Award-winning writer, translator, and editor C. M. Mayo explains the power of the five-minute exercise:
“I don’t have time to write.” Everyone and their uncle who has that bodacious idea for a screenplay, it seems, leans on this one. Do you?
I’m a writer, but that doesn’t mean I always have the time I’d like for writing – the big luxurious swaths of peaceful solitude that, as arts colony-goers know, enable a writer to swan through six months of work in a mere week. But on any given day I do have some scrap of time I could dedicate to writing. In the crush of things, it may be only an hour, maybe half an hour. Maybe less. No matter what your life looks like, even if you have two jobs and eight screaming kids, you, too, have time to write – though we’re talking five minutes and I know, you may have to lock yourself in the bathroom to grab that much. But grabbing such scraps of time can make the difference between being a writer who writes and a writer who isn’t.
So here’s a trick: take out an egg-timer (or use the countdown feature on your cell phone) and set it to five minutes. You would be amazed how much you can write in a mere five minutes, and at how much momentum you gain, so much in fact that most people – I say this based on my experiences teaching workshops – find it painful to stop.
What to write? Back in 2006, as an exercise to help my students and also myself, as I was in the midst of long slog (The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, my nearly 500-page historical novel), I posted one five-minute writing exercise every day for 365 days. These cover dialogue, plot, beginnings, characterization, body language, weather, imagery, synesthesia, and more. You’ll find “Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More 5 Minute Exercises” arranged by month and with a thematic index here. Most of the exercises are mine, but a number are by other writers and poets who contributed their favorites. Help yourself – and have fun!
And one last tip: when you do these exercises, or any other writing, always keep your pen resting lightly on the paper, or your fingers resting lightly on the keyboard. If you raise your hand, say, to scratch your chin as you contemplate what to write, your body has alas, powerfully, told your writing mind that it does not want to cooperate. So cooperate. With your pen resting lightly on the paper, or your fingers lightly on the keyboard, you’ll see, something will come into your mind and you will write. And that’s it – you’ve broken the block. Now may your writing flow.
C.M. Mayo is the author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which is based on a strange and powerful true story. Her other works include Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, The Other Mexico, and Sky over El Nido, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. She is the editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, a portrait of Mexico in works by 24 Mexican contemporary writers. She teaches in the San Miguel Workshops and the Writers Center, and blogs at Madam Mayo.