The Practice of Creativity

Guest Post: The Art of Low Stakes Daily Writing and How It Can Transform Your Year

Posted on: January 18, 2016

You’re in for a special treat today. I’ve asked friend and AROHO writing buddy, Li Yun Alvarado to share her wisdom about the power of what she calls ‘low stakes daily writing’. Her guidelines are so doable, practical and fun, you’ll want to try them right away.

When we met at AROHO this August, we bonded over the delights and dilemmas of navigating both an academic and creative writing life. As a recent PhD, Li Yun is doing just that with incredible insight and aplomb.

I’m delighted to welcome Li Yun Alvarado to The Practice of Creativity.

Li Yun Alvarado is the author of Words or Water (forthcoming) and Nuyorico, CA. A poet and scholar, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New Madrid; Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education; The Acentos Review; and PMS Poemmemoirstory among others. In 2012, her work received an honorable mention for The Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. She is currently the Senior Poetry Editor for Kweli Journal and is an alumna of VONA/Voices Writing Workshop and AROHO. She holds a BA in Spanish and sociology from Yale University and an MA and PhD in English from Fordham University. Li Yun is a native New Yorker living in Long Beach, California who takes frequent trips to Salinas, Puerto Rico to visit la familia. You can learn more about Li Yun and her work on Facebook and at www.liyunalvarado.com

 

“The Art of Low Stakes Daily Writing”

In October 2014, my dissertation committee and I settled in on a defense date: April 17, 2015. Finally, a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that had been three years of research and writing appeared. There exists a line between ABD (all but dissertation) and PhD that remains a moving target until that defense date is set, but with the date on the calendar, the idea of “after my dissertation” went from an abstraction to a quickly approaching reality.

li-yun

I knew I wanted “after” to include a shift toward prioritizing my creative work. I had never abandoned creative projects entirely, but while dissertating, I focused on concrete creative projects with short term deadlines. For example, creating my wedding website on Weebly and self-publishing my chapbook Nuyorico, CA were two of my creative outlets in 2013.

Still, I longed for a time when my creative writing projects could once again take center stage. As the end of my graduate student life approached, I imagined what shape my writing life might take.

~          ~          ~

I have often heard writers advise: “Write every day.”

In response, I’d often think:

“Yeah right. Easy for you to say famous / published / award-winning author.”

Or, the less snarky:

“That just doesn’t work for me.”

Or:

“I don’t have the discipline.”

What I learned while writing a dissertation was that academics toss around that same advice. If not “write every day,” they at least encourage, “write regularly” and “schedule your writing time.”

Even comic Jerry Seinfeld famously developed a daily writing strategy that involves crossing out the dates of a calendar in red and focusing on not breaking the chain of red Xs by writing every day.

The summer prior to my defense, eager to finish by the following May, I committed to a regular writing practice for the first time. Inspired by Joan Bolker’s advice in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, I worked from 7am – 9am every Monday through Friday that summer. Before breakfast, or e-mail, or Facebook, or anything else, I wrote. Something. Anything.

After two 45 minute writing cycles (or four 20 minute pomodoros), I ate breakfast then completed a few more writing sessions or called it quits depending on the day.

Did I really write every weekday all summer long? Probably not. OK, definitely not, but I wrote on more days than I didn’t. And I. Got. It. Done: full drafts of each chapter before I began teaching that fall.

 

~          ~          ~

 

Writing my dissertation gave me an unexpected gift: a regular writing practice.

I finally knew I was capable of developing a writing practice, but I also knew that the upcoming deadline (graduating by May 15) had fueled my discipline that summer.

For my life beyond the dissertation, I wanted to develop a writing practice that worked even when—especially when—there was no deadline. A way to feed my creative self that also gave me that satisfaction of accumulation that only comes from writing every day.

There were several considerations I took into account as I decided what kind of daily practice to begin:

* I decided the best way to transition from dissertating to writing creatively was to begin a new writing practice in January, three months before the defense.

* I also knew I wanted my daily writing to be a sliver of joy each day as opposed to a burden—something my dissertating days inevitably were at times.

* Finally, the poetic fatigue I experienced at the end of an April 30/30 poetry challenge in 2009 suggested that the unmanageable pace of “one poem a day” wouldn’t work for me, so that approach was out.

With all that in mind, I settled on what I call “Low Stakes Daily Writing.” I began on January 1st, 2015 and wrote (almost) every day in 2015!

Here are the Low Stakes Daily Writing guidelines I settled on:

 

  1. Find a Fun Low Stakes Daily Writing Notebook

This step isn’t mandatory, but it supports the idea of a daily practice that is joyful or fun. My daily writing notebook actually found me. In a novelty store in Vegas on New Year’s Eve last year, my husband handed me a black 5 x 7 notebook saying, “This is for you.” On the cover? In gold stylized cursive letters, the words: “My F*cking Brilliant Ideas.”

 

  1. Write at Least Once A Day

Simple: Write. Something. Anything. Every. Single. Day.

This “write anything” approach was in part inspired by Bolker, who insists, “Write anything, because writing is writing” (94) and “Writing is writing and if you can’t write your dissertation just continue writing—anything — to keep your muscles in shape, and to keep you from getting phobic” (94).

 

  1. No Guilt Allowed

Miss a day? Write twice the next day. Try not to skip more than one day which should be easy because ANY writing in your notebook counts.

 

  1. No Notebook? No Problem.

If the urge to write hits when I’m sans notebook, I write elsewhere then copy that entry back into my notebook later. My iPhone notepad is full of Low Stakes Daily Writing.

 

  1. Low Stakes Daily Writing: One Piece of a Larger Writing Life

My Low Stakes Daily Writing was not the only writing I did on most days, but it was the only writing I had to do every day.

 

~          ~          ~

 

People are sometimes skeptical of my approach. They find it hard to believe that anything goes. That’s when I show them one of my favorite examples:

 

8/8/15

money money

money money

money money money

I was worried about money, so I wrote about money. With my worry on the page, I could let it go for the night and go to sleep.

 

“At least,” I consoled myself, “I wrote today.”

Similarly, at the end of last semester, I wrote:

 

12/8/15

 

Grading

Grading

Grading

Grading

 

That’s it. That counts. I’m not brilliant, or inspired, or awake enough every day to write something meaningful, and with Low Stakes Daily Writing I don’t have to be. Each day I connect with the page. Each day I promise a few moments—however brief—to my writing. To myself.

Other kinds of Low Stakes Daily Writing include:

– An automatic response to an article, blog post, book, poem, image, etc

– A list of words that come up while playing a word association with friends or family

– A letter

– A poem draft

– A list of words or phrases I hear on TV or in a movie

– A meditation on a current problem

– A stream of consciousness free-write

 

As you can see, the product doesn’t matter as much as the process. The act of sitting with the page is the point.

Low Stakes Daily Writing is low pressure and sometimes that is all I need to make room for something magical to come through. With the room to write crap (guilt-free), I can write first drafts and not worry about whether or not they’re any good — they’re not supposed to be good in here. This is my take on Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Draft” approach to writing. I produce a lot. Then I sift through, find hidden gems, and craft them into something worth sharing later on.

And then there are those thrilling nights when the writing comes so easily, so powerfully, so spot on that I know, even as I’m writing, that I have one of those rare not-so-hidden gems on my hands. On those nights I lay my head down especially grateful for this daily practice.

The next day, I return to the page and I write something new.

 

~          ~          ~

Here’s what I’ve gained after a year of Low Stakes Daily Writing:

 

  1. I have two and a quarter journals filled with writing to sift through for the seeds of new work.

 

  1. I created a ritual. I write every day, usually right before bed. It is such a part of my routine that as I get into bed my husband will often ask, “Have you written today?” (I’ll keep him!)

 

  1. Amidst all the random reflections, I have some solid first drafts that I otherwise might not have written.

 

  1. A new publication. A poem that began as a draft in my Low Stakes Daily Writing journal was recently accepted for publication in New Madrid. That is the fastest I have taken a poem from draft to publication. The speed at which this particular poem found a home might be a fluke, but I suspect that if I hadn’t been in the practice of writing every day, I might not have written that poem at all. Therein lies the magic of writing every day: I created space for what might not have otherwise come through to emerge.

 

  1. But most importantly, I connected with my creative self, honoring who I am as poet and writer, every single day of 2015!

 

As you enter 2016, I hope you’ll consider joining me with your own take on a Low Stakes Daily Writing practice. Happy New Year! And Happy Writing!

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13 Responses to "Guest Post: The Art of Low Stakes Daily Writing and How It Can Transform Your Year"

I, too, have had all the (snarky and self-defeating) responses to people’s exhortation to “write every day.” But your notion of “low stakes writing” seems much more doable–especially when you give examples that seem so, well, low-stakes!!! Thanks for the tips!

So glad my approach resonated with you! My 2015 experiment with Low Stakes Daily Writing surpassed all of my expectations. I hope you find the same to be true for you. Happy Writing!

Great idea, and I love the name. I’ve shared this with my beginning creative writer class.

I am inspired! Before I go to bed, scratch the paper with the pen, put the words on the page, I write. Because I am a writer. It’s what I do.

This is beautiful, Li Yun, and I love it not just for the versatility of ideas for how to simply write, but because it is so honest (with a touch of humor). And welcoming…will send my blogging and writing students to your post.

Thank you for this! I needed something this simple to break the pattern of silly excuses of why I cannot write every day. Y ahora, a escribir algo simple en mi blog. No todo tiene que ser candidato a bestseller, no sé por qué me presiono tanto…

Reblogged this on Mirymom's Blog and commented:
Letting yourself have some “low stakes” writing time really can reinvigorate your writing life. It settles the soul and frees the mind. Excellent article!

I’m glad my “low stakes daily writing” approach resonates with so many of you. It has really helped me stay connected to my writing self, even when I’m short on time or motivation to work on bigger projects. I hope it can do the same for all of you!

I just found another amusing post in my 2015 low stakes daily writing that I thought you might all appreciate:

5/27/15

Like when you make a promise to write every day. But just don’t want to. So you write about not wanting to write because you once heard that writing is writing.

[…] Guest Post: The Art of Low Stakes Daily Writing and How It Can Transform Your Year by Li Yun […]

[…] Alvarado – “Late to chime in but I’m going to start “Low Stakes Daily Writing,” again. I’m also participating in the #52essays2017 challenge – though it might turn into […]

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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