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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, November 20, 2015

If I Might Respond

"Not so fast, my friend!"
I hope you all enjoyed last Thursday’s guest post about (not) writing every day. I know it’s important to hear perspectives of writers of many different stripes, even the ones who disagree with some of my more mantra-fied advice. (Though I think I disagree with Shana probably less than many might at first think.) I don’t have all the answers, and in fact there really aren’t any answers. Like grammar and the rules of craft, the “rules” of process can be mastered and manipulated by those who take the time to respect why they are rules and then break them contentiously.

Breaking rules is fun and often effective. But never, ever consent rules for sexyfuntimes or bathing suit area touches.

Breaking consent rules is always a no no.

It’s important that writers—especially starting writers with ambitions; those who are maybe wetting themselves to be the next Stephen King, JK Rowling, or Stephanie Myers—understand where the ubiquitous advice from so many well-established and well-known writers to “write daily” comes from, why it is so oft-repeated, and why you find such little deviation from it at the higher echelons of writing prominence. The fact is Shana is absolutely right. She really, really is. However most writers need to hear a lot more, “Apply ass to chair” and a lot less, “Hey don’t worry about it.”


I don’t want to call this post “damage control” because I don’t think there’s any damage to control, but I might go so far as to call it perspective realistificating. Yes. That is totally a word and totally what we shall call this post. (Or “expectation management” if you want to be all boring A.F.)

Writers can absolutely “make it” without working every day, and certainly without working every SINGLE day. I’ve written this over and over and over until the tips of my fingers have bled and my will to live screams out for some Sense8, an extra cheese pizza, and a four handed massage for self care (preferably all at once). This is even true for values of “make it” that include publication, money, possibly even multiple publications and maybe even a day job that isn’t “really” something else like editing anthologies or being a trophy boyfriend like this devastatingly cute blogger. 

But perhaps more importantly than any and all of that bullshit is that writers can “make it” in the area of artistic fulfillment. I know it’s touchy and feely and it’s artsy fartsy crap to most people.  Especially the ones who flood my inbox saying, “But Chris, oh font of writing wisdom…how can I (~dramatic pause~) MAKE IT?”, but if you are being fulfilled and your soul is happy by writing once a week, once a month, even once a year who the fuck cares about the rest of it?

Screw that soul fulfillment crap.
I want a rain of hundred dollar bills.
The problem isn’t that people write when they feel like writing and don’t when they don’t. The problem is the people who write when they feel like writing, and then feel like shit when they don't. People who write when they feel like writing and then look around and say, “Why am I not writing for a living? Why am I not multi-published yet? Why am I not a bestseller? Why am I not famous? Why am I not drowning in groupie threesomes?” (Or maybe that last one is just me.) "Why am I not the next John Grisham. The problem is people who want the accolades of being a writer (a successful writer at that) but are basically looking for a way to justify indolence.

So here are some pitfalls to be aware of if you’re sitting around wondering why you’re not on the talk show circuit yet:

1- Cling to this as your permission to not work at your own peril. 



I meet a lot of writers who don’t write very much. (And I mean I meat a LOT of writers.) When I was in a creative writing program at SFSU, about 80% of my class admitted writing only twice a month or so unless there was an assignment. Of the rest, only two or three wrote more than once or twice a week. (I also don’t think it’s any fucking coincidence that the two or three of us who did write every day have continued writing after graduation and the others I never heard of again.) These were people in school getting a degree to be creative writers, and they didn’t really enjoy writing.

Take a moment. Sip your drink. Think about that for just a second.

When people write to me asking for advice about how to become successful, about 3/4+ of the time, I find out that they don’t actually do much writing–maybe once every week or two. Or I find out that they spend a few minutes every day or three tooling a draft that they did for NaNo a couple of years back but are really frustrated that it isn’t publishable yet.

There are a phenomenal number of writers who do not write.

 I’m not going to tell these people they’re not really writers; I’m not the writer police. But sometimes I can’t help but notice the very strong correlation between people who are now working writers and people who treat writing like it’s an obligation they have to attend to every day (or almost every day) whether they are in the mood for it or not. And even when they don't stress daily writing, they never say you can skip weeks or months at a time or that it won't be a phenomenal amount of work.

No one's going to ride your ass to do any work. If you don't want to write, you can not write for weeks, months, even years at a time.

The problem is that beginning writers don't just not write, but then also get unsettled at their career trajectory and lack of book deals. Those who want to reconcile those two things without doing much work often love ideas like "talent" and "genius" and they often express the hope that they can become rich and famous regardless. They tend to hover around Shana's advice (or similar advice) like a moth to flame. I chose that cliche deliberately, despite its cliched clicheness, because the end result of moths flinging themselves into fire and writers actively looking for advice not to write is about the same:

That’s right: the smell of burnt moth wings....or maybe I screwed that up.


2- Don’t expect day job results if you don’t put in day job effort.

I've never met a single writer paying their bills with writing who didn't put in at least a 5 day week. All but one write on weekends too. And the one who does the best for herself career-wise, unsurprisingly, clocks in about ten hours a day.

If you don’t want to write, don’t write. 

But realisticify your perspective.

 The reaction I get from starting writers when I tell them I make a couple hundred dollars a month writing is always the same. “How do you do that? Oh my god. You’re like practically JK Rowling compared to me!” (This is usually where I drive the fish fork through my occipital lobe.) And when I tell them that I put in three or four hours a day to make what is about 20% of minimum wage, they say “Woah. Can’t do that.”

I also know that if I put in an eight hour day instead of a three hour day, I’d probably be doing even better.

 JK puts in 12 hours BTW and did so for years before she published her first Harry Potter novel.

At each level of “make it” you peel off more writers who don’t write every day. Lots of writers who don’t write daily are published. Fewer have a novel published. Fewer still have more than once or two novels published. Even fewer still make agreeable side-line money. Fewer still are paying their bills. Almost none are famous. And maybe one is a name you might recognize (Douglas Adams was sort of notorious for not writing very often.)

If you want to be making day job results, there's no reason it won't take day job effort.

2.5- Being the best means being obsessed.

It’s always a bit peculiar to me that people seem to know and understand that to be the best athletes train hours a day, the best musicians practice daily and rehearse for weeks before a performance, the best painters are constantly, obsessively doodling and spend whole days in their studios, the best lawyers put in late nights, the best doctors go to cutting edge medical seminars and read medical journals in their spare time to be premier in their field, but suddenly when it comes to writing people think there’s just some magic to it that is chiefly achieved by sitting down and NOT writing.

But can we get groupies?
This is very important!
You can be good at writing without writing every day. Even very good. You can get published. You can make money. You can have readers. But writing is an art incorporating a skill and a craft and like any skill and craft, if you want to improve, you have to practice and if you want to be great you have to practice a lot.

Who the hell thinks they're going to become great paragons at something by working at it a couple hours a week? Writers; that's who.

3- It is absolutely vital to keep in mind Shana's advice about doing something each day.

You might be one of those people whose creativity just comes in fits and starts. They do exist.

But here's what I noticed about Shana's story: 1- She put in the exact same ten years that most writers do before getting published, and in that time she was actually writing. It may have come in fits and starts, but she managed to crank out THREE BOOKS. 2- After the first book, whenever she wasn't writing, she never stopped working. She studied, thought, considered and basically did write every day–just not with a pen or a keyboard.

And when she finally did get The Idea™ for the novel that would eventually be published,  she had the skill and the knowhow to sit down and turn it into a book in just a few months. And far too many people have the idea, but have not spent the time developing the skills and discipline to really know how to translate their inspiration into language or the discipline to follow through with such a monumental creative project.

Of those writers who say you don't have to write every day, there is still a shocking commonality of advice. These writers still say it's hard work. They still say you have to work consistently (if perhaps not daily). And they still say that you should spend some time every day thinking creatively about your writing. They still write every day and it's still hard work.

Creativity is a muscle. If you work it out every day it gets big and strong and makes you feed it cottage cheese and demands to know where you keep the spare set of keys. But you really do have to work it out regularly. While writers talk about their muse, they are essentially saying "I have made creative modality into a habit."

3.5 Not every day has to be your WIP.

When I see (and give) advice about writing daily, it's important to make the distinction that this doesn't have to be on The Great American Novel™. You don't want to put a project in a drawer for too long, or you'll basically abandon it. ("Finish your shit" is advice almost as ubiquitous as "write every day.") But you can write something else for the day. A side project. A character sketch. Even an e-mail. You might find characters and ideas get stale like month-old Cheerios if you leave them for too long, but if you have a day where you just write some Facebook posts and an e-mail that you're not coming to Thanksgiving because Uncle Robbie's casual bigotry isn't really cute, you're still writing.

Just engage with the written language. Keep your wordsmithing skills sharp. Remember that writing is a skill that can atrophy. You don't want to be like "I forgetted how to wurd!" when the inspiration does hit.

Just....maybe not this.

4- There’s a reason so many household name writers advise daily writing.

If there’s a writer half a dozen random people have heard of—be they popular or literary – I can almost guarantee that their advice about being a successful writer involves hours a day. There's a reason for why it's such common advice. There's a reason famous writers give it.

You might be a special snowflake. But you should probably first assume you work like most other people, hump it, and then fiddle with the knobs if that's not working because.....

4.5- Have you tried? I mean have you really actually tried? Really?

Most writers have wildly different writing processes from each other, but there are few who have different creative processes. It's true that you might be one of the special snowflakes who will do better if you don't write every day, but it's far more likely that you work about the same as everyone else.

In my inbox right this second there are some twenty-odd e-mails from people all over the world (from patron muses to folks I’ve never heard of before or since) who have said “I tried the every day thing, and holy balls it worked just like you said it would. A few weeks in, the floodgates opened up and now I write every day for a few hours.”

Yeah. I know. (~puts on sunglasses~)

You know how many people have told me “I gave it a shot for a solid three months and it just killed my creativity. I was left a shattered husk of a writer. I'll never be the same"? None. Not one. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Love.

One person did write and said that they broke through and were able to write fluidly every day when they sat down, but they realized they didn't really want to write that much or that often. But no one said they destroyed their creativity.

Only you can look into your soul and know if you really, actually truly work better sporadically or if you are just deciding "Yep. That' must totes be me!" in lieu of getting to work.

6- Lastly, if you love it so much, why are we having this conversation?

Me after a day of not writing.
"I dreamed a dream of time gone byyyyyyyy
When the word count was high and life worth living."
Here's what it boils down to: how do you feel when you're not writing?

Go ahead and think about that for a second. It's not a hypothetical question.

If you are okay and fulfilled and enjoy not writing for weeks or months at a time and then working when the inspiration strikes, then I'll happily have a coke and shut the fuck up. If you feel disquieted, uninspired, lazy, hate that you're not writing, and kind of feel like your muse is putting on leather and smacking you around with a riding crop and making you call it "Ma'am" instead of the other way around, and send me e-mails about how disappointingly your career is going, and ask Jim Butcher what his secret is, maybe you need to take the advice of the army or so of writers who have gone before you and tackled this bear before.

Most working writers I know have a very particular answer to “can you make it without writing every day?” They say: “Why wouldn’t I want to write every day? I love writing.” They don’t look for excuses not to write. They look for excuses to ignore other things and do more. When their lives, for whatever reason, become logistically unable to host writing time (family emergency, job crisis, explosive personal drama) they are disquieted and long for a return to normalcy, the page, and the pen.

But if writing less works for you (and you are being honest about that an not just embracing the excuse) then, as always, do whatever works.

2 comments:

  1. 1) How do I feel when I'm not writing everyday? Like I'm having a massive anxiety attack and sometimes like maybe I'm having DTs with icky bugs crawling up my back. Writing is a WAY better medication than chemicals, yo.

    2) Even when the stuff I'm writing on any particular day is absolute crap, I've always got The Voices whispering... and making me think about things. Or I'm obsessively Googling everything there is to know about some obscure tidbit that won't make a difference to anyone but me (and the Voice who is insisting I look this stuff up). It's less annoying than obsessively arranging my spice cabinet. And I've already labeled and shelved all my books in Dewey Decimal order. Rightio, there are meds for that, too, but now I understand the IPA and the morphology and phonology of a few languages that aren't English, so...

    Yep, I take that "write every day" advice and some of Shana's advice on the non-writing (read: writing crap) days. Oh, most annoying coworker, let me count the ways you can be described! (Also, the interesting ways you could die in one of these stories... although, I've pretty much settled on Attack By Mountain Lion. Cliche? Hmm.)

    And now... back to my lair to continue this monumental task of weaving a story, written by me and my writing buddy, into a cohesive and coherent whole. Editing is HARD, dude!

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