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

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's Really Okay Not to Write. Really. Part 1

A picture of a pencil gives this post authority
that it wouldn't otherwise have.

One day on a family trip my ex-girlfriend dug out a bunch of old drawings she'd done when she was a tween and teen. Turns out she was a fandamntastic artist back in the day with a penchant for Disney princesses.  At first, I thought the art had to be traces, but S.G. assured me that they were drawings.  For traces they would have been pretty good.  For drawings they were rather impressive.  I’m not saying that the ghost of Andy Warhol would have shown up and given her a proud mentor nod, but they were pretty good.

“I don’t know why I stopped doing this,” she said.

“You should start back up again if you enjoyed it,” I said. 

“I don’t really want to,” she said.  “I’m enjoying knitting and cooking right now.”

There was a long pause where I was just looking at her.  It was the kind of pause that if we had been in a bank heist movie would have ended in a shoot out.  Fortunately, we were just in the living room, eating our body weight in tacos. 

“That's probably why then," I said. 

She blinked as if I had just told her that everyone she loved had just died in a giant vat of Brussels sprout jello.  But then, it was as if the clouds opened and pure understanding beamed into her soul.  She seemed at peace with the universe and it's harsh machinations.  Then, with great zen, she nodded sagely and bit into another taco.  
Totally a metaphor!

I wonder sometimes if somewhere between the Puritan work ethic and the parable of the five talents, we didn’t emerge as a culture with a sense that if we have the slightest proclivity towards something, we are morally obligated to do the crap out of it. “Don’t waste the gifts you’ve been given!” messages float all around our consumable media.  I mean can you imagine a movie where the middle aged woman says passionately to the young main character, “You’ve been given a gift, child!” and the plucky protagonist who is irreverent, but basically good at heart, replies, “Yeah, but I don’t actually enjoy doing it.” or “I'd much rather do this other thing that I’m less good at it.  It brings me more meaning.”

I don't know why so many people who are good at writing or enjoy writing thinks they ought to be taking it to the limit--eighties-montage-style.  Why is writing in particular so lacking of people who say "it's just a hobby," or "I like it, but not enough to pursue it professionally," or even "I like writing, but I don't like revision enough to ever really get published"?  Instead, everyone seems fixated on some far-off point of success--being a writer usually chief among them despite the irony of the fact that that only requires earning your er, followed closely by the holy grail of book publication, and then groupie threesomes. (Or maybe that last one is just me.) But instead of matching expectations to effort in a realistic way, writers often invest in these convoluted rationalizations that they will reach the same goals without really working.  Well, we know how slow going it is to try and tell anyone ever that success takes work.  There's a reason that stern-father-man saying sternly, "The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary!" causes a ping on the cliche-dar of even the most oblivious.  So instead, maybe it might be more useful to give people permission to just LIKE writing again, instead of always feeling like the slightest enjoyment or talent must obviously be translated into a career as a novelist.

So here it is folks:  Your ultimate permission NOT to write.  Even from Mr. Mean Taskmastery Boot-In-Your-Ass Chris.

Part 1-  The Journey Begins
  You really don’t have to love writing as much as the writers you love love writing.  Really.

Whenever I venture out into the wonderful world of writers (physically or online) and especially if I dare to go of on one of my “writers ought to actually write...maybe” rants, I always run into people seeking permission not to write. Maybe seeking is the wrong word. Demanding might be better. They start crawling out of the woodwork to take umbrage with the idea of writing daily. Sometimes "crawling out of the woodwork" isn't even an expression. They start coming out of air vents and from under stairs and stuff with cries on their lips about how they don't have to write every day. The last time I posted such an article, this guy crawled up my main sewer pipe so that his head was in my toilet when I went to take a leak. It was disconcerting to have him glaring up at my junk and insisting that writing every day wasn’t that important.

Dude. I'm just trying to pee.

"Questing" might actually be the best word for what aspiring writers do to be told they don't need to write, for what’s possibly even more telling is that when writer of any established reputation says in any context (ever) that it’s okay not to write every single day, there is a *gush* of “Oh THANK you!” type comments. “Oh, I’m SO relieved that you told me I don’t have to write every day. All those other “mean” writers tell me daily writing is critical. This is SUCH a relief. I feel so free! Thank you SOOO much.”  

(You can play the home version of our game. Google "you don't have to write every day" and read the comments on any of the links you find.)

They start telling each other about these posts. “Hey guys!” they yell. “There’s a writer who says you don’t have to write every day over on Blogspot! Hurry!” In small groups it's like Mouse saying "Morpheus is fighting Neo!" But the small groups join with other small groups and they flock to these places of validation like a car accident...between Garth Brooks and Rod Stewart....where both immediately started doing a free concert.

These people confuse me a bit, I have to admit. It’s not because they don’t want to write every day.  I get that. There are lots of things I don’t want to do everyday. I don’t want draw every day. I have no desire to knit every day. I want to floss every day, but I'm terrible about remembering it. I absolutely do not want to be chased down by a trio of rabid tigers with eye-mounted lasers every day. What confuses me is when the same people turn around and say that they love writing more than anything.


Everyone I know who loves writing “more than anything,” can’t wait to do it. They’re not looking for permission not to write. They’re looking for rationalizations that their queer, antisocial behavior of favoring writing over friends and sometimes family is somewhat socially acceptable. They duck into the bathroom to do a few lines. They do three lines in the morning just to feel normal and another before a meeting. They do a line before a party and still end up sneaking off to do a few lines every hour.  They do lines on their days off. They sometimes do a line or two before bed. And when they actually down to a “session”....they do whole paragraphs.

It might not be entirely healthy to be honest.  They rationalize their obsession and tell their partners it’s no big deal. “Baby, just let me do this one last sentence, and then I promise I’m done...for today...oh wait, I just thought of one more thing.” When they start writing, they almost go into a trance like state, and you can just see their dendrites firing like machine guns behind their eyes. Oh yeah. They can stop ANYTIME.

I honestly wonder if substance abuse is so rampant among famous authors not because of any boost they give to creativity, but because writers are so often already addicts and they have all the neural biology of addictive personalities. Writing is just their drug of choice.

It’s been obvious for a long time that the most successful people in arts and entertainment are almost always driven and completely obsessive people (also prone to addiction, actually). Painters, actors, directors, writers, musicians--it’s the same story over and over and over again. What these people have in common is that their devotion is consuming. What we are only now realizing through addiction studies is that the greatest artists are probably so great because they are complete junkies.  They just happen to be addicted to creation. We like them because that addiction leads to wonderful art, but these people are not balanced, well-adjusted individuals. So often, they rip through the non-career parts of their lives like a natural disaster. Multiple failed marriages, spectacular drama, substance abuse, suicide, falling-outs, breakdowns--they're all extremely common motifs among the most famous artists.

You don’t need to feel this way about writing. You can approach writing in a healthy way, and incorporate it into a balanced life. You can do it when you enjoy it and not when you don't. That is really, really okay. Really. You might not be as famous or timeless as your fantasies, and you might not make so much money you can't spend it all, but your life might be better for it in the long run. So if you don’t feel a burning to write every day like your gums are tingling and your antecubital itches, it’s probably for the best.


  1. Oh THANK you! I feel so much better now.

  2. Well, perhaps this explains why I write occasionally, despite having 26 years worth of material in my head and decent skill... I'm a dabbler. I knit occasionally, bake occasionally, play cello more occasionally than I really should (I'd like to build the necessary callouses and hand strength), sculpt occasionally, draw occasionally. At any given time I may be spending all my spare minutes doing that one thing, but after a couple of days or a couple of weeks I move on to one of the other regulars in my Bag O' Hobbies. I guess the only thing I do constantly is plant science, which is my career.

    This perspective helps me in my long process of accepting that I am basically a jack of all trades. I'm damned good at some of those trades, but I'll never be a real master. And that's okay. :)

    1. There's nothing wrong with balance. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a lot of people who we might define as "successful" in the arts and entertainment are obsessively focused in a way that, were they not successful, we would call pretty unhealthy.

    2. Is their "succesful" art healthy?

  3. I cannot eat this taco. This taco does not meet my taco concerns. I must go write my pain now.

    Wishing for tacos for days now has so far worked just as well for me as for would-be writers who wish more than they write.

    I still want tacos, though.

    1. I'm sorry that my metaphorical taco doesn't meet your standards. I am ashamed.

  4. Sometimes you're so relevant, it's scary.