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One Word at a Time

April 18, 2024

by Angela Jackson-Brown, fiction faculty


Writing is not easy. I get it. Completely. Every day I battle with my own depression and anxiety, but every day I give myself a pep talk, encouraging myself to keep going because one thing I know to be true: every time I sit down and write, I feel better. I am able to escape from the craziness of the world and focus on the worlds I have created in my mind, and that is always a good thing.


I also strive not to think about the novel as a whole. Thinking about 94,000 to 100,000 words is overwhelming, even to someone like me who sets word count goals. But thinking about my novel, scene by scene, and then chapter by chapter, helps me stay focused and more likely to finish my projects. Right now, I am juggling three books: a novel that I wrote; a novel that I co-wrote with my friend and alum of this program, Elaine Drennon Little; and a nonfiction book I am co-authoring with another friend and former colleague, Dr. Kiesha Warren-Gordon. It takes a lot to keep all of those balls in the air, but writing is my first love. It doesn’t mean I don’t have difficult writing days, it just means I have a strategy to pull myself out of the doldrums so I can continue to put words on the page.


One thing I do every single day before I start writing, is I set the atmosphere. I like to have a candle burning as I write. I have different scents for different writing tasks. Vanilla scented candles when I am brainstorming. Lavender when I am writing. And a mix of patchouli and vanilla when I am revising. When I smell those scents, it triggers my mind to know it is time to go to work. Find scents of your own, or fill your writing space with fresh flowers. I also make sure I am surrounded by plants. When they are around, I feel as if I can fully breathe deep, something a writer needs to do frequently. I also stay hydrated and I avoid the internet at all costs when I am deep in the writing. Finally, I keep my grandfather’s cane close by as a touchstone and a way for me to reach out to my ancestors and receive their energy that lives on even though they are not here with me physically.


Find those rituals that will trigger for you that the time to write is now. Maybe for you it’s going to the neighborhood coffee shop. No matter what you decide your routine is going to be, try to be consistent. Dr. Maya Angelou said the following about her writing routine:


I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses… I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.


My good friend Katy Yocom, who is also the Associate Director for Communications and Alumni Relations for the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University, gave me advice, years ago, that I still live by today. She said, “Set realistic goals. Even if your goal is to write one sentence per day.” I took her advice to heart. And as a result, I do write every day. The only exception is if I am sick, but even then, I will usually try to put in one sentence just so I can feel like I accomplished at least one thing that day. My normal goal is to write at least fifteen minutes every single day. That is a realistic goal for me and my lifestyle, so when my timer goes off after fifteen minutes, I walk away feeling good about my “writerly self.” Some days I have more time, so I set the alarm for another fifteen minutes and I will continue that process for however long I can. Following that strategy has allowed me to finish most of my novels within a nine- to ten-month period.


My final bit of advice to you is to stay in this fight. Cultivate a writing life that is sustainable for you. When you find yourself dreading the empty page or screen, try to figure out what is causing that stress, and then deal with it. Be your own writing doula. No one can birth your projects into this world but you. So, be gentle with yourself when you need to, but also tell yourself, on repeat: I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.


Don’t worry about publishing before you have developed good writing habits. Publishing is important but it is not the end-all be-all. Somehow we need to reclaim our passion for writing. We need to make writing about us and not about agents, editors, publishers, or readers. Somewhere along the line, some of us became more focused on the bookshelves than the endorphins writing sets off in our brains. Think back to when you wrote your first story or poem or play or screenplay. Reclaim THAT feeling. Reclaim that moment and channel that energy again so that writing can be your safe space—your comfort zone. Writing needs to be your refuge again, so do what you need to do to make it so. Whether that is establishing writing rituals or using writing strategies like the Pomodoro Method—make writing the forefront of your lives. You can do it. I believe in you.



Angela Jackson-Brown is an award-winning writer, poet, and playwright. She is the author of several novels, including When Stars Rain DownThe Light Always Breaks, and Homeward. She is also the author of a poetry collection, House Repairs, which won the 2021 Alabama Authors Award in poetry from the Alabama Library Association. She was also a finalist for the 2022 Indiana Authors Award. Her short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Louisville Review and Appalachian Review


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