5 Tips for the Writing Life from Pico Iyer

A couple of weeks ago, writer Pico Iyer visited Chapman University to talk about creativity. His visit couldn't have been better timed for those of us heading into a summer break, a sabbatical, or even just the rest of our writing lives. These five principles can even be adapted beyond the writing life to help anyone rethink priorities and better use time to serve your real priorities.

The Big Retreat

Pico Iyer spends three months of each year in a somewhat remote area of Japan, where he knows few people beyond his family, doesn't know the language, and has no easy access to the internet. There, his obligation is to his writing. There, he's at his desk every day.

What writer doesn't want to be someone who writes every day, no matter where you are, no matter what other tasks you have at hand, no matter what noise surrounds you? But day-to-day life is complicated and full. The big retreat is a big commitment, and that ups the ante. A person is likely to write a lot more during that time away from the daily routine, and that extended focus is especially good for bigger projects.

The Device Sabbath

One day a week, Pico Iyer takes a day of rest from the most modern technology that we've come to take for granted over the last few decades. No phone, no iPad, no Kindle, no computer. He pointed out that the most productive people in the tech industry tend to be the most interested in unplugging for a while. Instead of thinking of this weekly respite as filled with restriction, it can become a day of renewal and reward. If you don't feel able to take a day of electronic rest every week, that probably means you should. It's likely to encourage socializing and reading, and those are certainly good things.

The Online Delay

Pico Iyer spends five hours at his writing desk every day. He allows himself to go online only after he's completed this time at his desk. He is especially leery of googling for detail research as he writes because it's easy to become caught up in one search leading to another and then to checking email. Instead, he uses "TK" -- a traditional journalistic shorthand for to come -- as a placeholder for missing or incomplete information, as a note to check later a specific fact that he's written through. When he does his daily writing, Iyer wants to keep going as far as he can in one sitting.

Timing of tasks matters. The online delay is about what comes before. Writing before email and Facebook announces a writer's priorities and manipulates time.

The Brief Getaway

When Pico Iyer is in Japan, he walks to the gym, exercises, then walks home. He talks of this activity more as part of his thinking and writing process than as part of his desire for good physical health. Though he spends five hours at his desk, he asserted repeatedly that his best work is not done at his desk. In fact, he has come to think of his desk as the place he does detail work, sentence-level work. The breaks, he says, are for the big changes.

Thinking of the brief getaway as a habit to be cultivated in this workaday world, instead of as a slacking off, takes some mental reconfiguring. But the brief respite might be one of the most important components of our thinking and writing processes.

Write by Hand

Pico Iyer writes by hand. He writes notes daily by hand, and he writes whole book manuscripts by hand. His daily notes are in full sentences and paragraphs, already a draft, but one to which he now, after years of cultivating this note-taking process, returns only to check facts and recapture details. The notes, though he takes them diligently, aren't as important as memory, so he drafts from memory. But of course, writing the notes is a way of stopping to remember and of putting the memories into words as those memories are being formed.

It's easy to fall out of the habit of writing by hand, and it's not part of the Common Core that guides our children's education. But studies show that handwriting improves memory, just as Iyer claims. Typing directly onto the computer is faster, but slowing down may make for better writing. And of course, transferring handwritten copy into typed copy adds a revision step before the writing looks neatly formatted.

Final Thoughts

Each writer has to develop his or her own habits and processes. What works for Pico Iyer might not work for us, and what worked for us five years ago might not work again. The great appeal of these particular options for a writing life is that they are likely to define writing as a priority in our daily lives and are likely to increase awareness of the choices we're making about how to spend our time, about how to live as writers. Even if you are not a writer, a big retreat or a device Sabbath may be just what you need to re-set the way you spend your time.