Routine and Breaking With It

This post is part of SoCS:

The theme for the week is “getting away, or getting out.”  As usual with these stream of consciousness posts, I won’t be doing any editing or fixorating after this post is finished, so it may be a bit unpolished, which I guess is the point.

In the four (now five, yikes) months since I’ve been “seriously writing,” I’ve come to notice a few things about, well, writing.  Specifically, that while rituals are important, they can also be limiting.  What I mean by that is, there’s this box.  And you always hear that it’s important to think outside the box, or whatever, and that’s true.  The box can hold you back.  But that sells the box short, really, because the box can also be comforting, like an old sweatshirt you slip into on the first cold days of Autumn or like a glass of wine before bed.

Case in point, when school was in session, I wrote in virtually the same way every day.  I’d steal a solid thirty minutes on my lunch break to work on my novel, using that time to block out any other distractions.  Really focused work.  Looking back, now, I can identify the work that I completed in that way not just by the timestamps but also by the way it’s written.  Word choice, sentence structure, ratio of dialogue to prose… my work completed by the routine has a certain feel to it that my work outside of routine doesn’t have.  Not to say it’s better; there are certainly merits to the work I completed outside of routine.  But the routine was the box, and I came to depend on it, so much so that in the last month of the Project I found myself mentally blocked, in no small part I fear because I didn’t have my routine to mentally prepare myself.

Now I love routine, but this experience with my first draft has shown me that you can’t always count on routines, so one thing I want to work on in my next project is shaking things up a bit and breaking at least some of my dependence on routine.

It shouldn’t shock me the effect routine has on my writing; it’s the same with my running.  When I was just getting started running, I did all my runs at the mall.  Well, as I increased my ability to run faster and farther, I started to become aware of hitting a wall with my runs at the mall.  After all, it was the same loop, the same hills, over and over and over.  So I started to branch out, to run different routes all around my neighborhood and, as I pushed my distance still farther, around town, and I noticed my pace and my endurance increasing all the more.  Breaking the routine allowed me to make bigger gains faster than if I’d kept doing the same thing over and over.  With new hills and new turns I was challenging myself in different ways, and that helped make me into a better runner.

It puts me in mind of those ads for P90X and Insanity that were big over the last couple of years, the central tenet of which was “muscle confusion.”  Here was a program designed to keep you from getting into the box in the first place.  The focus of these workouts was to exercise in a different way every single day to keep the body and the muscles from recognizing a pattern and getting lazy.  I never tried the workouts myself, but the reasoning seems sound enough.

So the box helps — routine helps — but more and more I think it’s going to be important that I work to get away from routines, get away from what’s comfortable and easy, and force myself to step off the reservation, out of the box, and go tumbling down a cliffside every now and then.  That’s my writing as well as my running and my cross training.  Hell, the fact that I’m cross training at all now — something I haven’t done in two years of running — is a step in that direction.

But I’m not trashing the box.  Just like there is no good without bad, no light without dark, neither can there be invention and experimentation without the norm to return to occasionally, even regularly.

It begs the question, then: what’s “out of the box” in terms of writing?  Off the top of my head, it means straying from some of these habits and tendencies.  Overuse of fancy say-nothing words like “particularly”.  Preoccupation with sounding clever or intelligent.  Fear of the simple statement.  Gravitating toward dark subject matter in short fiction.  Trying too hard to avoid dialogue tags.

For that matter, how can I get out of the box with running?  It’s harder than ever at the moment to break with routine since the sprout joins me for most of my runs, and that means the stroller, and that means I’m very limited in where I can go.  But here are some ideas.  More speedwork and/or interval sessions.  Running without music more.  Varying the dips and twists and turns in my route as much as possible.  Making sure to drive to a more interesting location for a run every couple weeks or so.

In short, routine can be helpful, but it can also be a crutch, and if you don’t escape the routine every now and then, then like a mouse in a cage, you will become trapped by it.

Am I overthinking routine?  How else can you push the boundaries while still getting the most out of a routine?  And do I overstate or understate the value of getting away from it?

12 thoughts on “Routine and Breaking With It

  1. I read so much into people opinions on writing conventions. It’s probably why I’m glad I never formally studied writing/literature at uni. I can push boundaries, but when I read something new, I look back on my work and worry that I haven’t used that technique enough. I’m learning to go with my instinct. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agree completely, it’s my greatest fear in my own writing that I don’t push my limits enough. Well, one of my greatest fears (the greatest fear is that I just suck!). Thanks for the read 🙂


  2. My routines are variable, just like life with my two unschoolers, ages 10 and closing in on 13. They are far less dependent on me for physical things, these days (aside from as a driver, a medic, and a generous hug-giver), but they need affection, attention, conversation, connection…

    So I’ve come to rely on a “routine” made up of short bursts of writing or writing-related stuff when people are up and about and I might be interrupted anytime, and to get in longer bursts when the kids are asleep, or outside on the trampoline, or visiting their grandparents or reading or watching something..,

    I have a rough routine, based on what my writing goals are at the time, and a box, of sorts – ROW80, a quarterly writing challenge in which I set my own goals, account for them, and offer support to other writers. Goals can be changed anytime, since they’re my own. For me, it’s the perfect blend of structure and flexibility.

    Best of luck with changing things up! =)

    Liked by 1 person

      • At their ages, it’s not painful, it’s just realistic. They’re not little anymore, by any stretch of the imagination. My son, a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday, is only a bit shorter than me, and that may not last very long, since he seems taller every time he wakes up!

        It wasn’t all that long ago that they were as young as your little ones. It won’t be as long as that before I’m looking at a grown man and woman where my babies once were. The strange thing is, since they’ve never gone to school, I’ve been right with them, and, still, they’ve grown up seemingly while I blinked.

        I wrote almost nothing when they were little. There wasn’t enough energy, time, focus, or ME left for writing. When I did, it might be only a line or two in a notebook.

        I completed my first NaNoWriMo when they were 8 and 5. I’ve been able to devote more time to writing since. It helped when we read some of my research (Shakespeare’s life) aloud together, and when I read them the rough draft of the resulting WIP. They not only had great input, but they want me to finish the book, so they allow me more space for writing.

        It does get easier as their need for constant attention, tending, and supervision eases up. Hang in there – at least parenting provides an endless well of ideas to write on, when you can snatch a few minutes to do it. =)


  3. I like these observations about “the box.” It’s fascinating that you can see stylistic differences in your own writing that was done in that way. But as you said its important to first have a routine before you can break routine. Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think your points on getting out of the box are very insightful; I never thought about the fact that there are pros and cons on both sides of the issue, both inside and outside the box. Thanks for this thought-provoking post (and clever use of the SOCS prompt)!

    Liked by 1 person

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