Every morning I get up, make coffee, get the woodstove going, sit in my reading chair, and:
- write three pages in my journal;
- draw a cartoon character; and
- write a postcard.
First, a brief introduction: I am a science journalist who writes about health, but not breaking news health. Which has left me feeling more lost than usual during this past pandemic year; it’s hard to convince myself that stories on dry skin and frozen shoulder matter much when so many people are dying. And then there’s the other stuff that weighs on me: social isolation; worries about my (mostly adult) children navigating their own uncertain paths; worries about other people who believe crazy shit.
Perhaps the fact that I have no events on my calendar, I felt the need to set some personal goals, then find a way to follow through. That’s what led to the morning rituals noted above.
Most writers are familiar with journaling and having probably at least tried it. I find the act of writing longhand in a private notebook incredibly helpful for sorting stuff out — I might overanalyze a testy exchange with the husband, or complain to myself about my moods. I never stick with it though. After a few weeks, I feel I’m repeating myself more than discovering new things.
As for the cartoon characters, I started drawing comics last summer and took a cartooning class in the fall. I enjoyed the learning curve of a new form of expressing ideas and emotions. And then I learned how much time it takes to draw consistently and to include all those delicious telling details.
And the postcards. I have had this box of 100 postcards for more than a year: “Museum Favorites” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I finally decided to use them, thinking it would be a way to stay in touch with friends I haven’t seen for too long. (Damned pandemic.) And it might make a good writing practice.
Here’s the thing: All these activities are small, spontaneous acts of creating. They’re serious, but they’re also seriously low-pressure. I don’t plan ahead what I am going to write about or what type of character I will draw.
I simply start writing in my journal, which means sometimes I start with a stilted opening: “Hellooo,” or “Coffee is so delicious.” When my three pages are done, I reach for a small, plain-paper notebook and draw a shape — an oval or kidney bean or banana shape. Next, I add a face and perhaps, as the mood strikes, a body with limbs, some clothes or props, and maybe some shading. There’s my character! I won’t belabor it. The whole point is to see what emerges from the mysterious machinations of my mind.
Finally, I think of someone I’d like to write to and choose a postcard from my box. I’ll write the name in the address space and then I start writing my note. I might pontificate about the postcard’s image, or I might share something I’ve been mulling. (Because I have just been mulling things in my journal!) There’s only enough room to capture a few thoughts or wonderings, so I don’t spend words on small talk. (Hello! I love coffee!) But I have to be okay not having something profound to say. I have to remember that the recipient is a friend and will likely be happy simply because they’ve received a postcard.
Here’s another thing: Once I send that postcard, my thoughts and wonderings are gone! This makes it entirely different than any other writing I do. My sentences, carefully considered in the moment, are never to be examined again.
I’ll admit that when I started, I considered taking a photo of my postcards, so I could re-read them. But that felt too obsessive. I wanted my practice to be untethered and freeing. I wanted to know that I could reliably generate solid ideas in the moment, and to learn to trust that capacity was there. Any time. Every day.
The resolve to “just do it”
If I have any advice to share about morning routines or writing practices, it’s this: Pick something that seems reasonable and just do it. Resolve to do it for a month, at which point you can reassess and decide to keep it up or change it up.
A final note. I make a point to not look at my phone until I’m finished with my routine. I want all these small acts of creativity to feel like they originate from me, not from reacting to some bit of news or a tweet.
Jill U. Adams is a freelance journalist and former research scientist who specializes in coverage of health, biomedical research, psychology, education and the environment. She writes a column about “everyday health” for the Washington Post.