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

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Mailbox: Do You Have To Write Every Day? (The Teeming Millions Say Nay.)

You don't have to write every day!

[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 Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  And don't be afraid to throw your friends under the bus for the entertainment of...dozens, perhaps hundreds.  

An unending deluge of anonymous commenters write:

-You know you don't have to write every day to be a writer.  That is absurd....

-...Why do you and so many writers insist on daily writing?  Some people don't write nearly as well if they turn creativity into a burden.

-...You're lucky.  You can just sit around and write all day.  I have a full time job, a wife and three kids, and there's no way I can write every day.  It's easy for you to give this advice from where you are.

-Your [sic] an idiot.  Writing everyday [sic] makes writing into a chore.  If I wanted another job, I would work two jobs.  I am less creatave [sic] if I try to sit and make myself do it everyday [sic].  I hope you know your [sic] destroing [sic] people's creativity. 

-Why do you think writing has to be such a sacrifice?  I'm sick of hearing people talk about writing like, if I don't kill myself writing every day, I'm never going to be good enough.

-When my muse is on break, forcing it produces drivel.  I write better if I wait until I have something to write...

My reply(replies): 

More than any other idea I espouse here at Writing About Writing, the idea that a writer should write every day seems to make people void their bowels and howl at the moon.  As if telling off some nineteenth rate blogger is going to fundamentally alter the creative process or the acquisition of artistic skill. My descriptive grammar gets a few prescriptive grammarians wound up about how I could ever defend the misuse of literally or the "technically-a-word" status of "irregardless" within a just universe. My constant references to threesomes have gotten me a few uptight moral replies, including one woman who promised to pray for my soul. I even have a email in my archives from a guy who sincerely expressed the hope that I am sexually violated in prison because there is no excuse for Sonnet 23 being my favorite. (Yeah...think about that for a minute.) But nothing seems to bother people as much as the idea that they should be writing every day. Given the way it keeps coming up, it's clear that 1) people are not really reading to what I write about daily writing, and 2) people really, really want permission not to write.

Clearly, the answer to this question clearly needs to go in the FAQ. Not that anybody really reads that, but it makes replying to such things easier if I can just link a URL and say "This is covered in the F.A.Q." And if it was a nasty enough anonymous comment I can say "Not only is this in the F.A.Q. but also feel absolutely free to douse yourself in kerosene prior to doing clicking this link, light a match right after you finish the question and start to read the answer, so that as you edify yourself as to what I actually wrote, you will simultaneously die in a fire.

But that's only for the really mean people, I promise. Like the sonnet guy....

However, before I do mount the stuffed head of this question on the FAQ, I want to televise it's demise in a Mailbox, where people might actually see it.  I'm sure this won't put the issue to bed, and new people will come crawling out of the netwoodwork to respectfully disagree with cogent counter-points tell me I am worth less to them than that gunk that collects around the base of the water fountain spigot.

But what the hell; maybe it'll buy me a week off....

First, let me switch to the largest font Blogger is capable of doing without me knowing how to code HTML. Let me also underline, italicize, and boldificate this next statement so as to emphasize it as much as I am able:

IF YOU DON'T WANT TO WRITE, DON'T WRITE.

You don't need my permission.

You don't need to run around the internet looking for writers to assuage you of your guilt.

You don't need to build a shrine to the two or three authors who didn't write every day (like Douglas Adams) but achieved success.

You don't need to do anything....including write.

Look, my ubercivil anonymous cadre.....the list of reasons to sit down and write creatively is short--very, very short. It's not for the fabulous paycheck. It's not for the glamour. It sure isn't for the blistering hot groupie threesomes, lemmie tell ya! Pretty much the only reason to do it is because of that spark that has moved artists to the act of creation since the dawn of time. But if your motivation not to write is greater than your motivation to write, don't write. You don't have to come up with a bunch of crazy ass excuses that no one believes anyway. Just don't write.

Watch TV. Read. Take a bubble bath. Sit on Facebook for an hour arguing gun control. Go have a social life. Get out of the house. Jump the hilly brush. Watch a meteor shower. Do whatever the fuck you want. No one is twisting your arm to write, and if it feels like that, you might be writing for the wrong reason.

So let's play a game of Myth vs. Reality. Really this should be more appropriately titled "Bullshit that I never actually said" vs "What I actually did say," but that's not as catchy of a title.


MYTH VS. REALITY

Myth 1:  You have to write every day to be a writer.

Reality:  Actually you have to write to be a writer.

If you earn your ER, you are a writer.  That's it.  There aren't any other hoops to jump through to achieve that title.  There isn't some set amount you have to write to be a writer--either daily or total. There isn't even some celestial medieval knight in glowing armor who comes down from the heavens holding a swordpen to knight you as "a writer."  Honestly, it's a little boring.  Are their people who want to be writers and don't write?  Yep.  Are there people who call themselves writers who actually manage to do some wordsmithing only once a month or so?  Yep.  Are there people in love with their high school dream of being a writer much more than they are the actual act of writing.  Yep.

And if the Writer Police went around helping Scott Pilgrim win duels by using their Dewriterizing Ray for Writerly Violations, you might have to worry.  ("Outlining isn't writing, bitch!"  ~fires~)  But since being a writer doesn't give you psychic powers, the title is largely self-policed.  The only person you have to convince that you're a "writer" is you.  Heck, you can even ignore your friends who never see you reading or writing and give you the Spock eyebrow when you insist you'll be published soon.

What I may have said that is kind of like this: I don't actually even say this at all.  I let other writers say it for me.  Tons and tons and tons and tons of other writers--both contemporary and long dead.  And what they are talking about isn't just "earning your er," but the advice about how to be all you can be.  (Whether your goal is literary quality, fame, or just paying the bills with fiction.)  The more successful a writer is, both in terms of renown and being able to pay the bills with their art, the more likely it is that they are going to extol daily writing--especially for those who also want to be successful.  This advice is actually so ubiquitous when it comes to successful writers who give writing advice, that it takes some pretty epic special-snowflakeness to think that one is above it.

OR....I may have pointed out that artistic skills decay with disuse.  Pick up an instrument after a month of not playing, and you're rusty.  Try to sing, and you'll find your voice out of practice.  Pick up something to draw with and it'll take you some time to get your groove back.   Do any of these things only once or twice a month for years, and your skill will decrease noticeably.   Writing isn't any different.  It is an art with a technical component of skill and craft.  If you let it go fallow, your ability will decay.  If you "practice" daily--like any other damned skill or art in the entire world--you will get better.  And if you don't, you won't.  Writing every day--even just a little--keeps you sharp.  You should probably write every day if you want to get better.

OR....I may have been talking about how the creative process is like a muscle.  It works if you work it. Pretty much your unconscious/muse/inspiration/whatever-you-want-to-call-it will stop giving you the high quality mojo just the minute what you're doing starts to resemble work.  That's why people who wait to be inspired usually wait for so damned long.  But creativity studies, writers since time immemorial, and every other kind of artist pretty much all have observed the phenomenon that if you put in the work every day (and you try to do it about the same time each day.)


Myth 2: You will never get published/paid/rich/famous if you don't write every day.

Reality: Lots of writers, who write less frequently, get published.

Fewer get paid.  Even fewer get paid an amount they could live on.  Almost none get rich.   The tiniest handful are famous.  But lots are published.

Most of these writers would still consider it pretty important to write consistently, but there are lots of authors who don't write daily.  You may not have heard of very many of them (Douglas Adams would be a notable exception--he was famous for how long his hiatuses were), and most of them probably have day jobs even if they're working as editors or something, but there's no glossing over the fact that they have a book on some stranger's bookshelf with their name on the cover, and that's pretty fucking awesome.

What I may have said that is kind of like this: If you made a big pile of published writers who write every day (or very nearly) and published writers who don't, you would start to notice something almost immediately about those two piles--I mean other than the fact that writers have almost no sense of fashion and that making big piles of people is a little cruel and a lot hard to organize.  With one or two exceptions, everyone with a name you recognize would be in the daily writing pile.  With one or two exceptions everyone for whom writing is their day job would be in the daily writing pile.  With one or two exceptions the authors in the "don't need to" pile would probably not be writers you've heard of and have only published a small amount.  (Maybe a book or two or three that you probably wouldn't recognize.)  You would walk around your piles and (respectively) say: "Hey Faulkner, hey King, hey Rowling, hey Bradbury, hey Asimov, hey Butcher, hey Doctorow, hey Lamott........(and then moving to the next pile)....um...hey....uh...I don't recognize you guys."

The more books someone has published, the more likely they are to advocate writing daily.  Almost no one who doesn't write daily has more than a few books that have done well (either literarily or commercially).  It is almost spooky how predictable this trend is even after hundreds of years.  Take a look at this article about the daily routine of writers.  Notice that the one thing these DAILY routines have in common is that they involve writing.  Many of them are regimens clearly meant to focus the writers on their writing.

It's almost like writing might be work.

My first instinct when I see a bunch of successful people doing one thing and a bunch of less successful people doing the opposite is not to think that this is just a strange coincidence with no bearing on the success.  If you were in any other career, this sort of evidence would be a no brainer.  (Imagine that you were at a job where everyone who got promoted to management--with one or two exceptions--wore a suit and tie, but the dress code said you could wear jeans and a t-shirt.  If you wanted a career instead of a job, how could you possibly ignore that?)  Basically the more successful you want to be at writing the more you will almost certainly have to make writing a daily habit.  But the great Rubicon of publication will not demand daily writing as an offering.


Myth 3: I just sit around all day with nothing better to do than write.

Reality: Honestly, it is only my pristine sense of decorum, and the general impecable timber of tact I like to set here at Writing About Writing that prevents me from being explicit about how offensive this is and what horrors I hope are visited upon you by circus clowns with extremely poor personal hygiene.  I write between 4-6 hours most days, work as a househusband, and teach ESL at night classes at a local community college.  In a given week, I put in 40-50 hours (by the numbers) on those two jobs BEFORE I ever sit down to write.  The idea that I just have time to kill is more ridiculous than my fantasy of being cornered by five hot bisexual groupies.

What I may have said that is kind of like this: Last night I did something I rarely do.  I spent the evening playing King of Tokyo with friends--I actually got out of the house and enjoyed social time with other humans.  But here's the punchline: I knew this article was going to take a long time to write, so I brough my laptop with me to my friends' house, and I did a little bit of writing between my turns.  Any time my Godzilla monster quietly hanging out in the suburbs becoming king by attrition, I was jotting down some ideas and points to put into sentence form.

I wasn't even fully able to enjoy an evening out without bringing my work with me.  They have names for people like me.

If I have any time to "sit around and write," it's because of the decisions I've made in my life up until this point.  I don't have a "real" job (which means I don't make "real" money either).  I live with a couple and exchange room and board for housekeeping.  It's convenient, but I definitely earn my keep.  I work two nights a week for spending money.  I don't have a car.  I don't have kids.  I don't have a social life to speak of.  Pretty much my life if a support mechanism for writing.  Before you get too jealous of my four hour block of time, ask yourself if it's worth your career, your family, your social life, and most of your discretionary income.

You can't just envy the good stuff.

If you've got a career and multiple kids, then you probably can't have as much time to sit and write as I can--at least not for the next 18-20 years.  You would need a T.A.R.D.I.S. and a vasectomy/tubal ligation gun, and The Doctor would almost certainly end up asking you some pretty pointed questions.  Also, no one is suggesting you give your kids a straight razor and matches to keep them busy while you write or let Disney raise them.  However can you really say that there is absolutely no time you could find, even daily, if you made some changes to your life?   (You probably didn't think you had time to spare before kids came along either, but they are such an urgent priority that you find a way.)  Can you really say that there is no period of time that you plunk down in front of the TV every night?  No way you could push your bedtime back a half hour or rise a half hour early?  No way you could start packing a lunch and use your break to do some writing?  No way you could write on public transit?  No way you could tighten up your weekend chores so that it takes three hours instead of four?  No way you could watch fifteen cute cat videos instead of thirty? No way you could cut out some video games, Facebook, or emails?  No way you give up some creature comforts and take a pay cut to be able to leave work sooner?  No way you can secure a couple of hours on the weekend by skipping a social plan with someone?  It's actually incredibly rare to find someone whose schedule is so busy that they can't carve out a half hour to an hour if it is a priority to them.  The problem is, most people have other priorities.

If you want time to write, make writing a priority.

Myth 4: Writing should be a horrible sacrificial burden somewhat akin to crawling across a field of glass shards into an ammonia pool.  If you are not left broken and bleeding by it, you simply have not given it enough.  The altar of writing demands your free time, your social life, your downtime, and even your very soul!

Reality: Writing should be fulfilling.

You decide your own level of involvement.  If you don't want to write every day, you don't have to.  No one is going to call the Pretentious Hotline on you.  If you don't want to write when it "feels like a chore" you don't have to.  If you want to wait for the rainbow of magical inspiration to come to you instead of working to establish a creative rhythm on your terms, you can.  If you write once a month, and that act of creation makes you happy, but more makes you miserable, then how is this even a question?  Like I said, we're not doing this for the glory.

For as long as there has been art, there has been a wide continuum of dedication to it.  Not every painter  spends 16 hours in their studio like Picasso, and not every musician practices for five hours a day like Yo Yo Ma.  Writing isn't any different. I don't write ten pages a day like Stephen King or 12+ hours a day like J.K. Rowling.  I'm a lightweight compared to them--mostly because I'm not ready to give up what little downtime I have.

Now, if you're running around feeling vaguely unsettled because you hit a round-number-birthday but you're still not a novelist, or if you want to be one of the famed writers of your generation, you might have to consider a greater dedication to writing.  Artists and entertainers have always been completely obsessive about their craft, and you aren't likely to achieve as much as they have without giving an equal amount of effort.  However, consider this: these great artists don't have balanced lives.  They don't practice moderation.  Their marriages fail.  Their lives suck.  Their health isn't always that great.  This blinding obsession isn't necessarily something to strive for.

All that said, if writing every day "kills you," you probably should either give up on the idea of doing the talk show circuit or immediately see your physician.  I hear there's a cream....

What I may have said that is kind of like this: If you want to write as your career, you will probably have to do some work.  From tech writers to freelance writers to bloggers (who make real money) to novelists to journalists, writers who write for a living have one thing in common.  They write just about every day.  That's their job.  You wouldn't last very long or make much money at any job where you came in when you felt like it, left when it started to feel like work, and refused to do the parts you didn't like.  The word for that sort of activity is "hobby."  Writing isn't going to be any different.  If you want it to pay the bills, it's going to feel like "a chore" from time to time.

You wouldn't last very long or make much money at any job where you came in when you felt like it, left when it started to feel like work, and refused to do the parts you didn't like.  The word for that sort of activity is "hobby."

The reality of financial success through writing is that it takes a lot of hard work, and an agent or a publisher doesn't really care about your excuses for why you're not writing no matter how valid they are.  And don't be fooled by the myth of your talent or genius either.  Creative ideas are actually quite common--it's the work to realize them that isn't.  And if a publisher or agent is deciding between you and your don't-harsh-my-creativity's-squee manuscript and someone who put in twice as much work as you on the manuscript and three times as much work as you when they were still mastering the craft, the decision is going to be very easy.

And all the nasty notes in the world to bloggers like me aren't going to change that reality.

Now if you really like writing, the bad parts are fulfilling in different ways.  Even if you have the shittiest, most difficult day you've ever had, and you ache and are covered in melted marshmallow, you hold your proton pack to the sky when all is said and done and you shout "I LOVE THIS JOB!!"  There are days I want to go back to bed, hunt Deathclaws in Fallout: New Vegas, Read Watership Down....ANYTHING but write, but I know if I just get up and get going I'm going to be happy I did, and the next time I am not in the mood will be a little easier.


The video below is about music, but if you try really hard, I'm sure you can think of some parallels.  And you can read the quotes below (by a couple of writers you might recognize) while you watch it.




You must write every single day of your life.
-Ray Bradbury

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.
-JK. Rowling

I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning.
-William Faulkner

Inspiration usually comes during work, not before it.
-Madeleine L’Engle

Aim for 1000 words a day, six days a week.
-Stephen King

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.
-Margaret Atwood

You can't wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.
-Jack London

If you wait for inspiration to write; you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.
-Dan Poynter

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.

-Jane Yolen

Don’t let a single day go by without writing. Even if it’s garbage, if garbage is all you can write, write it. Garbage eventually becomes compost with a little treatment.
-Anonymous (but a famous quotation)

9 comments:

  1. The most compelling point in this argument is how successful people who don't write every day aren't. Whenever someone tells me they don't write every day, I always want to ask them "Yeah, how's that plan going for ya? Got a lot published do you?"

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    1. I try to resist such jabs. Partially because, as I said, some people do write sporadically and publish, but mostly because writing every day is no guarantee of success. I write every day, and I'm published (with a couple of very random exceptions) only in a blog--a medium with no gatekeepers. They would not be wrong to point out such a thing.

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  2. I feel you on the gaming thing. "OMG but leveling my Courier/Wanderer/Vault Dweller or Dovahkiin/Nerevarine or my Tauren Warrior to 90 etc etc. will be more fun than writing even though I like writing..." Mind since I started walking three weeks ago, it's getting easier to get writing done by noon and have the rest of my time--such as it is--free.

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    1. I'm a big plan of the "Work Hard/Play Hard" model of living life. I try to knock my writing out and move on as well.

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  3. *shrugs* I tried the "write every day" and failed miserably, and so felt like a failure. So I stopped marking that goal for myself. I need to write way more than I'm writing, but at certain times everyday just isn't possible. (Or rather, I'm not going to make it such a priority--it's possible, of course). I don't not write so I can be on facebook or something. Sometimes I don't write so I can have a conversation with my husband, etc. If the goal of writing everyday is to achieve a certain word count, then I'm fine without writing everyday. The most I've written in a day is 10,000 (give or take a few hundred), and yeah, that was a 16 or so hour day. But I can write 5000 words when I sit down, for King that's a weeks worth, almost. As you say, being a writer is about WRITING, but a person's own writing style is, well, his or her own. Trying to write like someone else writes is a surefire way to misery.

    I imagine the vitrol comes because this is one of the most screamed "truths" about writing. "If you don't write everyday, you're not a writer...." No one gets to tell other people they are or are not writers. (as you say). You can tell someone they are or aren't published (though I'd assume they know whether they are). The snarky "Well, how's that working out for you??" For me, eh, just fine. I've written well over 10,000 words between Jan 1 and Feb 15. Definitely NOT writing everyday. Since then, I edited those words between Feb 15 and March 15. So I'm cool with what I'm doing. I do get annoyed, though, at the condescending lectures (this blog post wasn't one of them) on how I'm doing it wrong.

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    1. No one should ever do what doesn't work. All I do is relate the advice that MOST writers we know and love convey time and time again. You should always do what works for you and know that what makes you a writer is writing, not how much or often you do so.

      One small quibble: King writes ten pages a day according to him; that's about 2500-3000 words if he's double spacing (twice that if he's not). So a weeks worth would be closer to the neighborhood of 20,000 words a week or possibly twice that.

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  4. I've only just discovered your blog and I find this absolutely riveting, in about eight different ways. The level of vitriol at a truth universally acknowledged is fabulously odd. I'm especially worried about the sexually violated in prison fellow. Of course one should write every day if one wants to write well. (I occasionally take Sundays off, but even on holiday I carry a notebook with me.) The best book on writing I ever read was by Dorothea Brande, and she recommended twenty minutes instinctive writing, entirely unedited, every single morning, before one even thought about doing any actual work. I read that when I was twenty, and it's stayed with me for thirty years. I think you are very patient with your intemperate critics. I would shout and possibly cry.

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    1. Awww well. They take some getting used to, but eventually you learn to just tune out the screeching and listen to the valuable feedback. These days they are as fun to reply to as anything.

      You might like this post in particular based on your comment: http://chrisbrecheen.blogspot.com/2014/06/one-book-to-rule-them-all-and-with.html

      Thanks for reading!!

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  5. Well, you know, I just published my own Book 5 (second in The Toki-Girl and Sparrow-Boy series.) I take weekends off (except for the thinking bits). I take some holidays and "vacation days" off. I trade mid-week boat or ski days for Saturdays and Sundays. I organize my entire YEAR around this series now. I think that's what happens when you are a seriously working writer.

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