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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?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Don't Make It So Damned Hard

Danny Shanahan
Image description: Boy and girl looking at chalk words on the sidewalk.
Girl holding chalk.
Caption- "I try to write a little bit every day."
You know I tell most writers to write every day.

Well, I hope you know that. At least by now.

[If this is your first time here at Writing About Writing, you are excused from today's lesson, but tomorrow you're going to get a pop quiz and the only question on it will be "How often should I write if I really really want to be a writer and I just really want to 'make it'?"]

I mean "Write every day" is about as close to writing advice panacea as you can get. The only thing that might be more useful is to tell writers to read every day. You might be surprised to discover how many would-be writers think they're going to have great writing careers without reading constantly.

I know about half of the people that get the advice to write daily, pretty much ignore it. "Not me," they think. "I'm a special snowflake. Writing every day is for other writers. I have to follow my creativity or else it'll feel like work. Takes all the fun out of it to try and be disciplined. Nope."

These folks are sure they're going to make it by writing only when they are moved to write by the forces of their muse. Even if, consistently and predictably, that only happens once or twice a year and never seems to get them through an entire project from beginning to end.

Let's talk brass tacks with Chris, here: it really doesn't matter.

Wait what did he just say? Did he actually say writing every day doesn't matter? Is this bizarro world? Does he have a goatee? Is it raining spam loaves? What the hell?

Nope. It doesn't matter.

Ever. If these folks would get what they love out of the artistic process of creativity and enjoy the act of writing, this post would be over already because there would be no need for all this anxiety.

Please remember that you don't have to write any set amount of time or any set amount of time per week or month or year or day to BE a writer. You decide your level of involvement. You decide if you want to be a writer like people who are in their office baseball team play baseball. (Yes, it's really baseball they're playing even if they don't get paid or go do double headers in Tallahassee.) You decide if you want to do the city intramural team. You decide if you want to give all it would take to play baseball professionally in the minor leagues.

You can BE a writer by writing. That's it. The list is over.

But if you want to pitch for the Red Sox, you better be ready to train every day.

So many folks who don't want to write every day want to be writers with a capital W and in a glittery font. (Writer!)

They want to do book tours and have fans and make that sick as fuck, successful-writer money. It's not a fulfilling pastime, a rewarding hobby, an amazing catharsis, or even a great way to make sideline cash. It's fucking "DAYJOB OR BUST!"

Ride or die!

And they ask how to make that possible.

Most of them will come back every couple of years and ask the same question about what the secret is to be a working writer. (I've had literally the exact same people return to me three and four times at each sort of "tier" of my and this blog's success––good outreach, making money, making a living wage, becoming internet "known"––and each time I told them the same thing: "Write every day. Get a post up pretty close to daily. Don't stop. Or if you're doing fiction, get a chunk written every day."   Each time they walked away as if I had spoken confusingly of transcending their "moon blood" to align their fiery center....in the dead language of Ardhamagadhi.

Others really want permission to not write, so they'll ask some other writer the same ardent, sincere, heartfelt question (and ignore that writer as well when they give the same advice). They will do this over and over and over and basically shop this question around until they finally illicit the answer they want–someone who says some version of "You don't have to write every day."

Oh thank GOODNESS! Permission!

For my part stepping into this morass of folks who ask my advice about how to "make it," but get mad when I answer them, I have to admit that it takes some thinking to understand exactly how someone who expresses undying love for an activity and says they want to be one of the greats at it might balk at the mere suggestion that they do it a little each day.

But....

BUT....

BUT!!!!!!

It's also possible that "Write every day" as advice is conjuring images just a bit too unyielding and a bit too prescriptive. Not every day has to be a grueling six to eight hour session on your work in progress.

What the folks shopping for the advice they want to hear–like a keen bargain hunter at a Swap Meet–often don't realize is, these writers who "don't write every day" a lot of times actually do write almost every day. In many of these cases, those who proudly announce that they have avoided daily writing turn out to mean on their novel, and when you dig a little deeper, you find that they do freelance writing or write press releases as their day job, or any number of other things that are writing in an average day.

I'm not kidding about this. Pull a few layers back on those stories if you think you've found the promised land of milk, honey, and writers who "make it" by bursting to the page, driven by creativity, only when it cracks over their head like thunder.

There's probably a little more there. Like onions...or parfaits.

I once read a published author's blog where she swore up and down that she never wrote every day.

Nope.

Not her. No way.

She had kids.

She had a job.

She had a life.

She couldn't afford that sort of nonsense.

She was just built differently than all those other writers. She was a very special snowflake. About 1500 words into this diatribe on how wrong all those hundreds of "big-shot authors" were to chant the daily writing mantra, she revealed that well of COURSE she did fifteen to thirty minutes every morning in longhand, often working out the kinks of her next big project.

Wait....what?  Seriously?
Image description: Me...looking hella confused.
Another explained that they wrote their novel in six weeks locked in their family's cabin on the lake, and they had done "nothing" for months before that. This one was in person so I had the chance to ask a few follow-up questions. "Nothing" turned out to be character sketches, outlines, and a daily obsession over how to word specific scenes that essentially amounted to drafting without paper. This was done at the same time as a daily diet of voracious reading, and a job that required....(can you guess?)....daily writing.

Then, of course, eventually. you do find one. Someone who really doesn't write every day. But on closer examination, you discover they dutifully do something like write sixteen hardcore hours on weekends and think about their characters all fricken day long during the week when between IT calls.

Because, of course, that kind of dedication was really what people were thinking about when they were trying to not write every day. Sure.

Who hasn't written an e-mail and added some flair? Who never puts some thought into a post on Facebook? Who doesn't sometimes prefer chat to a face-to-face because they can take time to put their thoughts into careful, precise words? Who hasn't tried to bring their full force writer skill to a Yelp review just to flex their muscles a little? Who keeps no journal, pens no letters, writes literally nothing in a day? Other than maybe those who really (truly) don't enjoy writing.

You don't have to make daily writing so hard. Writing is a skill. It's like playing basketball, playing the cello, or playing World of Warcraft at the endgame raid level. If you don't do it, you get rusty. If you don't do it for long enough, you kind of start to suck again. If you do it a little, you don't really improve and people who are trying hard will pass you like you're standing still. If you do it every day, you'll get better. If you really push yourself to be the best you can every day, you improve remarkably in a relatively short time.

Obviously you're never going to get your book deal if you spend your days crafting angry political Facebook posts or florid e-mails to your grandma. No one will publish your longhand morning journal. You're never going to finish if you only write fifteen minutes a day. And your day job writing might pay the bills but it's up to you to decide if it's fulfilling you creatively.

If you want to write creatively for a living*, you're going to EVENTUALLY have to apply your ass to the chair on a project and finish your shit (day job style). Same if you want all these accolades of authorial success**.  And when you do sit down, it's going to be ten times easier to keep chugging if you've already established a routine and regimen instead of just indulging a haphazard proclivity to write florid social media posts.

On the other hand, sometimes it's useful to remember that you're dealing with a skill set that you don't want to atrophy from disuse, not some mystic ritual that the old monks said was the key to success.

(*Do you? Really? Or are you perfectly happy writing just as much as you are driven by your creative mojo to write? It's okay to love writing part time. It really is.)

(**Is that really what you want? There's a lot to be said for writing because it blisses you out and not making a day job out of it. Being a day job writer is fucking hard work. Might be more enjoyable as a hobby.  We can oogle LaBron James's salary, but even the third stringers NBA players making their measly half a million salaries don't just show up for two hours on the weekends.)


And shhhh. Just between you and me: *looks around and whispers* It's probably okay if you only do six days a week. I often do. [2018 edit: I no longer take one day a week off, but I regularly have a couple of days a week where I do two or three hours instead of six to eight.]

There's a lot of push back in art against the idea that selling art requires work, and a lot of it lands in writing (and music too--lots of gonna-be-famous musicians out there who don't think they need to practice daily). Just remember that there's probably something to it if almost every single professional writer you admire is giving you the same one piece of advice over and over and over again. When everyone disagrees about how to get from A to B, you know you can blaze your own trail, but when they're all pretty much saying the same thing, that's when it's time to listen.

But also remember that you can't write an e-mail without the "write," and you don't have to always make everything so damned hard.

If you're enjoying this blog, and would like to see more articles like this one, the writer is a guy with a rent and insurance to pay who would love to spend more time writing. Please consider contributing to My Patreon. As little as $12 a year (only one single less-than-a-cup-of-coffee dollar a month) will get you in on backchannel conversations, patron-only polls, and my special ear when I ask for advice about future projects or blog changes.

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