Notes on Craft: Writing Habits
by Olakunle Ologunro
So, I am here again. This time though, feel free to whip me because what I am writing about, Writing Habits, is a principle I don’t even follow myself. Okay, maybe I used to follow it, but life got in the way. But then, should life get in the way of something you love?
From what I know of them, habits are a routine of behaviour that has become a part of you such that it occurs subconsciously. Here’s a story from my childhood. A woman in my area had a child who was fond of sucking her thumb. It was supposed to be a temporary behaviour, the way children pick up things and then discard them. But this child continued. On and on until she made a habit of the thumb sucking. She would sit alone and the next thing, she’d pop the thumb in her mouth. On her way to school, she had the thumb in her mouth. Sometimes, she fell asleep with the thumb in her mouth. Thumb-sucking became a habit for her.
You’re probably thinking, thumb-sucking and writing, what’s the connection? Well, the connection is in the habit, the constant repetition of it until it becomes something you cannot break.
A lot of people who are writers have writing habits. My friend, M, for instance, wakes up at dawn to write. I’m not sure if I can do that. I sleep too often and too much to wake up and be reasonable enough to write something readable.
For you as a writer, I don’t know what habits you have. But a common one often touted is that a writer must write everyday. Well, I found something interesting in the form of a Facebook comment which I’ll paraphrase: You don’t have to write everyday. I don’t know about you, but I find that my life as it is does not give me room to write as much as I want to. Besides, I procrastinate a lot which is quite shameful, but let’s give God the glory. Anyway, the comment continues: The idea that one can write for hours a day does not apply if you’re not a rich American novelist with a wife making your sandwiches. Thinking about your work is writing time. Reading is writing time.
I hope this comforts you. At least for a while.
I said at the beginning that I used to have writing habits. I’ll tell you about them now.
- Journaling: You know, keeping a diary and writing in it things that I found interesting. Or scenes from life and other things.
- Recording people: I used to own a small book with a brown leather cover. In it, I would write sentences I thought interesting, either something I thought up or one I encountered in a book. I would observe people too: how they spoke, what they wore, their carriage, their mannerisms, etc and record these things. For example, the sister in my church who punctuated her sentences with ‘like’ (I’m like no need because, like, children anniversary will soon come and you know, like, the children they em, like); the woman whose earrings were shaped like semicolons; the man who, when he spoke, always had a reason to run a hand across his head. I recorded bits of conversation too. Like that time when an announcement came up on the radio from a man who said he needed a God-fearing wife and my uncle said, “Person wey no fear God dey find God-fearing wife.” And sometimes, I recorded my environment too. The colour of the sky, the shape of a particular tree, the sound a particular thing made. If carried into the world of fiction, these things make your work true to life, honest. Here’s something from Teju Cole: It might be hard to believe that these things are interesting, but that is what your writing talent consists of: to make the ordinary interesting. In a field of unexceptional events, zoom in on the pungent detail.
- Reading: There is no shortcut around this thing. You cannot be a writer without first being a reader. Read fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc. Read good books and bad books, because only then can you decide what you like and the things you don’t. And please, read interviews too. Interviews are very important, and I honestly find it sad that I don’t read enough of them. In interviews, one is exposed to the author: their opinion about certain things, but more importantly, the principles that guide them and their craft.
Many years ago, I was at JazzHole with M when this man came in. The details are foggy now, but when this man found out about our love for writing, he went out of his way to suggest things for us to make a habit of. I remember he said to read at least one short story per day, at least an article from a reputable magazine, an interview, and to write down things that we’d learned.
I will stop this letter here.
Do you have any writing habits? Do share them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.