On NOT writing every day

Posted on Feb 11, 2014 | 5 comments

danny-shanahan-i-try-to-write-a-little-bit-every-day-new-yorker-cartoonIt’s the most common piece of writing advice out there: write every day.

Nicholson Baker says it. Anne Lamott says it. McSweeney’s says it. Ray Bradbury said it. Natalie Goldman says it. Neil Gaiman says it.

Write every day. Pen to paper. Fingers to keyboard. Butt in chair.

The thing is, it doesn’t always work that way. As  a job-holding, free-lancing mother of busy teenagers, a dutiful daughter, and a wife of a self-professed workaholic, I can’t find the time to work on my novel every day. In fact, sometimes I go for weeks without working on my novel.

Sure, I’d love to do nanowrimo and produce a novel in a month. IF I COULD TAKE A MONTH OFF FROM MY FAMILY. Or my job.

Oh, I do write most days. Press releases. Newsletters. Emails (hundreds of them!). Generic blog posts. I work in the area of marketing and communications. But this writing uses a totally different side of my brain than creative writing.

And I need to tell you this: I cannot advance my novel in an hour a day. I may not even be able to do it in two hours a day. In order to do my best writing on a complex project like a novel, I need to warm up. That is, I need to sit down and read some of what I’ve written. Go over my outline. Conjure the right mood. I need to start the ideas and the feelings flowing. I need TIME.

It’s kind of like method acting. I need to get into character.

I know that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter on the tube. I know there are people who are busy writing their books in the car in the parking lot of their teenager’s dojo or during smoking breaks from their assembly line jobs or outside the bathroom where their toddler is pooping. I, too, can use that sort of waiting time well sometimes, when I remember to put down the crackpipe that is my iPhone and just think for a while. But I can’t actually write.

There are also people who get up to write at 3 or 4 in the morning. I did that once, when I was about 20 years younger and didn’t have kids who stay up till 11. I don’t do that now.

I tend to write in bursts, spewing out a lot of material when I get a good stretch of time…say three to six hours. Or days. I love it when I have “flow”—when the story takes over and the ideas and voices keep coming and I can shut out the other world, the “real” world, for a little while and just get it all down.

When my children were smaller and had just started school, there were periods when I didn’t have a lot of other worries or obligations and I could reliably get down to work for several hours when the kids left the house. But life seems to have gotten a lot more complex since then.

I do my best (or at least my most voluminous) work when my husband periodically springs me and I go away for a few days. Sometimes I stay in the lodge at a state park. My writer’s group has an annual retreat where we share a house rental. There’s no Internet there—heck, there’s no cell phone service. I get a lot done.

Which points to something you probably already guessed: I am guilty of distracting myself. I spend way too much time online, which is detrimental to the goal of finding time to write. I have some bad habits. I could do more to open up writing time. But I’m human.

I do subscribe to the idea that “morning pages” —those free-association longhand pages that creativity guru Julia Cameron taught so many of us how to do—are a real boon to creativity, and I try to do it. If you want to call those “writing every day” then yes, we should all do it. Even non-writers; I believe they are good for the psyche.

But I don’t call them writing.

I feel bad, disregarding the advice of all those heavyweights. Can they all be wrong? But I’m done feeling guilty about not writing every day.

One day when the kids are gone and the money from my books has started rolling in, I’ll probably write every day. But for the time being, I’ll engage in episodic creativity and just write the way I write. As long as I feel the story growing in me, I’ll still be moving forward. I’ll still be a writer. And maybe I’ll finish the next book before my first one goes out of print.

5 Comments

  1. From one writer mom to another: You absolutely nailed it. I feel much better now.

    • I knew I couldn’t be the only one!

  2. Oh,this has been pure validation joy.
    Another writer asked if others found first draft harder than revisions, and I wrote absolutely! For first drafts I need utter peace of mind, and like you mention, TIME — a great big block of it.

  3. Hear, hear!

  4. Thank you for this.

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