By Kelly Van Sant
I recently took a class on how to form habits. I’m not kidding.
Have you ever heard that saying, that if you do something consistently for 30 days then it will become a habit? The idea is that forcing ourselves to actually do the thing is the hard part, but that once we build up that muscle memory, drinking eight glasses of water, or putting away your phone before bed, or even, yes, writing every single day will just become an effortless part of our lives.
There are many appealing things about NaNoWriMo, but one of the most appealing to me, personally, was that by forcing myself to write every day, I could transform myself into a writer. Spoiler alert: this did not happen.
I realized years ago that writing was not my calling. I’m much better suited to agenting. I love the creative work of helping authors shape their writing, and I love the practical work of negotiating deals. But my own writing practice was always a struggle. I could never seem to get to the end of a manuscript, could never seem to make writing a consistent part of my routine—not even after participating in NaNoWriMo year after year. Thirty days of writing and no habit formed.
I signed up for this habit-forming class because I’ve always wanted to learn how to make things stick. For a little while, I will do something with gusto. I will devote myself to it (whatever “it” is this time around. Waking up early, for example. Or taking an actual lunch break instead of eating at my desk while I answer emails) wholeheartedly for a period of time, and then…I get sick, or lazy, or distracted and the habit I’m trying so energetically to cultivate flies out the window. I used to think this was because I wasn’t a routine type of person. But I’ve come to realize that’s not true. I have plenty of routines. They’re just so built into my life that I don’t think about them anymore.
I bake bread from scratch every week. I read aloud from a novel with my husband and daughter every night. I drink a cup of herbal tea every night before bed.
So why is it that I can do those things easily, but I could never seem to make writing happen? This class I’m taking helped me unlock the secret: the reason behind the habit is everything.
I was never writing because I felt a need or drive to write. I never had a reason to write. I’m not talking about an external reason, either, though those are sometimes helpful. But internally, personally, I didn’t have my own reason to write. I wasn’t motivated by anything. I just thought that being a writer seemed like the sort of thing I should do. But we can’t will ourselves to make lasting change without a compelling reason. When it came to writing, I just didn’t have one.
But I bake bread because I love the ritual of it. I love the magic of creating something from almost nothing. I love the time-consuming, repetitive work of bread-making. I love how physical it is, how sensory. Baking bread isn’t about the means to an end, for me. It’s about the process itself. I bake bread because baking bread improves my life in every way—the time spent making it, the taste of it, sharing it with people I love. Baking bread is itself the only reason I need to keep baking bread.
Maybe this is what writing is like for you. Maybe the act of writing is itself the reason. Maybe you want to be a voice for those who never hear their voices amplified. Maybe you write to feel less alone, or to learn more about who you are, or to create the change you want to see in the world. Maybe you write because you can’t not write. NaNoWriMo is a fantastic way to build up that muscle memory, to make space in your life for the practice of writing. And if you want to make that habit stick, spend some time searching out your reason. Whether you write every day or every week or only when inspiration strikes. Whatever your habit, whatever your routine, it’s the reason, it’s the why that will sustain you for a lifetime.