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

Friday, February 5, 2021

Why Do I Tell People To Write Every Day? (Hint: I Don't) [Mailbox]

Why do you tell people to write every day?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox." I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I might spare your anonymous sniper attempt the full death glare treatment if you are asking about some paramount social issue.] 

Anonymous asks:

Writing every day is a capitalist expectation of productivity and ableist bullshit. Why do you still bang that drum?

My reply:

I don't. 

And look, I know the Internet is where nuance goes to die, but you're going to have to stay tuned in past the soundbite if you want to understand what I AM saying, what I have BEEN saying, and the only thing I've ever really said on this matter since I started blogging and before.

Which is this: you decide your own level of involvement. 

I'm not quite going to give this the full-on "hate mail treatment" because this is actually a really important topic and not the regular conservative-dillhole-thinks-they're-slick bullshit, but my eyes are narrowed pretty seriously. You can't really follow my work with ANY rigor and walk away with the sense that I don't approach "write every day" with a fistful of caveats.

I've got articles here specifically about the ableism of prescribing "write every day" as immutable.

I've got multiple articles decrying the way capitalism fucks artists.

My guest bloggers (who I curate) regularly talk about ways to write less than every day. Yesterday's wonderful post, for example.

I've even written one such article myself.

I have an entire series of articles dedicated to not writing more than you want to, more than feels good, more than you enjoy. 

I've even got articles where I talk about how to live up to the expectation without being so damned hard on yourself as to think you need hours a day on your work in progress.

This is the #1 question in my F.A.Q. for fuck's sake. And guess what. That article literally says the opposite. You do NOT have to write every day to be a writer.

I don't know what else to tell you. If you think this is a thing I promote without a lot of disclaimers….pay better attention. And like….kinda….fuck off. If you want to yell at me, at least do it about something I'm actually saying. This shit where I take flak because someone couldn't be bothered to stick around and read the SECOND paragraph gets fucking old. Miss me with this shit where I'm the punching bag to every fuckcrumpet who couldn't read beyond a byline.

So now…why does "write every day" come up at ALL? Why not simply abandon the entire idea?

Because would-be writers keep asking how to "make it."

I'm not kidding. That's the reason. 

Get everyone to knock that shit off, and you'll see some varied advice for a change.

I don't know how to make this clearer than I have. The world of ambitious would-be writers is simply teeming with folks who do not really read, and perhaps even more outrageously who do not really write. They do not earn their ER. But they certainly still do get frustrated at their lack of book deals or careers or publishing accolades. And in a plot twist that Shyamalan couldn't have predicted, I used to be one of them. Back in the before times, I would get REALLY cranky that I wasn't a full time writer. I would hate the world where I had to work for money. I would hate the world where I couldn't just write. I would hate all the distractions.

But then when I had time to write, I didn't. I just went and found ANOTHER DISTRACTION. There was always one more thing that had to be done to clear the way for writing. One more chore that "just ate up the whole day." One more schedule shift to get the perfectly conducive-to-writing schedule. And I could ENDLESSLY divert myself into side quests. It drove my spouse absolutely furious. 

And my life didn't really start to change until I changed that approach. When I began to sit down and write every day (or almost every day), slowly over many years, I began to carve out the life in front of you —the life that people see and want and think I'm holding back from them the secret of obtaining it. 

You decide your own level of involvement.

"Write every day" is spectacular advice that a whole lot of people who want to be successful writers could stand to hear and incorporate. If you want to get better, write every day. If you want to capital-B "BE" a writer, you should try it for a while and see what happens to your creative flow. Even if it's just 20 minutes or half an hour a day. If you are frustrated at the fact that when you sit down, the words just don't come, the best solution is to write every day and make it a habit. If you want a career….well, it's like any other career (you can't do it twice a week). 

If you think you're NOT going to write every day (or pretty damned close) and be the next Stephen King or John Grisham or something…well…

But many would-be writers tool on their novel for a couple of hours a week and get REALLY frustrated with their lackluster writing career and even their lack of discipline to write for very long when they DO sit down. Or when they finish, no one seems to think it's very good. They can't get a book deal. If they self-publish, they end up selling a few copies to family and friends and did they really just make $472 off a book that took them five years to write? What happened to their DREAMS????? They crowd readings and literary functions and chat rooms and A.M.A.s and spam out that same question (or some variant) over and over and over. "How can I make it?" Working writers get badgered about their success all the time. Hectored. I get five to ten emails or PM's every day, and I'm a two-bit blogger barely scraping by. Imagine what Neil Gaiman or Zadie Smith have to deal with.

I've never EVER seen a would-be writer ask, "How can I be a contented hobbyist?" Or, "If I don't care about being rich or famous, but just want to see my name in print on ONE book, once, how can I make that happen?" That would be a strangely fresh breath of air to us. (And surprisingly EASY questions to answer, if you're curious.) 

The answer to the question of how to "make it" doesn't change. (I do try to get people to explain what they mean by "make it," although the answer is usually to be a comfortable working writer with a flourishing career.) There isn't a shortcut to this success. But folks will ask it over and over again like one day someone is going to say, "Look, actually, the answer is Omega 3s. It was never write every day. We were lying, and you finally broke us with the 7 billionth time you asked the question. Just eat more fish." Pretty soon, writers just start answering that question to head it off at the pass when they give general panacea advice. 

You might see a lot of memes like this that go around. I've even posted a few on WAW's Facebook Page. When the oxygen that writers breathe is that 1- most people are kidding themselves about how much work it takes to hone one's craft and 2- that everyone around them is demanding to know how to "make it," it is THIS argument that becomes the staple and the mantra, and the disclaimers and caveats and bells and whistles that are acknowledged when and how they come up.

I try to put such macros up with disclaimers these days because I would rather not deal with…well…frankly, with PM's like this one. But to be honest, it's not exactly wrong. Writing IS a muscle (or very like one) that gets stronger with use. Even writers who can't or don't write every day are going to caution you not to take long breaks because everything from your concentration to your imagination to your finger endurance will atrophy if you don't practice regularly. And absolutely no one will say that you're somehow going to magically get any better at writing by NOT writing. (Sitting around and waiting for inspiration before you write is fine if you only want to write for pleasure. It's not so good if you need a paycheck or if you ever want to finish a major project.) But back to this macro, the problem is that there's a prescriptive element in the imperative voice of the first sentence. How unlike a meme to tell someone how to behave…Oh wait.  I mean how unlike a meme to not to have all the nuance packed into two sentences….Oh wait. 

~tilts head~ "Oh macros!"

Imagine, I walk up to a dentist and say, "Mr. Successful Dentist, how do I MAKE IT as a dentist?" And they tell me that it's eight years of school or four years if I have a bachelor's (plus some math and biology prerequisites if my degree was liberal arts or something), and then probably I have to work a 60-hour week for a company or myself and probably six-day weeks for the first 10 years either to get the seniority or (if I want to build my own practice) grow the clientele and reputation that can support more of a comfortable 40-hour-a-week living. My reaction to that can be that it's ableist to ask anyone to go to school for that long or that capitalism sucks and its demands are ridiculous—that you shouldn't have to work sixty hours for half of forever just to have a normal labor work week a decade later on in life. All this is accurate and worthy of much discussion in our late capitalist society. And when you're done raging at the dentist for answering your question, two things will be true. 1- They will be sort of sorry they even bothered to answer. 2- You still won't be a dentist. (Nor would you be one if you practiced drilling into a tree every couple of months.)

Oh and here's the real kicker. A third thing will also almost certainly be true. When it's your mouth that they're digging around in with a drill and a spike, you're probably not going to want someone who's had less training or isn't as good because they "only work a couple of days a week."

See that's where this conversation (and advice…and the solicitation OF advice) gets so weird: you want expertise in what you consume. You want your brain surgeon to be the best. You want your plumber to have a good online rating. And you probably ask people if they have any good shows or books to recommend instead of just picking things at random.

I can't make the publishers with the book deals be nicer to you because it's ableist to ask you to write any more than you already are. I can't make your writing improve (without practice) to the point that lots of people want to read you because "productivity" is a capitalist concept. Oh, I absolutely agree with the premise ("This is ableist and productivity is a capitalist concept.") But I can't change the devotion with which "the best" approach their craft. Artists were working all day and night on their art long before what we would call capitalism was even a thing, and successful artists who are successful because they overdo it are basically one of those life clichés. 

And frankly, if we all were making UBI in a perfectly accessible world, everyone renowned in the field would still be driven and highly productive. Oh you'd see all KINDS of new voices! There's no doubt about that. Folks who could write instead of work three jobs just to get by, or people who weren't spending all their spoons trying to work a job that taxed them mentally or physically to the point where they just came home and collapsed. All those folks could devote themselves to writing. The field would open up to an entirely new (and fucking awesome) level of competition that pushed out legions of mediocre white guys who came from money. But, like professional athletes or professional musicians, the folks who you pay money to see "perform" or whose reputations precede them are going to be some of the hardest working fuckers you ever did meet. Even a niche writer like me, who can't make rent in the SF Bay Area without a second job and is deliberately taking it easier on doctors' orders, is clocking in 40 hours a week on wordsmithing. 

As long as I've been doing this, I've noticed one thing about every writer who has reached "success" (in some form that satisfied them)—they always had one thing in common: they looked for ways to write MORE (not less). They were always trying to find an extra hour here or there to eke out of their busy schedule so they could sit down and write. They never seemed to want to wiggle out of it and they never treated it like it was a burden.

But if all you want is to be absolved of the commitment to write every day, consider yourself absolved.  (I, Chris Brecheen, release you from your burdens. ~beam of light from the heavens~  🎶 Aaaaabsoooooluuuuuutioooooon" 🎶) If you don't want to write, don't write. I'm the first person with boots on the ground and the last to leave when it comes time to saying that the biggest problem with NaNoWriMo is that if you overdo anything (even if you love it), you'll end up hating it. It's true the other eleven months too. So don't overdo it. You decide what "too much" is. You decide your own level of involvement. 

Just….like…maybe manage your expectation that you're going to be a world-famous best seller by your next round-number birthday, okay?

Twice a week? Once a month? Thirty minutes a day, but not on days where your mental illness is at its worst. All good! It's all up to you. You do this for you. Stephen King didn't tell people six to eight hours a day "or fuhgeddaboudit" in On Writing because he wants you to go broke, lose your family, and shatter your mental health. He did it because, all day long, people ask him how to be like just like him. 

There's no glamor in this job (unless you're one of a minuscule handful of household names). The money is questionable and takes YEARS to manifest at all. If you don't love writing for its own sake and it feels like some damnable chore if you do it too much, DON'T DO IT THAT MUCH. ("Doc, it hurts when I do this!") Do it how much you love it—that's the only real reason to do art. Keep yourself healthy; mentally; and physically. Your art can't flourish if you're dying.

You decide your own level of involvement.

See, here's part of the problem: people don't listen to what I say about becoming a "successful" writer (whatever THAT means) and nod sagely and walk away better for their understanding of the tremendous commitment that being a working artist will take. And they don't do it with any of these other writers either. At least in no story that I've ever heard of. When they get this answer about working long hours and as close to "daily practice" as is manageable or feasible, they argue. They argue with the person who has answered their question. As if by explaining that no, actually, "I don't have time to write every day because I work two jobs," the working writer has the ability to say, "Oh well in that case, YOU are excused from this thing that almost all working writers do, and you will 'make it' by working two hours a week on your day off." 

As if it's the writer's fault the world sucks. As if the writer can make a special case for you because capitalism sucks.

They will insist that it can be done some other way. And if you check back in on them in five years, ten years, twenty years, they will not be writers*. Although there is a chance that they will still be insisting that it can be done some other way.

(*Unless they've learned to push through and do the work.)

So along with this deluge of people demanding to know how to "make it," there are a lot of people who will argue with the answer. And so you get an awful lot of would-be writers seizing upon any rhetoric they can to get out of that sense of obligation. They will say they can't write because of the shape of their chair. Or the schedule at work being swing shift instead of graveyard. The fact that they need to be off from work (but when they're off from work for vacation or even between jobs, they still don't write). Or that they can't until they get their new laptop with the ergonomic keyboard. Or that they can't so long as they are so busy with all the things going on. I'm not here to judge any ONE of these claims as valid or not (although even non-writers have heard all these things as fairly transparent excuses) but on a time-table of months and years, they somehow manage to NOT do this thing they claim to love more than any other thing. They still get cranky with writers who tell them to write every day and argue about the validity of what's just barely holding them back instead of contemplating that maybe writing isn't as enjoyable to them as they think.

Which is fine, great. Everyone has to have their "know thyself" moment, right? We all have to have to "come-to-Jesus" that we're not going to be millionaires or celebrities. But…writers getting asked how to "make it" are still the messengers getting shot. And more and more, lately, what I see has the vocabulary of self-care, mental health, and capitalism. 

You know how in video games you can put another skin on your character and run around as Big Bird or something. It doesn't change the game. If it was a gritty stealth game, it's still a gritty stealth game. You're just Big Bird. The game mechanics don't change to be that you get to make friends with everyone, Grover is the end boss, and you sing your way past problems. It's the same game. You're just Big Bird. So I gotta tell you as someone who's been doing this for a long, long time, that while I understand the criticisms against capitalism (probably better than the average leftist), and do my very best to be actively anti-ableist, I also recognize that sometimes I'm watching Big Bird do a stealth kill from behind with a bowie knife.

There are a lot of legitimate criticisms of prescriptive writing advice, and some of it is so obnoxious that it's pushing people to write more than they can while maintaining good health or life/work balance. But please be aware that even if you yourself personally are 100% on the level, much of this terminology has been picked up and APPROPRIATED by folks who….STILL….just don't want to sit down and work. Capitalism and ableism still suck, but that's not what THEIR problem actually is. 

And for fuckadoodle doo's sake, I am absolutely not here to be the arbiter of who's "really" able to write every day but found an argument that gets a lot of traction and gets folks off their case about it. I sometimes don't even answer that question when my friends solicit it of me directly.  Each person has to be honest (sometimes brutally so, but still it's not MY fucking job) with themselves about whether or not they're making excuses or legitimately taking care of themselves. 

And here's the fucking punchline: it doesn't change anything anyway. 

The answer of how to "make it" is still "a metric fuckton of work," and the formula for how to do that without something closely resembling daily work is such a tiny sliver of outrageous luck stories (Fifty Shades of Gray, for example) as to be hardly worth mentioning.

And everyone still has to decide their own level of involvement.

However….let me end on a hopeful note. One of the things I love about the Internet is that it has opened up a new….STRATA of writers. Used to be you either were sellable enough that a publisher thought they could sell the 8000 copies or so that was required to justify a print run (or so damn good, in the literary sense, that they were willing to take a loss), or you weren't. Period. End of discussion. Could you make a minimum print run profitable? That's the only question that mattered. Before that, you were selling short stories for low triple digits (if you were lucky) to establish your name. Other arts had community theater or local bands or weekend warriors. You could be in a garage band that got two gigs a month and was NEVER getting out of your hometown. You could be in a community theater where the ticket sales didn't cover much more than a strike party that would make Caligula blush. You could have your art on display in a little local gallery. You could make a little money without being a household name or being in a metropolitan symphony orchestra. It was basically like art's version of the minor leagues. But for a long time, writing was all or nothing because of the cost of printing. There was really no such thing as a semi-professional writer. 

Printing is….well, it's almost nothing if you consider electronics, and even physically printing things is cheaper than ever.

That sense of "making it" (or not) has followed us into the 21st century, but it's not really true anymore. There are grades and shades and degrees. There's a continuum now and it's fairly intricate. Writers can now make cell-phone-bill money. Second job money. Or be working writers without being traditionally published. (I am. Well mostly…I've had a couple of things published traditionally.) This sense that you have to be a traditionally published writer to "make it" is no longer accurate (and if you see what most advances and royalties are like, no longer very plausible either). 

So you can write an amount that doesn't push you past the point of self-care AND STILL MAKE SOME MONEY. You can be a part-time writer (and not a freelancer or content writer) and still get paid. There's a whole MIDRANGE of writing that now exists between pre- and post-book deal. And you can make enough in there to live a comfortable life. And you can follow the contours of your writing success as far as they can take you, dropping hours at your "day job" only when your writing is paying for the next step. And you can take care of yourself on days when writing is not an option; and when it is, it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing payout. That "minor league" of writers exists now because of computers and the Internet.

Writing every day is still a spectacular idea if you want to get better at writing on a non-geological timeline, and particularly if you want to be the best (or highly renowned). Writing (almost) every day is basically unavoidable if you have ideas about "making it" that are "comfortable career"-ish in shape. (This is not unique to any career. When I managed restaurants, I worked five days a week and often a sixth day if another manager was sick or on vacation as well as regularly a half day for admin.) Writing every day is a way to remind people who "aren't really writing much these days" that they're not going to get very far at ALL if they let that little break turn into a long one. And the advice to "write every day" reflects the simple math that it takes a lot longer to finish a novel at four or five hours a month than one or two hours a day. But writing every day is not the only way to make your way through the jungle—especially not anymore. Bring some nuance to the idea of "making it" and you'll get some nuance in what it's going to take.

There is one thing you still have to do, though. You have to decide your own level of involvement.

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