Cathy Rentzenbrink's Top Tips to Start a Regular Writing Practice
Cathy Rentzenbrink is a best-selling author who believes writing your own story can be immensely healing
Here she shares her top tips to starting your own writing practice
Last year I wrote 93,496 words into a computer file called ‘Diary 2021’ and I also filled up a couple of notebooks with scribble and doodles and mind maps. I found this profoundly satisfying and am planning to do the same this year. It definitely works as a creative warm-up and some of these words do end up in my published work, but the more I do it the more I see how good it is for my mental health. My morning writing session functions like anti-anxiety medication. If I do it, I will be much better placed to enjoy the rest of the day. The more I see the benefits, the more evangelical I feel about encouraging other people to follow an urge to pour the self on the page, so let me tell you what I do.
I start by writing the date and time and some reflection on my sleep. I jot down my dreams and do a loose mix of off the top of my head thoughts, and a bit of what is happening in my daily life. There’s a fair bit of grumbling. It is great to have a private space to let off steam. This makes it less likely that my brooding will eventually surface as resentment. I find if I moan on to the paper then I spend less time complaining in real life. I often end with a few things I am grateful for or looking forward to and this gives me a pleasing momentum into the rest of my day.
I write as close to waking up as I can as I like the dreamy, half-asleep, uncensored state of mind that recedes as the day continues and the more awake self takes over. But you have to work out how to fit it to your lifestyle. When my son was little, he always woke before me so I had to do it later in the day. You might be a night-time writer. I prefer to keep my evenings for reading but if you have a liking for the midnight oil then do have a go then.
Sometimes I do it in bed, sometimes at a desk. I used to give myself time off when on holiday but I’ve worked out it is best for everyone if I can find a few private minutes to download myself and that I’ll be better company afterwards. I also like cafes, hotels, trains and planes. Something about being in transit can be creative.
I use my laptop because I have carpal tunnel syndrome so can’t write as much as I want to with a pen. This means I have to be really self-disciplined about not looking at my email or communicating with the outside world, so if you know you’ll struggle with that then a notebook might be better. And I do love writing on paper. I love buying stationery and pens and use lots of different coloured inks.
I write 400 words a day at the moment but you might want to start more modestly. Regularity is much more important than quantity. Sometimes I use a timer and just do it for ten minutes. You want to guard against it becoming too big a job because if it feels like a chore or a huge commitment, it quickly becomes too much. Why not start with five minutes a day and build up? Or five sentences? Or a page of your notebook?
Does it have to be good writing?
Absolutely not! I don’t try to be clever or to create beautiful prose. I don’t read it back and I definitely don’t imagine anyone else ever reading it. It’s my private space to be myself without worrying what other people think of me as a person or as a writer. I find it essential to have a place where I am not being performative, where I can unhook from the need for praise and the fear of blame.
And do you really do it every day?
Most days. I tend to have weekends off as it feels good to leave my laptop off, but I usually scribble a few things in my notebook. I think of it as essential housekeeping for my soul. Sometimes I get too busy and let it slide. Sometimes I get a bit smart and think I don’t need it anymore. I always regret it when I let the practice lapse, but have learnt to forgive myself and recommit and then lovingly guide myself back to the page.
I’m not sure I can just write off the top of my head…
If that feels like too much of a stretch you could try using my questions as writing prompts. I call this ‘Emotional Inventory’ and I do it when I’m lacking oomph, when I start to feel restless and grumpy, when I wonder why I can’t sleep or seem to be slumping into a bad mood. Bear in mind that when you first try you may have a lot of built-up stuff. If you carry on, it all becomes more manageable. I have designed them to get the crap out first and then jump to a more positive train of thought.
Here they are:
- What are you sad about?
- What are you frightened of?
- What are you angry about?
- What are you jealous about?
- What are you grateful for?
- What are you looking forward to?
And that’s it? It sounds very simple…
Yes, it’s all in the commitment, really. It does sound very simple to write with no expectation for a few minutes every day, but I reap huge dividends and hope you will too.
Cathy Rentzenbrink is a best-selling author – her new book Write It All Down: How to Put Your Life on the Page (Macmillan) is out now.