the ease of composing on them, writing practice is best done by hand (more on this below). Tools for the writer, then, are simple: pen and paper. Inexpensive, portable, and replenishable. Some writers can be downright obsessive about their tools — only a certain paper, a particular pen; anything else and they're off their game. Edwidge Danticat orders flimsy blue exam books from an online office supply store, sometimes using up to one hundred of them for a draft. Amitav Ghosh insists on a black ink Pelikan pen and white, lined paper manufactured in France. I'm a wide-ruled, spiral- bound, three-hole-punched notebook and Pilot Precise V7 fine point, blue ink woman.

Consider this: In a writing practice session of fifteen minutes, you might write 450 words, more or less, or three to four pages. You'll do this every day. Up to as many as one hundred pages a month. (The size of your handwriting, the size of the notebook, the length of the practice session — all these are factors.) Because of the sheer quantity of paper, most practice writers use inexpensive notebooks. Others like leather-bound journals or blank books that reflect their writing mood or writing persona. Most important, find a notebook you're comfortable with, one that fits your writing style and your budget.

Regarding pens or pencils: Remember, you'll be writing along at a fairly good speed; you'll want a pen that doesn't skip or resist the paper, or bleed through to the other side. Always have a spare. Nothing is more frustrating than to run out of ink in the midst of it all.


Ah, what technology has brought us! First the typewriter, then the word processor, next the computer, now voice-recognition computers, and laptops that weigh less than a good-sized paperback and are getting smaller and lighter all the time. Why write by hand when there's all this technology, a nanosecond's response to the flick of the finger, the ability to alter sentences, relocate paragraphs, erase, or rearrange whole chapters with macro magic? And how our fingers fly. At last we can almost keep up with our thoughts. With all this, why still write by hand?

Legions of writers still do, and for their own good reasons. For example: Writer bell hooks said there's something about handwriting that slows the idea process. When working on the computer, she said, "You don't have those moments of pause that you need." Spalding Gray believed that writing by hand was the closest thing he could get to his breath, and Anne Tyler said the muscular movement of putting down script on the paper gets her imagination back in the track where it was. Clive Barker said that for him, handwriting is "the most direct association I can make between what's going on in my mind's eye and what's going to appear on the page."

The following are more reasons to write by hand.

• Writing is a physical act; you should do it with your body.

• Writing muscles include the hand and the heart.

• Writing by hand is sensual; it allows you to feel the movement of pen against paper.


Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible, double space, or write on every second line.


• You can feel your heart beat when you write by hand; sometimes you can feel your pulse in your fingers.

• Writing by hand allows you to write with your breath.

• When you write by hand you slow down enough to write only some of your thoughts. In writing practice, more is not necessarily better.

• You are more connected to your feelings when you write by hand.

• Handwriting is alive.

• You are in control when you write by hand (no low battery, malfunction, SAVE command, or crash can interrupt you).

• You can write anywhere when you write by hand.

Writing by hand is elemental to writing practice. Even if you feel most at home at your computer, fingers flinging words onto the screen, I urge you to slow down, pick up what John Updike called "the humblest and quietest of weapons, a pencil," and try a month's worth of practice writing by hand.



RITA DOVE said she loves the absolute quiet of her cabin in the woods. It's "the silence of the world," she said, "birds shifting weight on branches, the branches squeaking against other twigs, the deer hooosching through the woods."

RUSSELL BANKS also has a cabin in the woods, a converted sugar shack that was once used for boiling maple syrup. This is where he scribbles out his first drafts in longhand.

AMY TAN surrounds herself with objects that carry a personal history — old books, bowls, boxes, and chairs and benches from imperial China.

RICHARD FORD's desk is more of a concept than a thing. "It's like the 'Belize desk' at the State Department; an idea more than a place you actually sit at."

ANNIE DILLARD recommended a room with no view, "so imagination can meet memory in the dark."

KURT VONNEGUT used his hardwood floor as a "desk" where he spread and piled and kept things near at hand as he worked from his lap while seated on a padded Danish walnut easy chair.

JUNOT DÍAZ retreats to the bathroom and sits on the edge of the tub when he needs to seal himself off from the world.

The bed served as desk for any number of writers, including WALKER PERCY, EDITH WHARTON, COLETTE, MARCEL PROUST, and JAMES JOYCE.

"Our task," wrote JOHN UPDIKE, "is to rise above the setting, with its comforts and distractions, into a relationship with our ideal reader."


Every writer needs a place to call her or his own, whether it's a folding table behind a screen in the bedroom or a separate studio with desk, computer, napping couch, and window with a view. Find yours and claim it. Furnish it with those things that give you comfort, inspire you, support you. Make it a safe space, a place you go to joyfully. Writing is creating and creating is work/play for the soul.

Your writing space doesn't have to be a fixed location, nor does it have to be the only place you write. Throughout this book are suggestions to make your writing mobile. More than a few writers need the stimulation of public places to get their writing done, especially first-draft writing. At a workshop, Naomi Epel talked about schlepping her grocery cart loaded with laptop, manuscript, reference books, and pages of notes to cafés all over Berkeley. John Wray wrote Lowboy, which takes place in the New York City subway, while actually on the subway. Writers I know set themselves up in cafés, on airplanes, in their neighborhood library, or out in nature — at the beach, for example. Even individuals who come to weekly writing practice groups have claimed squatter's rights to their own space at the table and always sit in the same chair with the same accoutrements of water bottle or caffe latte or rainbow of pens arrayed before them.

What you need in a writing space is safety and comfort, both psychic and physical: a place where you feel free to lose yourself in the world you are creating on paper.

An idea: spend a practice session describing your ideal writing space, then compare this dreamed-of niche with your current space. What's the same? What can you change to bring the real more in line with the wished-for?

{See also Places to Practice, p. 68; Practice Accoutrements, p. 171}



1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable vision of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust, be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven


Every writer needs one. This is the place you put all that stuff that comes to you while you're focused on something else. It's the workbench for cobbling together bits and pieces or fixing part of your story that is not working.

A writer's notebook is the receptacle for ideas and trying out words and images. A place for making notes to yourself.

Some writers keep separate notebooks for recordings of the senses, descriptions of the weather, character sketches, bits of dialogue, and other subjects. They write everything down in their current, working notebook, then from time to time, transfer pieces into the separate notebooks. These they file on a shelf near their desk. When they need a description of an August sky in Aspen, they finger through their Landscapes notebook till — voilà! — just the entry that works: Aspen, August 14, 1997. And there follows the color of sky, the shape of the clouds with metaphor abounding, the sound of shadow on mountain, light footed and nimble.

A writer's notebook is what you always carry with you. Along with your pen. Howard Junker, editor of the literary journal ZYZZYVA, describes his pocket-sized version as his "stealth" notebook and suggests you have one, too. Anne Lamott stuffs three-by-five-inch cards in her back pocket for scribbling down whatever comes to her as she walks the dog or is otherwise away from her desk. She also writes on her body, messy but apparently effective. I hope you will take the time to read or reread Joan Didion's essay "On Keeping a Notebook," which appears in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Some writers I know keep a supply of prompts in their notebooks in the happy event that they find themselves with a little extra time for an impromptu practice session.

Writer's notebooks lean toward the chaotic. Unless they're airlifted out, jottings tend to get recorded and forgotten, like last year's holiday cards. In Turning Life into Fiction, Robin Hemley suggests leafing back through your notebook (he calls his a journal) from time to time. As when panning for gold, you might get nuggets and you might get gravel. But then again, you could be making a driveway, and a few loads of gravel might be just what you need.


Imagine that you put off brushing your teeth until you could spend some really serious time doing it, or that every day you waited to drive to work until you felt inspired to do so. Okay, so these are ridiculous comparisons, but the point is, when something is part of your daily routine, you don't struggle with doing it; you simply build it into your schedule and do it. The suggestion here is to make writing a part of your routine — just like brushing your teeth and driving to work.

Benefits of and Variations on the Practice of a Daily Routine

1. Making writing a part of your daily routine means it will be easier to write. Postponing until you can get in some "really good hours" often translates into not writing at all — something always seems to come up. Or the stress of "have to" writing blocks any really good work.

A daily writing routine means that when those long stretches of writing time — weekends, holidays, vacations — come, you can slip as easily into the time as you slide your feet into your favorite slippers. Plus, you have all that raw material to work with.

2. When you make an appointment for writing time, you don't have to struggle with the "should" or "ought" of writing, or make the decision to write or not write; you just do it. You honor the appointment with your writer-self as much as you would an appointment with your doctor, your business partner, or your best friend.

3. Just because Ernest Hemingway believed he had to get to work before the sun rose doesn't mean you have to. Set your daily routine for writing at the time that suits you best, not when everyone else says you should.

If you're an early riser, do your writing practice in the morning, when you first awaken. Stay in bed and write under the covers if you want. But if you need a few cups of coffee before you can even hold a pen, by all means have them. Some of us even like to start projects at ten o'clock at night and work into the wee hours. For example, Dan Chaon cranks it out between 11 PM and 4 AM, and Michael Chabon says he can get more writing done between midnight and one o'clock in the morning than any other hour of the day.

Find a time when the work flows easily and naturally, when you write instead of edit. Make this your practice time.

4. For a change, vary your daily writing time to catch yourself in different moods, with different energy. Especially if you feel yourself or your writing getting into a rut.

Guaranteed: A daily routine that includes writing will have more benefits than you can imagine. Just for starters, (a) the writing will come more easily, (b) you'll write more, (c) your writing will improve, and (d) you'll realize that you are, after all, a writer.

{See also The Discipline of Writing, p. 195}


Someone said all you need to be a writer is an imagination and curiosity. (Add to that, stamina.) Your imagination is in the unique, individual way you see the world, the particular and specific details you notice, and the connections you make. More than merely your experience, it is the way you contemplate and interpret your experience. Henry James said, "[Experience] is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative ... it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of air into revelations."

Excerpted from "A Writer's Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life" by Judy Reeves. Copyright © 2013 by Judy Reeves. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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