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 much 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'd be surprised at how many people think they're going to be great writers 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.

And honestly, this shouldn't matter. Ever. If these folks would just get what they loved 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 real.) 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 of these 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. Writing is a fulfilling pasttime, a rewarding hobby, an amazing artistic expression, and a great way to make sideline cash. But an awful lot of writers want "DAYJOB OR BUST!" 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 same people return to me three and four times at each sort of "tier" of my and this blog's success (when I first started getting good outreach, when I first made money, when I started making a somewhat predictable triple digit income, when I reached millions of readers and averaged over a thousand per day) 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 solicit the answer they want–someone who says some version of "You don't have to write every day."

Oh thank GOODNESS! Permission!

But the thing is, sometimes these people are just making this general piece of advice a little too hard. Yeah, it takes some thinking to understand exactly why 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 it's also possible they're making this advice a little too unyielding and a little too prescriptive.

What the folks shopping for the advice they want to hear–like a 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 that they do freelance writing or write press releases as their day job, or any number of other writing in an average day.

I'm not kidding about this. Dig a little deeper on those stories if you think you've found the promise land of milk and honey and writers who "make it" (whatever that means) by bursting to the page, driven by creativity, only when it cracks over their head like thunder. There's probably a little more there. I once read a published author write a blog where she swore up and down that she never wrote every day. Nope. Not her. 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. Hers was a 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 does a few minutes every morning in longhand.

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

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 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 don't really 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. 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.

But sometimes your life is just a garbage fire for a while, and that's nothing you can help. Sometimes you have to leave your family and move out of your home. Sometimes your sick day job just goes away and you have to worry about how you're going to pay your bills. Sometimes people you care about get cancer. Sometimes there are two year olds. Sometimes life just fucking wins a little, and you have to be okay not losing ground.

So when that happens, just don't forget that you can't write an e-mail without the "write."

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. 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 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 of daily writing and discipline instead of just a haphazard proclivity to write florid social media posts. But, 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.)
**(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.

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 every professional writer you admire is giving you one piece of advice over and over and over again. When everyone disagrees, 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 at the same time, also remember 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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