There’s an old mill near my house that dates to the 19th century. A dam above it creates a lake that’s popular for boating and fishing. Below the mill, the river resumes its normal course, with water moving in the track shaped by rocks, roots and other features of the land’s topography, itself shaped by the impact of the river’s flow across centuries. The mill once processed grain using the river’s energy, making flour that householders turned into bread and pastries.

An illustration of a woman writing on a piece of paper

Your written work is like that. All the energies of nature and mechanics combined to form that perfect cake or loaf with textures, colors and taste in harmony. The trick is to harness those energies in such a way as to create—and to do it again and again. No bakery only sells one loaf, or expends all of their capital in creating the perfect monumental cake.

The river is your native creativity. Everyone has it, but some rivers are stronger, faster and wider than others. Those of us who feel called to write (or paint or make music) experience the flow of creativity as a compulsion within us. It’s powerful and unruly. Its force doesn’t submit readily to the channels we want to create for it. It has a path it wants to carve, and we need to let it course freely.

How to do that? Mainly, it takes a certain kind of time that I like to think of as “wild time.” Wild time doesn’t submit to the rhythms of industrial life, or “domestic time,” those rhythms that we’ve all been trained in, such as when to wake up, eat, work, play and sleep. Those rhythms allow schools and workplaces to function, but they don’t let the river flow free.

Wild time wants to make its own rhythms. It bubbles forth most readily when we escape, even briefly, the rhythms of domestic time. It can be as simple as going for a walk or taking a break from our tasks to do nothing: look out the window, smell the herbs in a garden. In those moments of wild time, the river bursts forth and ideas come. The problem of our latest piece of writing reveals itself as flotsam that gets washed downstream. The answer is right there.

But there can be no wild time without domestic time—which is the mill. A flowing river is a fine and glorious sight, but nothing comes from it without the mill. The mill is discipline, a repeated, time-bound practice that rejects whim and freedom in favor of rigor and regularity. (Less poetically, I’ve heard this called “ass-in-chair.”) The mill is sitting down daily to write, whether you want to or not, whether the ideas are coming or not, whether you enjoy it or not.

It takes tremendous willpower, because writing is generally an exercise in delayed gratification. Hours are necessary for a polished short essay or poem; an academic essay or short story takes months; books take years. But nothing can be written without this regular habit of sitting and writing.

There are ways to trick yourself into the habit. Some people like to use a timer, as in the Pomodoro technique, so called for the originally tomato-shaped kitchen timer traditionally set to 25-minute intervals. But if you’re writing anything of significance, I recommend doubling that to 50 minutes. (My brain starts to work after about 20 minutes of writing.) Some people like to start with five minutes of constant writing, not lifting pen from paper or fingers from keyboard. That makes me feel like a hamster on a wheel, and as a result it’s counterproductive. I find that a little reflection on my words dramatically decreases the time I need to spend on revision.

My favorite trick is a writing group of three to five friends that meets at a set time. Now is a great era to develop such a group; virtual meeting software makes it easy to gather friends. The group has to commit to a time of silence, but a time of conversation also sets the tone, I find, for productivity. Once you’ve checked in, mute yourselves with videos on (nothing more inspirational than seeing friends hard at work) and set a timer. When it buzzes, check in again, stand up, take a break. I am writing these words with such a group right now!

I’ve heard and read plenty of recommendations for cultivating writing discipline, and you can surely find a method you like. The problem is that these recommendations often emerge from productivity culture, the industrial model that turns you into a machine and your writing into “output.” The trick of being a writer—a good writer of meaningful work—is not to let your discipline steal your river, your wild time. Because without the river, the mill doesn’t turn. Anything you write without the freedom of your creativity guiding the process, at least to some extent, will ultimately be disposable. Why give your hours of discipline away to something uninspired? Why not give to this most noble effort the very best of your soul?

If you’re thinking that this sounds like a lot of your life to give to writing, you are right. The true Faustian bargain of being a writer is taking time away from other obligations or pleasures and investing it toward an uncertain outcome. Most of us have many other claims on our time: full-time jobs, houses to maintain, children to care for, friends and relationships to cultivate. A writer has to be selfish about taking time—not from egoism or self-aggrandizement, but from deep conviction in the importance of your work. That’s why you need the river. That’s what makes this time you carve out valuable, and that’s what keeps you coming back to your desk.

Let it flow forth.

Ingrid Nelson is a professor of English and chair of European studies at Amherst. This essay was adapted from a 2021 post on

Illustration by Helena Pallarés