Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What about the advice that writers must write every day? I say, no. And, maybe. And sometimes, yes.

There is so much cookie-cutter advice about writing, and in particular, about the importance of regular writing routines, that I often wonder how less experienced writers, newer writers, writers with day jobs, or writers have a more well-developed worry-meter than I, ever get through a day without being convinced they are doing everything all wrong.

Don't get me wrong: I am a big believer in an established writing routine, in writing regularly, in integrating writing into the rest of one's life so fully that being awake and writing more or less co-exist.

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Look, there are times when I do just exactly this, namely when I have something due on a certain date and know I will need to steadily produce in measured increments so I will not go entirely crazy with anxiety over whether or not I will finish on time. 

But in general, I don't hold myself to an arbitrary write-every-single-day-or-else standard.  And neither do dozens of other writers I know, even those who have published many books, churn out essays by the boatload, poems by the hundreds.  Like them, depending on a number of factors – deadlines, research needs, other pressing projects or jobs (paid and not), family obligations, health -- there are periods when I do write every day and then there are times when I do not. There are even times when  – horrors! -- I don't write a blessed thing for a week. Or two. Or more. During that time, do I forget how to write?  Get kicked out of the Writing Club? Drop every writing idea I ever had?  Become someone who is not a *real* writer?

Of course not.

Typically during that time, I am still a real writer. How do I know? I know because I see myself doing other things that support and nurture me as a writer, sometimes intentionally, sometimes without even meaning to.  I read. I make lists of writing ideas. I connect with other writers. I read. I contemplate what has accumulated in my writer's notebook. I seek writing assignments and jobs. I read. I teach/mentor others. I study writing-related stuff – song lyrics, for example. I read. I edit manuscripts. I do research for things I plan to write, or am in the middle of writing.  Maybe I watch films, go to a museum, but mostly I read a lot.  Did I mention I read?

Maybe I'm in a not-writing phase because I'm mentally exhausted after finishing a big project. Maybe I'm physically worn out, battling a cold or aches and pain. Maybe someone in my family needs me, maybe even for days or weeks at a time, which cuts into, or possibly eliminates writing time. Life happens, and being present in life sometimes requires that we don't write (at least not in notebooks or on screen); in the words of one of my mentors, poet/memoirist/MFA professor Richard Hoffman:  "Life first, writing second."

The point is, I'm not a slave to some one-size-fits-all routine, and despite what you may have heard or assumed, neither are hundreds of other writers far more successful than I. And you don't have to be either

What you do need to do is find a routine that suits YOU.

If you are NOT writing at all but want to be, if you are the type to squirm out of routines, if you have an ambitious writing goal and/or firm deadline (real or self-imposed), if you have gobs of flexibility in your schedule -- do I think a commitment to daily writing is a good way to get and stay on track? YES. YES. Of course, YES.

Yet that may not be practical given your life situation. Further, I think that holding everyone to some arbitrary standard of needing to write every day only fosters anxiety and guilt. If you think you must write every day, but you cannot actually do so, then you will only end up feeling guilty the next time you actually do sit to write. Who needs that?  Who wants to begin a writing session feeling as if there is so much lost ground to make up, you are already losing?

Who needs to write every day?  Only someone who feels they can, who wants to, who needs to (for deadline or other reasons), and for whom that kind of schedule is workable, enjoyable, nurturing, and possible.  

Everyone else needs another routine instead, one that works for that writer alone. 

Does writing every day help?  Of course. Writing is a mental muscular activity and one does strengthen it by frequent use. So writing every day is good. But so is writing every other day. Or three days a week. Or for six days in a row and then four days off.  Or… It depends on your circumstances, goals, abilities, and especially time constraints and life situation.

Does that mean, hey, since you've got a tough schedule it's okay to write for 10 minutes on alternate Sunday mornings and call that a routine that fits, and assume you will properly develop as a writer?

No !

The idea is to develop an individualized writing routine that works for YOU – that supports YOUR life situation, YOUR writing goals, YOUR capabilities and skill level, YOUR desires.

Tomorrow, I will post what I consider to be the 10 most important criteria for creating a writing routine that works for you.

The above is adapted from Week One of *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp:Reclaim Your Writing Life.


Anthony Haynes said...

Good post on a good topic! This comes up a lot when I run courses on writing. My own view is the idea that writing should be habitual is helpful - but that needn't equate with every day. Some habits are daily (at least)- such as brushing your teeth (which is the analogy Jean Bolker uses, if memory serves me right). But others aren't: I go swimming regularly, but not EVERY day. The write-every-day idea I find incompatible with the demands of family life.

Anonymous said...

I found this via your Top Twenty for 2013. Great post--helpful and reassuring. So glad I enrolled in your Boot Camp!