The Importance of Routine

Being a writer is more than hard work: it’s a job. If you’ve never considered writing to be a “real job,” please disabuse yourself of this notion at the door (i.e. right here). The stigma with any job is that, by definition, it’s something you probably either dislike or, at best, tolerate with the only sense of satisfaction mainly coming every other week when you see your paystub. This perception, in fact, is not all together incorrect for a significant number of people. However, there are certainly plenty of people who like their jobs, many of whom even enjoy the “hard work” aspect of said jobs.

Once upon a time, I romantically convinced myself that writing is just such a job, e.g. one that I would like and enjoy (while, yet, still being a job). This part is significant, so consider writing it down.

Writers tend to engage in all kinds of activities to avoid doing what they think of/dread as “real work,” or getting what they call “a real job,” but the pains through which they typically put themselves is far greater than what ultimately amounts to “taking the easy way out” and diving headfirst into a nine-to-five career. I’m using lots of quotes here but it’s only because where these definitions are concerned; your mileage may vary.

Oddly enough, many writers I’ve known have often looked upon nine-to-fives with longing, lachrymose eyes, almost wistful for a job that ends when the clock ticks one last time from 4:59 over to 5:00 P.M. It’s a magical time, this 5:00. It’s a transition into “the world outside.” When it’s officially 5:00, people are expected to leave their work at the office.

Incidentally, a writer’s work is rarely done by 5:00PM (unless s/he does her/his best writing at the crack of dawn, before their day-job, families and/or social commitments steal precious daylight away from them). Of course, there are a few select writers I know earn their crust from writing, but they are, sadly, a stark minority. Mostly, the rest of us teach, edit, freelance, consult, and/or etc. &c. to pay our bills. Even more writers I know have additional familial obligations as well (which, as they will almost certainly tell you, pay nothing at all, monetarily-speaking). As of December 21, 2013, I can also verify this.

Perhaps it’s a way to keep the dream of writing (for a living) alive that we take on so many odds and ends duties for bi-monthly remuneration — a way of staving off the harsh and likely brutal realization that the aforementioned dream may never come to pass. By working multiple jobs doing other things and writing “on the side,” we can still feel like writers — legitimate, “actual/real writers” — even if our tangible output is, by all accounts, diminutive, especially when inevitably compared with our dream output and/or the output of our more prolific writerly friends. We’re still reading and we’re still writing and that fact ultimately feels significant to us.

I submit that plenty writers have bagged it right after they uttered something as simple as, “I’m going to write a novel,” at that one unmemorable dinner party they attended (for example). They then went home after that dinner; they got to work, busted their asses, and wrote their novel. I mean that was it — that’s all they did. It’s not impossible, it’s just kind of . . . uncommon.

My apologies if this missive sounds bleak. Honestly. It’s not intended to be. Rather, it’s hopefully a realistic look at what life is like for writers who aren’t on The New York Times’ Bestseller List . . . for those who’ve published a scant few pieces, or those who haven’t published anything at all. This is not a call to put your pens down, to put your laptops away, and to give up the dream before it consumes and crushes you beneath lofty and unmet expectations. No, this is, in fact, a simple survival guide for a life that more than likely chose you rather than you/it.

Welcome to life as a writer: c. 2014.

Here it is in a nutshell: Do not underestimate the importance of the routine you will have no doubt developed while under the tutelage of your MFA writing mentors. Even though I’m writing this here in black and white, you may think: “It can’t happen to me” (i.e. you). You may think that you could never discard such a thoroughly-honed writing process that you and your mentors spent two years molding into such an exquisitely- and perfectly-balanced shape.

Again: Under no circumstances, whatsoever, should you change your writing routine. Ever. Unless you are dying. That’s a legitimate excuse. It’s about the only acceptable reason you should ever change your writing routine. I’m serious. Don’t change it!

Things begin to happen when you establish a routine (as you already know if you’re currently in a writing program or are just inherently disciplined). Once you practice sitting at the keyboard or notebook every day at the same time, parts of the writing process begin to automate. You don’t typically have to wonder what you’re going to write about or where you’re going to start. When you have a routine, this part will work itself out.

Additionally, the longer you stay away from the keys/pens, the harder it is to get back into any kind of rhythm or momentum you might’ve built. Trust me. During an MFA program, your mentors will prod you and demand work on regular, specific dates. You will pace yourself to meet these deadlines. You will feel good about your work and your output. In the cold harsh real worldpost-MFAyou will probably not have an official mentor, external prodding, deadlines (unless you’ve already locked in a sweet book deal with an agent and editor, et al.), and/or good feelings about your output. You can best that particular set of circumstances fairly easily just by sticking to your routine.

Joseph Michael Owens is the author of the ‘collectio[novella]‘ Shenanigans! and has written for [PANK], The Rumpus, Specter, HTML Giant, Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow & others. He is also the blog editor for both InDigest Magazine and The Lit Pub. You can also find him online at Joe lives in Omaha with four dogs, one wife, and a son.

A Personal Example of the ‘Always Say Yes’ Rule

When recently participating in an alumni panel on ‘Life After the MFA’ at the summer residency, Sarah McKinstry-Brown (author of the award winning Cradling Monsoons) gave some advice that happened to strike a personal chord. In telling people how to get involved in a professional writing life after graduation, she advised that they should “always say yes.” The context behind this was that we never know when a writing-related opportunity that doesn’t sound like what we want can often end up leading to the very ones for which we’ve specifically been searching.

The reason that this struck me was it reminded me of a situation I encountered only a few months prior. A blog editor of [Pank] (as well as author of Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry and A Woman Traces the Shoreline), Sheila Squillante, shared a submission call on Facebook for a Two of Cups Press bourbon poetry anthology: Small Batch.

My first reaction was to dismiss the idea because I don’t really write poetry. However, though I don’t drink anymore, bourbon is something to which I’ve been quite close. I have a reverence for bourbon that made me want to get involved (even though I don’t really write poetry). Unable to help myself, I wrote what I believed to be a witty comment on Sheila’s post to the effect: “I thought bourbon was already a poem.” I felt very self-satisfied and thought that was it until a saw a follow up comment: “Looks like someone has a submission.”

At that moment, I sat back from the computer. Did I have a submission? Since I actually responded to the prompt, however flippantly, should I actually try to sit down and write a poem?

Well, I did. I didn’t just stick with that line, instead making an actual effort at turning it into a real (though short) poem. I kept it simple, trying to recreate what I felt from when I saw the post to when I gave what (I felt) was my koan-like response. Then I submitted and decided that the experience itself was something I needed even if it didn’t go anywhere further.

However, I then got a reply to my submission. They loved “A Bourbon Poetry Submission.” They wanted to include it in the anthology. More surprisingly, they wanted to use my poem in the forward to the book. I was surprised. I was flattered. Heck, I was ecstatic.

This all came back to me when I heard Sarah’s words at the panel. I need to take her of advice more, but this popped into my head as proof of what can happen when you do what she said. Say yes to opportunities that you hadn’t really considered, because you just never know what is going to happen.


David S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt and the forthcoming The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (EAB Publishing, expected spring 2014). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.