A Daily Exercise That Can Revolutionize Your Writing

daily writing exercise

Today’s guest post is by Ed Cyzewski (@edcyzewski). It’s adapted from Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together.

Two years ago I started tracking the low points and high points from each day before going to bed. I noted if I was encouraged or discouraged. I gave thanks for my day and wrote down what gave me energy. I shared what left me feeling restricted or trapped, as well as what kept me awake at night.

This daily moment of self-reflection started out as a first step toward prayer, but it soon grew into an essential exercise that also revolutionized my writing. In a matter of months I had the clearest picture of my mental state, anxieties, and fears since I started writing regularly in 2005. I finally saw the accumulated impact on myself, my family, and my writing career from my bad habits, fear of impending failure, and worries about money. It was both alarming and empowering—I at least knew why I struggled with anxiety so much.

The method of self-reflection I used (and continue to use) is called the Examen.

The Examen was first developed as an invitation to prayer by St. Ignatius Loyola in the 1500s. The basic Examen begins with a guided reflection to help practitioners become more aware of God and then transitions into a series of reflections on the good and bad parts of the day. I started practicing it because:

  1. I’m a busy parent who struggles to find time to pray.
  2. The Examen is available as an iPhone app that walks users through the process and even tracks their progress. Who can resist a new iPhone app? Right?

I’m not trying to trick anyone into praying here. If you’re a writer who is inclined to pray or curious about prayer, then the Examen may be the life-giving practice you didn’t know you needed. If you aren’t interested in prayer, the Examen provides tools for self-reflection that can make you more focused and self-aware as a writer.

Two years into practicing the Examen daily, I don’t know how I could have tried working as a writer without it. Publishing is a roller coaster of elation and despair, social media is full of distracting and toxic debates, and freelance writing rarely offers anything resembling long-term security. The daily struggle to find writing time, actually writing during that time, and then persevering through the trials of editing and the unfamiliar territory of publicity is draining. Seeing a promising project founder or fail can prompt doubt, fear, and even considerations of giving up altogether.

Without self-reflection writers are at the mercy of fear, insecurity, and discouragement. Those unable to face and overcome these obstacles will either give in to despair before walking away from it all or quietly suffer. I believe many writers, including myself, have chosen the latter.

Here’s how I use the self-reflection of the Examen to grow as a writer.

Identifying the Barriers and Discouragements in My Writing

The Examen offered the bracing reality check that I needed. You could say that I’d been limping so long as a writer that I forgot what it’s like to walk pain-free. The Examen helped me face the sources of my struggles. Here are just a few:

  • I worried about money way too much. I wasn’t enjoying my work and my family because I worried about doing one more thing to bring in extra income.
  • I measured success in tiny, almost petty, increments—especially on social media.
  • Writing brought discouragements and even failures, but I also needed to persevere because it gives me life and energy.
  • I started to notice that the times I felt the most anxiety about developing new writing ideas were also the times my busy schedule prompted me to cut back on reading and free writing.
  • I feared failure to the point that I was afraid to innovate and try new things.
  • I had a tendency to remain mentally engaged with my work even during my free time. The Examen helped me face how weary I’d become without dedicated alone time each week completely disconnected from my work.

Each of the challenges above could be addressed by changing my writing routine, how I measured my success, and which projects I took on. While I definitely prayed about these challenges (I won’t get into that here), seeing my weaknesses also helped me take steps to overcome or bypass them. That is, after I got over the initial shock of recognizing how much of a basket case I’ve been!

Providing Relevant Writing Topics

Facing my “dark side” through the Examen has also provided some concrete direction for my writing topics. By identifying the areas where I struggled, I started to see friends and colleagues on social media who mentioned similar experiences.

For instance, I noticed a regular theme in my Examen where I mentioned worry about the direction of my life. As I wrestled with my insecurities about writing and the need to have some sort of viable career, I noticed the same struggles in those around me. When I reached my own place of resolution, I was able to write about my process for others.

Since I’m already typing my answers into the Examine app each evening, it’s simple enough to paste or retype a few ideas into a note that I can pull up the following morning. By the time I sit down to write, I frequently have one or two ideas to pursue for a little free writing, a blog post, or an article.

On Further Examen-ation

I originally thought that the Examen would primarily serve as an important act of self-reflection leading to prayer. However, I currently can’t draw a clear line of distinction between my prayer time and writing time. The two are closely connected to each other, complementing each other and building each other up.

If you already pray and write, the Examen is well worth 5-10 minutes of your time each day. If you only write, the Examen provides the kinds of questions you should ask yourself every day, even if you don’t include its spiritual elements. You’ll never know how much you’ve needed this practice until you give it a shot.

Where to Find the Examen

There are many versions and pamphlets available online. I use the “Examine” app (Apple store only) that begins with a simple invitation to become of aware of God’s presence and then asks a series of questions about what is encouraging about my day and then a series of questions about what is discouraging. The questions are as simple as, “The relationships or events that encouraged me were…” or “I am kept awake at night by…”

Any practice of the Examen should include reflection on our days and awareness of our emotions. We could distill the Examen into these key steps:

  1. Become aware of God’s presence.
  2. Review the day with gratitude.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions.
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.
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I recommend using the app or a print out as an initial guide and picking two or three questions that especially resonate with you. Then you can add more questions as you grow used to practicing it. Even taking a moment each day to determine whether or not you’re discouraged or encouraged, as well as identifying the reasons why, can be immensely enlightening and liberating.

This post is adapted from Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. The ebook is available today only as a $.99 pre-order. From March 11–13, 2015, the ebook will be available for $1.99. 

You can also buy the print edition.

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