My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Mailbox: Writing Every Day

Why can't I just WANT to be a writer
really really bad?
Daily writing destroys creativity.

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Thursday as long as I have enough to do.  Until/unless I have more questions than I can handle, I'll answer anything that has anything to do with writing.]  

Anonymous writes:

I'm sorry if you are taking the brunt of frustration that I feel towards several writers, and what seems like thousands of bloggers, but your open door policy to questions makes you an easy target, I suppose. You are constantly talking about writing everyday. You are aware that there are many writers who don't write everyday, right? Some of us find that writing daily is actually destructive to our creativity. It starts to make the writing feel like a chore.

My reply:

Seriously.  Legions.
It's okay that I'm your brunt of your frustration, because in order to properly respond to this idea, you sort of have to be the brunt of my frustration.

Yes, I am aware of these people.  It is actually fantastically easy to find legions of people, even published authors, who believe that it isn't important to write every day, and believe it or not, by the time we're done here, you might realize that successful writers who say these things and and I are not so far apart in our positions as it seems--for some very specific reasons that I'll get into.

But I should point out that I am also aware of bazillions of would-be artists who seize upon this advice (or dispense it themselves) in an act of rationalization and excuse.  "Oh joy, I have been given permission NOT to do this art that I say means everything to me."  I know of lots of other hobbyists who dream of "making it" in their art. I know garage bands who jam once a month and talk without the slightest intended irony about how they need to find a label. And I know actors who do a couple of plays in community theater each year and are ready to quit their day job to pursue their acting career.

In fact, I was married to one a long time ago.

However, I'm guessing that my awareness is not quite the validation you were hoping for.

A lot of people write for pleasure, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Where I think the problem lies, in a number of arts, is that people see the final product and have no grasp of how much good old fashioned work is required to get there. We all know the kid that buys a guitar so they can start a rock band.  Well, thinking that writing is an art free of this sort of pretentiousness is patently absurd. Many aspiring writers have this sense that writing can  be their job without them having to do any real work.  They have a kind of theoretical understanding that they'll have to do work ("Oh well, of course it's going to take effort!") but it breaks down when they are faced with the reality of daily effort. Suddenly they start to talk about how making something into work takes the joy out of it.  To those people I say "cheers!"

Wait, "Cheers"? You're congratulating them? Are you sure you didn't just make a typo?

Seriously!  I'm not kidding.  Cheers.  You are awesome!

Writing has enriched and improved your life?
Well then, you win!
If you only write when it feels good then you are getting what you want from writing--a great feeling. There is nothing wrong with that. Writing is wonderful and rewarding in its own right. It's cathartic. It's soothing. It's beautiful. And it gives us a window into one of the purest acts of creation. And I can't think of anything more incredible than that. That joy alone ought to be enough.

You are correct if you sense there is a "but," hiding behind the corner up ahead...


...if you want more, you might have to do something that feels like work once in a while.

Where the problems seem to creep in, is when people want to be Writers (capital W) and maybe make money writing or have writing be their career but they don't want to give it daily effort. This happens in many arts, but it is particularly pernicious in music, drama, and especially writing. (I am assured by a friend that there is an emerging legion of such people in game design as well.) People sort of think they will be able to pay the bills and even be recognized in their field without ever having to make their art "feel like work." Ask any successful working artist if they only ever worked when it felt joyous and great...well...just don't ask them right after they take a sip of their drink, okay?

Think about that for a second. Would you take anyone seriously in any career who wasn't willing to go to work every day or do the parts that "feel like work"? Would you think an accountant or a manager would be successful if they only went to work when they felt like it? Lots of people like their jobs, but they still have days where they don't want to go. They still have parts they slog through. They don't not go because it would sully their enjoyment of the job. They go and find the tough days rewarding in a different sort of way. But you would find it particularly absurd if someone who went to work only two or three times a week complained that they weren't getting recognition in their field and couldn't pay the bills. If you talk to the people at the height of any field (ever) you will always find people who tell you that they pushed through the tough parts, not that they avoided them.

Here's what it really comes down to, and there's no way of getting around it: How bad do you want it?

If you think about how tough it is to make money in the arts, you will actually realize that you probably have to put in MORE effort than a "regular" career.  Any writer that the average person (even the average generally well-read person) would recognize has almost certainly worked at LEAST as much as a clock puncher and probably a lot more.  Go ahead...ask them.  Ask ANY of them.  So it's kind of like a hubris sundae with two scoops of hubris covered in hot fudge delusions of grandeur to not want to write when it isn't easy while simultaneously wondering why the accolades aren't pouring in.

I bang this drum hard and often precisely because there are legions upon legions of aspiring writers who burn and yearn for success but think the path involves some sort of "trick" and who aren't willing to work.  They lament writers block without taking seriously the suggestion of every successful writer who has gone before about writers block that they simply sit down every day and write no matter what.

I don't care if you don't write every day.  I care if you don't write every day and then turn around and wonder why you aren't a novelist.  I have a friend who is quite down to earth with how much she likes to write and how much she doesn't.  She writes for fun...when the spirit moves her.  She gets a lot of enjoyment out of it.  But she also doesn't lament her wayward writing career or the fact that she can't get published.  That's totally cool.

This is the only kind job where people actually do nothing and get paid for it.
They don't want to be pressured to fix your roads since that feels like work.
So if you read on, understand that writing is an art with every level of devotion from the intermittent casual hobbyist to the hard-core career professional.  If you're comfortable with where you are and what you're getting from writing, there is absolutely no need to push yourself.  But if you feel a vague discontentment with how often you're (not) published or how much money you are (not) making from writing, you might need a motivational message of either the encouragement or the foot-in-your-ass variety.  And you might need to consider that you should be working harder.

But I still think it's important to separate what I'm saying from what I'm not saying, and to understand why I'm saying it.

What I'm not saying:

You have to work on your current project every day.  No. You don't. You have to write. You have a skill that will atrophy with disuse. Writing is a craft. You need to practice and hone that craft. But you could write an e-mail. You could write a blog entry. A Facebook post. A prompt. A different story. Or just some free writing. Just as athletes do not do the same exercise every day, and they certainly don't have a "big game" every day. Just like scholars don't read books in their field every day, but they probably do read. I can't think of a single professional musician I know who doesn't practice a little every day--but not every day is a rehearsal with their band or doing a performance. You can write in a way that is the equivalent of doing your scales or calisthenics. You have to stay in shape, but you don't have to be working on the One True Thing. Of course if you only write cranky replies on Facebook, I can't imagine your career is going anywhere....

You will never be in any way successful if you don't write every day.  Not true.  Several of the published authors I met in the course of my Creative Writing major did not write every day. Of course, most of them had written one thing that got published years before, but it is possible to have success without it (for various values of "success.") However the writers who were writing for a living like Dan Handler (Lemony Snicket) and Don Waters were quite explicit that they wrote every day and in fact, looked forward to doing so even when it was tough.

You have to write the same amount every day.  This is actually laughable. Artists move in fits and starts. Some days I finish my daily writing with an eye on the second hand and struggle every step of the way. Some days I keep going for hours before I notice I should have been done back when it was still light outside. Establishing a small minimum effort gives your creativity a place to go to meet you, but what happens after that is anyone's guess.

If you skip a day, you will burn in perdition.  I don't even write every day. At least once or twice a month, I just can't get to it, and many writers give themselves a day off every week. If you want to take a day off, take a day off. If you want to take ten days off, take ten days off. If you want to take twenty nine days a month off and still call yourself a writer...well, then you might be fooling yourself. I cannot bestow upon you the mystical self-honesty to know when you are a dedicated writer who is taking a break and when you are farting off because you found a some blog that says it's cool.

You are not a writer if you don't write every day.  You are not a writer if you don't write. That's all. You're not a writer if you don't earn your er. If you're writing, you're a writer. The exultation to write each day is about improving your craft, commitment to your art, and the effort to forge a career, not about your identity.

What I am saying:

Writing might have scare quotes around it...sometimes...  Diane Glazman, who guest blogs here from time to time, phrases this thusly: "You might not have to actually write every day.  But you have to BE A WRITER every day."Now...I have to be honest that I think a lot of people sieze upon that turn of phrase to not really work. If they knew what kind of genuine, thoughtful, concerted effort was involved in what she meant by "being a writer," they might prefer to go find a typewriter and do the physical version, but she has a point. It isn't always necessary to sit and press keys to be writing. Just consider the next part of that...

But Grasshopper, only you know if you're really working.  Don't kid yourself, though. There is a lot of self delusion among writers. A lot. (No, I'm not even kidding, it's a fucking LOT!) If you are running around "being a writer" more often than actually writing, you're probably never going to be the famed novelist of your fantasies. Writers have a lot of excuses (that aren't fooling anyone), and this can easily become one more. Are you really working even if you're not writing?  Or are you seizing on the sweet delicious excusiness of someone giving you permission to not work. If "being a writer" looks a lot like playing the DLC for Fallout 3, you might have just rolled a critical failure on your "believe my own bullshit" check.

Dude, if you don't want to write every day, don't write every day.  Fuck!  Seriously! If you don't enjoy it, don't do it. No one is twisting your arm. There are no writing police. You won't be black-bagged and put before a shadow tribunal. Just don't act surprised if you write once or twice a week, but aren't a world renowned author and your last paycheck from writing wouldn't even buy you a decent dinner. That's what those writers (and me) are trying to convey. You can "write when the spirit moves you" or "make writing your job." Pick one. If you want writing to be your job, you're going to have to do some work.

And...think about how badly you want to make it a career or really be successful if you think of it as such a chore and burden to write daily (or very nearly so). Really. Most people who are eventually successful in writing love the fucking shit out of it and they would do it without accolade or paycheck....for hours....every day. To them the idea of NOT writing daily would be the disturbing proposition.

The more you do it, the easier it is. This goes for writing, and it goes for NOT writing. Your creative flow, your muse, whatever you want to call it....doesn't like to work. And it doesn't like writing as soon as it starts to look like work. If you establish the habit of working, your creativity tends to work within that container and the juice starts to flow when you sit down at that time to write. If you establish the habit of not working when it feels too much like work, your creativity tends to pony up that excuse more often. With two exceptions I can think of out of hundreds of writers I've known (two!!!!), everyone I have ever talked to who insists that daily writing stymies their creativity, hasn't actually tried it for longer than a week or two. It is only by forcing yourself through dry spells that you can possibly learn to force yourself through dry spells. Otherwise, it's your muse calling the shots and you are along for the ride. Dorothea Brande talks about this at length.

Why I'm saying it:

I'm not just being a prig. And I'm not just suggesting what works for me is good for everyone. Study creativity and imagination and you will discover that in study after study after study, doing something creative every day causes a...near Pavlovian response of heightened creativity to that time of day. Stephen King calls this the muse showing up with his pixie dust.  (S.K.'s muse is a fat dude, you'll recall.)  Creativity is a habit. A muscle. Whatever metaphor works for you but it's something that works if you work it--not if you make excuses.

The divide between writing daily and not gets even more explicit if you'll stick with me just a little longer  (I know this is starting to make War and Peace look like a pamphlet). A few years ago, I did a huge thought experiment because I'm a titanic nerd like that.  I have always collected craft books and writing books and quotes from writers about writing, even before the internet made it easy.  So I put those writers who said daily writing was important and those who didn't into separate "piles" to see if I could notice a trend.

Boy howdy emu testicles, did I ever.

You can do this experiment yourself quite easily.  Google "write every day" and "You don't need to write every day" or some variant, tally up the first fifty or so responses on either side, and take a look, and see if you notice a trend. Here is what I discovered when I did it about four years ago:

You should  write every day (First 50)
You don’t need to write every day  (First 50)

Their writing seems competent.  (Grammatically sound.  Decent prose.)

Published (I was not including blogs, or self publishing, but was including short stories.)

Finished a novel.  (This may only mean a draft. I  have two novels myself.)                         

Published a novel (not self-published).

Published multiple novels. 

At least one novel published by big press.

I have heard of them before my search.

Major “household name” (among readers)

Notice that everyone writing daily seems to be good at writing? (In terms of grammar and style.) Not unbiased, but certainly telling.

Of course, the most dramatic difference occurs after the one novel mark, where there is a cliff-caliber drop off on the "not needed" side. It seems like someone who doesn't write daily might have a novel in them, but those who publish multiple novels almost exclusively treat writing as a job. So if you just want to publish that one book you've got in your brain, you don't need to push so hard. If you want to be a novelist....well....better get to work.

*By the way, it is F. Scott Fitzgerald who rounds out the bottom of that list on the "don't write" side.  He would rather people didn't write if they don't have anything to say. He also had his first novel make so much money that he moved to the French Rivera during the depression, so he doesn't exactly get the worked-his-way-through-the-ranks label.  He's also probably not a good person to model your career after or someone whose success you can expect to emulate.

Do with this information as thou wilt. Of course it isn't perfect, and not scientific, but feel free to play the home game. How many people saying you don't need to write every day are writers? Published? Successful? Writing for a living? Known? Well known? Famous? The higher up you go, the more these people work their writing asses off.

All that said, the only rule that really matters in this game is do what works.  Just be honest with yourself about whether it really works. I can't reach through the internet and tell you if you're lying to yourself or rationalizing your apathy. I can only tell you that more people who take writing seriously as a career seem to favor a daily approach. It is far more likely that you DO work the way every study and successful writer suggests and not that you are a special snowflake. You might want to consider giving it a sincere try and then fiddling with the knobs, rather than insisting you are the exception to the rule because the alternative sounds like it might be a chore. Besides...who honestly really thinks that their career won't occasionally feel like a chore?


  1. Yep. JK Rowling said she would have never written anything if she only wrote when it didn't feel like work.

    1. Most of the big name authors are stanch advocates of daily writing--at least for anyone who desires to even remotely emulate their career arcs.

      Rowling also said: "I write nearly every day. Some days I write for ten or eleven hours. Other days I might only write for three hours. It really depends on how fast the ideas are coming."

      For those who want to be the next Rowling, it is probably better to listen to Rowling herself than some unpublished blogger or one-shot-wonder who says it's no big deal.

  2. You seem kind of big into self publishing and industry evolution. Why didn't you include self-published books in those that "counted"?

    1. I did this "experiment" about four years ago. It was before I realized that the industry had already changed and those who weren't changing with it were being swept away.

  3. There is a lot of "permission" out there not to write every day for the sake of creativity.

    1. Yeah, it's a toughie, which is why I tried to explain WHY I suggest it so thoroughly. You're going to find a lot of people who seek permission not to do things when they're hard and who are relieved when they find such permission. Only they--in their most sincere moments of self honesty--can really know if they are truly less creative if they write every day or if they are latching onto an excuse. I think MOST people are latching onto an excuse. But as I show, argument ad populum doesn't necessarily track with who is successful. If given the choice between Stephen King, JK Rowling, and Anne Rice or a blogger I've never heard of who's published two kid's books, I know whose advice I'm going to take.

  4. There isn't a single writer I know who makes their living writing but doesn't write every day. (And I know...a few.) They usually don't even have weekends.

  5. Where do you see the editing process in this? I've found it can feel more like work than writing itself, but does it count as writing?

    1. Editing is a chore on its own. I believe it's a part of the writing process. And it's even harder than just writing.

  6. Some people write for the creative outlet and not for money. Salinger said one should write for ones self and put it on a shelf. If it becomes known as literature, it will, on it's own merit.
    I don't think most people are talking about literature though.Just like popular music, flavor of the day, writing is the same. It doesn't have to be fine literary prose, it just has to be popular.

  7. For many years, I did not write every day. I was not a writer in fact, I was a writer in the realm of gauze. I started posting on Facebook, that led to idea after idea. I piqued the attention of a few followers and I woke up. Now, the journal entries are almost every day and the poems flow much better. The more you masturbate, the better you get at it and the more you want to do it. Eventually, someone will pay to watch.