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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Weird Warm-ups

Hemingway sharpened 20 pencils before writing

Earnest Hemingway sharpened 20 pencils before he started writing. He’s not the only writer with a weird warm-up.

For many writers, the first minutes of writing are the hardest. That’s when initial inertia is working against us – you know, just like a body at rest tends to stay at rest, a person not writing tends to continue not writing.

The Ds are strongest at the very beginning, too: delay, doubt, distraction, dread, despair, in-Decision (alright I cheated on that last one, but you get the idea).

The beauty of the warm-up is that you don’t have to resolve any of those Ds to do it. You don’t have to know what you’re going to write about or how you’ll start or how to solve the big problem you’re facing. All you’re doing is sharpening pencils. Anyone can sharpen pencils. It worked for Hemingway, why not you?

But if pencil sharpening doesn’t appeal, consider these other weird warm-ups writers have employed:

  • Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette picked fleas from one of her dozen cats before she started writing (if this has the “ick factor” for you that it has for me, it would be a relief to start writing)
  • Marie-Henri Beyle, aka Stendhal, read a the French civil code to start his writing day (another case where it would be a relief to start writing)
  • Willa Cather read the Bible before writing (too bad we can’t attribute this practice to Dr. Seuss and say that “that begat Cat in the Hat)
  • Charles Dickens arranged a collection of trinkets on his desk in just the right order before he started writing.

The familiarity of the routine calms you and the strangeness of the warm-up distracts your attention from the Ds to the weirdness of what you’re doing. So the wackier, the better.

Your trigger to start writing!

You can create a warm-up habit (i.e. wire a new neural pathway) out of just about any behavior. If you sort a bag of M&Ms by color and allow yourself to eat one M&M for every minute you write and you do this consistently for a couple of weeks, the sight, smell or even thought of M&Ms will trigger your writing neurons to fire. When the commercial with comically oversized, cartoon M&Ms refusing to get in the bowl plays on TV, other people will get an urge to eat chocolate, but you’ll get an urge to open your laptop.

What do you want for your weird warm-up?

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2 Comments on “Weird Warm-ups”

  1. rosannebane January 14, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    Yes, it’s a little slippery. I tried it with Tootsie Rolls, lost control and went back to paying myself in quarters and sniffing vanilla or almond oil (depending on whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction) as my warm-up ritual. Let me know how the M&Ms work for you.


  2. Michael Kelberer January 13, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    That M&M thing would definitely work for me, but OMG, what a slipperly slope….


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