Writers as individuals and as a community are often, maybe even always, in conversation with themselves and that community about the nature of writing. The predominant Badminton birdie that is whacked about comes in the form of writing advice — do this, don’t do that, definitely don’t do that other thing, never this, always that, holy fuck you did what, and so on and so forth.
This is normal, I think. It’s not that there’s not theoretical harm baked into it, because there damn well can be. Telling anybody, “This is how you walk up the mountain” is great, as long as the path remains stable for everyone and is not, say, already washed out and now serving as a dangerous trek fraught with tigers and bees. Writing advice is often given with this SACRED TABLET CARVED BY GOD HANDED TO AUTHOR FROM ON-HIGH vibe, as if it’s Gospel Good News instead of, say, a proclamation of preference marinated in a salty broth of survivorship bias.
So! That leads us to the question du jour, which I’ve seen going around social media a bit —
Should you write every day?
Because that’s sometimes the advice, right? Write every day. Butt in chair. Every damn day. Put words to paper. And then it goes farther — if you don’t write every day, are you really even a writer at all? Or are you just a poseur, a dilettante, an imposteur masquerading as a propeur autheurrrr. WHAT IF YOU DON’T WRITE EVERY DAY, WILL YOU DIE, YOU’LL PROBABLY DIE, YOU’LL FALL INTO THE ABYSS OF WORDLESSNESS, YOU FOOL, YOU ABSOLUTE FOOL.
“Ah-ha,” you say, “I’m picking up what you’re laying down. Your all-caps snark has made it clear to me that I, a writer, absolutely do not need to write every day. Got it. Boom. Done.”
(Only a Sith deals in absolutes, I say, absolutely.)
I don’t know what you need to do, is the point.
Here, let me tell it this way:
When I was a Young Writer, Wet Around The Neck (which is not a saying, I don’t think, but I like it and I’m going with it), I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. The act of writing was fine, but where I fell down was the discipline of it. I became a freelance writer and I had deadlines out the small and large colon, and to develop both discipline and skill, I wrote every day.
At that time, I had to write every day. Not just to keep up with word count, but also because it was useful to me. Dare I say, essential that I did so. Essential because I really needed to build that muscle and that schedule. It stopped me from falling behind on the work, but it also helped me get into a rhythm with that work. To some degree, it was like one does with exercise: as a runner, and with the weather getting warmer, I will run three times a week, even if I don’t want to. As long as I’m not injured, I’ll run. Even if it sucks and I hate it. I run.
So it was with writing.
That worked for me for a long time.
It worked, of course, until it didn’t.
There came a point, after transitioning from freelancing to novel-writing, where writing every day was burning me the fuck out. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was writing, what, four or five books a year? My output was profound, and for a good while, it worked fine. Until it didn’t. Then I was running parallel to burnout, nearly falling into it. I didn’t, though it came close. I relaxed. I eased off. I recognized what had happened and over time I changed how I wrote books. Further, I learned that I don’t actually know how to write books, and that’s been the greatest boon to my career — because I know with every book I’m starting over, I’m at Square Fucking One and though I know how to write in general, I don’t know how to write The Book In Front Of Me. Sure, I learned how to write the last one. But this one? It’s different. By nature and necessity, it is a whole other beast.
Things work until they don’t.
When I run, as I said, I run three times a week. Unless I don’t. And if I don’t, I forgive myself and move on to the week after, when hopefully I do (and so far, have, outside wintertime). If there comes a time I can’t, I still won’t kick myself — I’ll try to see why the schedule isn’t working, and what needs to change about it. Because things work until they don’t.
And when they don’t, you adjust. You course-correct.
Without shame or hard feeling. With kindness to yourself.
For a time during this pandemic I wasn’t writing much. (Read: at all.) Part of that was down to the fact I had a lot of editing to do (which, yes, is part of writing, admittedly; see how I already dinged myself on that one?). Part of it was, well, we were in a pandemic. In a year of violence. In an election year. It was hard to get going. All my processes had taken a beating. We’d all taken a beating — and I say that as a person of great privilege. But I got back to it. I pushed. Not hard. Just a little here and there. It’s like physical therapy: you won’t get there if you don’t exert, but you also can’t exert so hard you break the thing you’re trying to fix. You never want to break yourself. And yet the work is the work. Which is to say, sometimes you also have to realize that holding yourself to some high-yet-reasonable standards is itself a flavor of kindness. To trust in yourself, to say, I can fucking do this, is a favor from you to you. Sometimes, kindness is eating the ice cream. Other times, kindness is knowing you can’t always eat the ice cream. Balance and moderation.
That’s writing, to me, a lot of the times. Finding that sweet spot between self-accountability and self-forgiveness. There’s powerful magic found when wandering that interstitial terrain, and you only get there by reaching a different aspect of yourself:
The greatest advice I think I offer to writers these days is to Know Thyself. Which is to say, figure out who you are as a writer. Your processes are your own to discover. Your voice is your own to seek and to find. Who you are and what you write and further, how you write, is something literally nobody else can tell you. So, should you write every day? Some will tell you YES YES YES, some will tell you NO NO NO, but the answer is, well, shit, I dunno. It’s both. It’s neither. All/none of the above. Maybe it’ll help you. Maybe it’ll hurt you. Maybe it’ll do the one until it does the other, because things work… until they don’t. You only learn this by trying.
Writing advice, and the conversation around is, is always to help you crystalize and contextualize your own way of doing things. And sometimes, it’s there to challenge them. I was a pantser at the start of my career until I realized I had to — had to! — be a plotter to get a book done. But Wanderers was a book I wrote without an outline. So was Dust & Grim, Book of Accidents, and Wayward. I was a pantser, then a plotter, then a pantser. None of this is permanent. I’m not permanent. My works will change and how I approach them will change, too.
People want to tell you how to write because it helps to tell them how they write. It confirms for them that they are on the path of good, and it was successful, will continue to be successful, and if you do differently, then what does that say about them? But that’s hollow. That’s coming out of a place of fear and vulnerability. They want to tell you how to write because they’re afraid they don’t know how, themselves. By speaking advice aloud as “rules” they codify it and control it, but inadvertently, they might be giving you bad advice. And it could be harmful advice if internalized as The One True Way, especially when tangled up with a variety of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or ADHD.
So, write every day if you want to, and it feels right to do so.
Maybe you can’t — maybe you work, or have a family, and it’s just not an option. The goal is to write when you can write, and like I said, push where you can push. That’s it. There’s no answer. There’s no equation with missing variables, solved when you answer for X. It’s just trying a bunch of stuff, failing at some of it, and succeeding sometimes. You zero in on what works for you today, while recognizing it may very well change for tomorrow. All while finding the Goldilocks just-rightness of working hard for yourself, and being kind to yourself.
Go write. If you wanna.
Coming in 2021…