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

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Privilege of Daily Writing (And the Ableism of Prescribing It) Part 2

Image description:
Hand holding pen over text "Keep Calm and Write On"
Return to part 1….

The time, the energy, the ability to write every day–not everyone has these. And while most aspiring writers who "can't" write every day may need little more than some brutally honest introspection about their really real priorities, there will always be those for whom the privilege of writing every day simply doesn’t exist.

And it's a shitty thing to treat them as though it actually does.

Whether they have a chronic illness that interferes with their ability to sit and form words, a disorder like A.D.D., or their lives are beleaguered enough that they really can’t find the time, some people simply can’t write every day. I have had conversations with folks whose absolutely essential medications turn their brains to cotton candy for days or weeks at a time, a single mother working two jobs and driving for Uber who has some time on the weekend, but not a second during the weekdays, as well as several folks whose anxiety and/or depression is severe enough to make writing impossible for several days a month.

These are not motivation problems. They are not attitude problems. These are not writers who aren't trying hard enough or would rather play Fallout 4.

For folks like this, to see writing framed like "If you really wanted it, you write daily!" it can seem like there is some kind of moral imperative calling them to daily writing. A rubric of “A True Writer™” for which they have fallen short. (“THOU SHALT NOT BE A TRUE WRITER™ IF THOU CANST WRITE DAILY!!! The Great Pen has spoken! All hail The Great Pen!") It can seem like the legions of successful writers who are extolling the virtues of daily writing are somehow ignoring the impossibility of what they prescribe–casually ignoring it in a way that echoes so much other of our culture’s erasure when it comes to ignoring privilege.

"What? Me? Privileged? I'm just an able bodied, neruotypical, upper middle class cishet white Christian male who makes money selling books to people that tell them to get over their bad attitudes. Clearly I have EARNED my lifestyle and anyone who is still struggling to make ends meet in a retail job must simply be lazy. I can't be privileged you know. I was poor as a child....."

And so it goes.

So where does that leave us when folks who are are physically, mentally, and emotionally able to sit and write are lecturing folks who aren't about how to be writers? Well, it gets tricky.

If they are telling people who actually can't write each day that they had to get over themselves, suggesting that the only real limitations were “a bad attitude,” or saying that these limitations were just “excuses,” they would be guilty of the most rank sort of ableism (or classism in some cases) imaginable. They would be perpetrating the same sort of abhorrent cultural fuckery that causes privileged dill hole asscanoes to suggest that all anyone needs to do to beat clinical depression is eat a light salad and go for more walks or who insist like little frozen-faced muppets that being in a wheelchair would not be that bad if only folks would just turn their frowns upside down.

And some….do. Fucking help the world, some fuckers do exactly this. I can’t possibly make excuses for every writer who has ever given out advice. Writers are people, and some people are terrible judgmental fuckers who want to be better than everyone else and will take their elitism where they can get it (because it sure isn’t rock hard abs or slammin’ social lives that make writers superfly). And while I would hope that if one or two traits could be said to be more ubiquitous among writers, empathy would be one, I know it isn't always the case.

Some asshole writers sneer down their asshole writer noses at those who can’t sit still for hours or stare at a screen or a piece of paper like they do and tell them they are just making excuses. Or almost worse they set themselves up as arbiters of whether any one particular excuse is “legitimate” or not. (“I deem your severe anxiety….’worthy.’ However, since I was able to overcome my own A.D.D., clearly no one has ever had it worse or had other exacerbating circumstances or anything–you are….. 'just making excuses.'”)

These writers need....well what they really need is a tall frothing glass of shut the fuck up, but let's stick with constructive and say they need to realize that the ability to write every day is a privilege. A brain that will cooperate when tasked with sitting down to form words is a privilege. Not taking a medication that can make concentration impossible is a privilege. The ability to emotionally handle writing more than a FB about your lunch is a privilege. Having a job with financial security enough that you don't have to work two or three just like during every waking hour is a privilege. Living in a part of the world with socio/political stability to sit and do something like write each day is a privilege.

Being able to sit and write is a privilege.

And while those who have that privilege that might be common, they are not “default human,” and such privilege is by no means universal. And writers who continue to lecture prescriptively beyond the context of the teeming millions clamoring over themselves to know what the secret is to Being A Writer™ need to know that their behavior is becoming harmfully ableist and probably classist.

Image description: Stella Young next to her quote:
That quote, 'the only disability in life is a bad attitude', the reason that's bullshit is ...
No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.
No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating
a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.

Of course, we don't need to stop giving this advice. We just need to respect the nuance in which it exists.

"Write Daily" is descriptive, not prescriptive* 

*Ususally. Or at least it should be. Please! For fuck's sake have some compassion!

Telling people in general that they can make $1000 a week doing nothing but driving for Uber in the city is just descriptive. That’s not inherently problematic. Nor is telling people when and how long you drive for or saying that if you really want to make money with Uber, you have to be willing to put in a lot of rides at peak times (which means times when all your friends want to hang out) to get the bonuses.

On the other hand, assuming that anyone, anywhere can make four grand a month ignores people who can’t drive physically, are too anxious to drive or too anxious to drive during peak hours, who don’t have the up front capital for a car (or insurance, or the cars that Uber approves), who don’t live in a big city, who don’t have a license, or for what ever reason can not as easily access that opportunity. And of course this kind of ableism can get worse if for example the person who said "I can't uber. I require a wheelchair," were then told that they should just get one of those cars where all the functions are in the steering wheel and stop having "such a trash can't attitude."

Speaking of trash, that's where those isms belong. Next to the spaghetti that has gone off and the vacuum bag full of toenail clippings. And the people who say that shit.

Write every day as a mantra for success is similarly descriptive. There are a number of benefits of daily writing not the least of which is that doing something a LOT is the best way to get better at it.

The writer’s cabal didn’t get together and decide that we were going to set up a series of trials that would-be writers would have to pass before they would be allowed within the inner sanctum, and then laughed Dr. Evil style at how hard it would be. Advice like this is, when it isn’t a writer solely talking about their personal success formula, usually the amalgam of several success stories distilled down to their purist form.

If you were to ask a hundred of your favorite authors (King, Aspirin, Brust, Steinbeck, Rothfuss, Williams, Asimov, Gaiman, Clarke, Quinn, Leckie, Tolkien, Murakami, Ishiguro, Morrison, Butler, Tepper, Moore, Pratchett, etc…)  for their daily routines, you would find massive amounts of variety in how much, when, where, and for how long they wrote, but would probably find that all of them (or maybe 99) wrote every day. You might find a few who write six days a week. A couple who treat it like a 9-5 job and only do five days. But most are putting in weekend and evening hours as well.

That’s how they got to be the best. That’s how they ended up on half the bookshelves of the English speaking world. Just like the best athletes or the best actors or the best musicians or even the state’s premier brain specialist or the best cardiothoracic surgeon in the tristate area, these people are constantly working to be better. They work all the time.

Are there creative writers (and I mean professional, working authors) who don’t write every day? Absolutely.

Are some of them published? Yes.

Are they successful? It probably depends on what you mean by “successful,” but a few definitely make money and have readers. They probably feel quite fulfilled.

Are they working writers? Well…this is where it gets a little tricky. They’re probably not...totally. Not exactly. It is very unusual for someone to make full time money working a part time schedule. This would be true of any activity—and it would be even more unusual in the arts, which already usually require more work to make a go at, not less.

You don’t expect the drywaller who goes in to work twice a week to make $75,000 a year. Or the teacher who has only a part time schedule one day a week to win a bunch of teaching awards.The idea that genius and talent will mitigate the need for hard work is a myth. Might as well start buying lottery ticket scratchers for as likely as you are to hit it big without some spectacularly hard work. So if these folks are able to do nothing in their lives but write part time, it’s likely that they have some situation that works very similarly to anyone ELSE doing anything ELSE who is able to do it only part time–a rich spouse, a trust fund, their parents own their house, some other revenue stream...something. But somehow they are making enough money not to not need to punch a clock. If you take out the maybe dozen or so spectacular success stories of first novel explosions that have happened over roughly the last forty years*, creative writers who are able to pay all the bills by creative writing alone are usually somewhere between their fifth and tenth book, and have been putting in daily writing for a long, long time.

(*Don't get me wrong. They're inspiring stories. But you're as likely to make it big hanging around Hollywood restaurants with your script in hopes of selling it to Christopher Nolan.)

How about famous or well read? Again, it probably depends on what you mean by those terms, but doubtful they would be a household name. In the age of Google, it is no trouble at all to find writers who will tell you that you don’t have to write every day–some even published. (A couple of our guest blogs have come from such writers.) However, the more a writer seems to have a career trajectory that aspiring writers yearn to emulate, the more likely it is that they are going to extol the virtues of daily output.

Why bring this up in a post about ableism and privilege? Isn’t it just more of the same? (“You’ll never MAKE IT to the pinnacle of writing success if you don’t write every day!”) Did I give you all the ol’ bait and switch and it turns out I was Kaiser Soze all along!

Ha. If only you had noticed that my rambling back story had used a bunch of words printed on various object in this room, then I could clearly not choose the wine in front of me!

But seriously.... Remember the question that “Write Every Day” is usually the answer to.
Or rather the questions: “How do I get where you are?” “How can I achieve your success?” “How do I make the words come?” “How do you push past that blank page?” “How do you push through that creative lull?” “How are you able to write so much?” “How do you make the magic happen?” “How do your ideas just come when mine don’t?” “How do you make words when I sit and wait  and sit and wait and sit and wait for months, trying everything to be inspired?” “HOW????”

And the answer is that there’s no magic, there’s no mystery. You sit down to work every day, preferably at exactly the same time, and after a while it gets a lot easier. The muse (or whatever you want to call it) is waiting for you when you get there. Pretty soon the words start gushing at Write o'clock.

And there is a privilege to being able to do that.

And it is ableist to assume that everyone and anyone can do that.

And we could all be more careful about what we're actually saying when we talk about daily writing.

It is also true that I’m afraid if you actually can’t sit and write daily, there may be parts of writing that are going to be harder for you. It’s not really anyone’s fault that daily writing is good for writers is a truism. It just sort of IS. People who practice incessantly at things are better at them than people who don’t, and life doesn't care if they don't because they want to play World of Warcraft or they don't because they can't.

However....all that "True Writer™" crap is just that. And all hope is not lost of writing success.

Also.....and let me be very clear about this next part: in some ways, it might be a boon to your self awareness and your deliberateness that your more able writers aren't likely to take advantage of. But folks who can’t write daily (for whatever reason that I am not here to judge) don’t have to give up, and might have an advantage over some of the writers who can sit at a computer or blank page for hours every day working harder and not smarter.

To help me make this point let’s imagine two people who are not writers. That way we can divorce ourselves from much of the emotional charge that comes with the yearning desire to BE WRITERS, the sense that any advice we can’t live up to is personal indictment, as well as some of the mystery and magic of writing that we like to imagine can’t be trained or taught.

Let us imagine a runner and a cellist. Each loves their respective activity. The cellist plays in a community orchestra that rehearses once a week and puts on a winter concert each year and the runner has dominated their local events. Both are quite good and "talented"—among the best. However, each has also wondered about advancing themselves to the next level of their ability and possibly even trying to make their passion into a day job. Each voraciously consumes advice from coaches and successful runners (respectively) Each finds that advice from professionals in their fields always has a similar resonance: practice/train rigorously and continuously, and preferably do so every single day.

Each also had the opportunity to ask Bolt and YoYo Ma (respectively) at a Q&A event about how to advance their career to professional caliber. In both cases the speakers asked the question gave the best advice they could; that coaches and lessons and energy drink recipes and all that stuff was never going to matter as much as raw practicing (or training for the runner) every day for at least a couple of hours.

That’s how you get to be the best.

It doesn’t seem so unreasonable when we think about a musician or an athlete does it? Of course those folks have to practice. Of COURSE they do! Talent might play a role, but talent means about as much as a mosquito bite on an ass cheek if someone isn’t training every day. Remember this when we go back to writing and we get really emotionally invested in what we aspire to.

Now...let’s imagine our cellist has a chronic arm injury that prevents them from lifting their arm for hours every day. In fact, if they practice for a couple of hours, they will be almost unable to move their arm the next day. An hour or so every two or three days is as much as they can manage. What if our runner has recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (a demyelinating degenerative disease) and though it is in the early stages, some days he simply doesn’t have the muscle strength to run, coordination, and may experience double vision.

Let us further imagine that Bolt and Yo Yo Ma were told about these conditions before they were asked by these two young hopefuls about how to advance themselves. Remember it isn’t the reality that practice makes you better at things that is in itself ableist, it is the idea that anyone can do it if they want it enough or that failure means you aren't disciplined or that magical thinking can simply overcome such circumstance, that a cheerful disposition and a “never say die,” attitude is all that separates anyone from their dreams or that depression, anxiety, any number of a hundred disorders or illnesses are just in people’s heads.

That's ableism. And getting preachy about "write every day" when the context does shift is ableist.

So back to our two young hopefuls, assuming Bolt and YoYo Ma are generous people with compassion and empathy, they would likely have very different answers.

And we’ll talk about those in the next part. As well as what we able writers can do to make the world less hostile and judgmental to those who aren't able to write every day in our next part....

On to Part Three....

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