I Am a Writer, Even on Days I Can’t Write: On Rejecting Productivity Advice

September 24, 2020 § 12 Comments

By Ruth Osorio

Write. Every. Day.

Starting two years ago, this well-intentioned advice mocked me from my inbox on a weekly basis. The emails started in my first year on the tenure track as an assistant professor. Like all writers, academics can struggle to find time to write. Women, especially women of color, are often burdened with extra diversity and mentoring work, creating additional barriers to cordoning time to reflect, brainstorm, write and revise. So the tip to protect my time, to prioritize my writing should have been a welcome one.

But it wasn’t.

Because one morning when the email popped onto my screen, I was exhausted. My two young children had been up all night throwing up. On top of that, my head felt disconnected from my body, as if I was floating through a dream. I later learned that this is called brain fog, a common symptom of an underactive thyroid, a condition I would be diagnosed with months later. I didn’t write that day. Or the next. Between the fatigue and the brain fog, the advice to write every day didn’t feel empowering: instead, the advice just made me feel like a writerly failure.

I’ll go even further: the very advice designed to empower underrepresented writers to protect their writing time is grounded in ableist logics of productivity, normativity, and abled time. Writing every day may work for some, but for people with non-normative mindbodies and/or people who perform carework in their homes and families, writing every day is simply not possible. When that advice is framed as a mandate, the institutions and assumptions that prevent us from writing in the first place are left unchecked.

So often, we as writers—all writers, not just in academia—judge ourselves based on how many words we’ve written in a day or a week. We are taught to measure our productivity based on output. Within this model, a productive day might mean 1,000 words written or revisions to an essay submitted to a publisher. But productivity measures of writing are steeped in capitalist, and thus ableist, logic. Capitalism tells us that our worth as humans is based on what we produce and how much capital our contributions to society create. And as critical disability studies scholars tell us, when productivity is framed as a moral good, disabled people are further shunned from society, deemed unworthy because of their supposed lack of contributions to society.

Writing is not immune from capitalist logic. Disabled writers Esme Wang, Rachel Vorona Cote, and Gillian Giles, among many others, describe the shame internalized by disabled and neurodivergent folks who can’t produce consistently. We have to keep moving, keep writing, keep producing in order to have worth, multi-marginalized disabled people exponentially so.  Whenever our disabilities, chronic illnesses, caregiving, or a variety of other life situations get in the way, we question our worth as not only writers but also people.

We need new models of writing, models that embrace different ways of moving, processing, and expressing. Fortunately, disabled writers offer crip models of writing to the world. I think of Audre Lorde describing the first time she wrote her name in class, how it was slanted because of her visual disability, letters sprawled across the page. Her description in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name prompts me to question the authority of lines on the page and reimagine how letters can move in space. I think of M. Remi Yergeau, an autistic writer who discusses stimming as a language act rich in meaning. I think of Ellen Forney’s graphic novel Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, and her journey to embrace psychiatric medication as part of her artistic process. Neither Lorde, Yergeau, nor Forney present their writing approach as the universal, ultimate way to write. What they do show us is that we don’t have to separate disabled mindbodies and their diverse needs from the act of writing.

Does this mean we dispose of all writing advice, declaring it futile to offer any guidance since we all write so differently? I don’t think so. Writing is hard, and I am constantly seeking out advice for how to approach writing and revision, especially from neurodivergent and parenting writers (such as this golden advice by Captain Awkward about letting go of productivity during a global pandemic). Rather than disregard all writing advice, I want to see writing communities make space for more models of writing, so that disabled and/or caregiving writers don’t feel shame when their processes don’t align dominant expectations.

One way I have worked toward embracing my own writing process is reframing what even counts as writing. Reading other people’s works is writing, I tell myself. Going for a walk to tease apart a big mental roadblock is writing. Taking a nap so that I have the energy to write later is writing. Remembering to take my anxiety and thyroid medication so I can brainstorm is writing. When I think about all the acts I performed that sustain my writerly self as writing, I am able to let go of the shame of not being productive any given day.

And yet, this reframing doesn’t go far enough. Justifying self-care because it serves productivity ultimately maintains capitalist and ableist frameworks of creating. My next step, then, must be bigger, bolder, and harder: to reject the productivity mantra entirely. I am not a writer because I write a certain number of words every day. I am a writer because I use story to reimagine worlds. My value as a writer, citizen, and human is not rooted in my productivity, I tell myself on those brain foggy, exhausted days in which small humans climb on my limbs with no mercy.

Because my job, and thus my livelihood, requires that I keep up with my writing, I can’t completely disregard time. I wish I could. But I can automatically forward those weekly reminders to write every day to my trash folder. And I can use the time I would have spent reading those emails to instead plot my next nap.

Ruth Osorio is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Rhetoric at Old Dominion University. She has published academic articles, but her most meaningful writing has been access advocacy within her university and her profession. She is also a community organizer, a mom of two young kids, a wannabe yogi, a novice baker, and a lover of veggie burritos.

This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

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§ 12 Responses to I Am a Writer, Even on Days I Can’t Write: On Rejecting Productivity Advice

  • lisa_kusel says:

    This: “I am not a writer because I write a certain number of words every day. I am a writer because I use story to reimagine worlds.” EXACTLY!! I hear you, I feel you, I get you. Thank you for this terrific piece.

  • Amy Yelin says:

    Thank you for the reframe. I have mild cognitive impairment, supposedly from breast cancer treatment back in 2013/14, and it makes me question so much about my writer self and related choices/decisions.

  • fritzdenis says:

    Many things in my life have interrupted my creative output. I sometimes felt lazy for not having the energy to do more. I sometimes felt like a failure as my career hasn’t gone far. But now I look at creativity as a spiritual search. Painting and writing help me figure out my place, help me find meaning. I’m a lot more balanced when I work.

  • henhouselady says:

    Writers need to be easier on themselves. Everyone goes at it at their own speed. When my fibe children were at home, I gave up on trying. I’m entering a stage in my life where I can have a dedicated time. You are right about counting reading and walking time as writing time.

  • Vicki Lindner says:

    Another misconception is that you can’t be a writer if you don’t have an MFA. The real truth is, you can’t be a writing teacher, which often prevents writers from writing, if you don’t have this degree which spreads these misconceptions about writing every day, and which, historically, writers didn’t have. .But you do have to do what Rilke suggested and ask yourself, “Must I Write?” and if the answer is yes, arrange your life accordingly.

  • joellefraser says:

    I love this essay and its insights, including the idea of “abled time.” I also love the ways in which writing can be expanded –even to taking naps. This was a liberating essay for me.

  • Julie Farrar says:

    Thanks for stating so clearly what many of us need to hear. About the time I had decided to take the plunge back into writing, I had a number of physical ailments appear that made it hard to sit at the computer and gave me brain fog. I chased causes and treatments for several years, and this past winter thought I had conquered it and could write. Just as I was getting a rhythm going pandemic hit, as well as a new, possibly chronic illness struck. No sleep, brain fog, virus worries for all my family and friends. And guilt I wasn’t writing. After many covid tests and doctor visits, we began to get a handle on my new illness so I only required 1-hour naps each day instead of 3-4 hours. And so to banish the guilt and feel like a writer again as I slowly got back to my life I wrote out a little daily schedule for “writing.” It includes different kinds of reading, notebook scribbling days, revising days, searching files for old “new” ideas. I’m finished with the words per day or butt in chair guilt. The main thing, as you said, is that I re-imagine words and stories each day.

  • Sara Davis says:

    Ruth, it is so validating to read your eloquence on underactive thyroid and its symptoms as a disability! When I wasn’t getting the treatment I needed, the brain fog and fatigue (and everything else) not only impaired my ability to think and write, it also devastated my self-image as a thinker and writer. I’m still finding my way back from it, I think, although my medication is better managed now. I’ve tried to excise the word “productive” from my vocabulary, since it became such a lash in my grad school days, but I still catch myself falling into those thought patterns and I appreciate your gentle pushback.

  • bone&silver says:

    Yes yes yes! Thank you for writing this- the pressure of capitalism to produce produce produce is exhausting sometimes- perhaps I just want to nap, because I’m 54 and I didn’t sleep well? But I’m still a writer, because I read blogs and make comments; I publish posts when I’m inspired; and I am surrounded by books I’ve read over and over if they’re good ones, like old friends.

    Keep being YOU, juggling whatever challenges you have, and yes, resist the implied criticisms of ableism! Blessings, and wishes for peaceful moments, from Australia, G 🙂

  • Indeed, writing is a process that involves so much more than the act of putting words to page. Thank you for calling out some of the ways product-oriented thinking sneaks into our heads. Everything that contributes to those moments when we put words to page is part of the writing process – napping, reading, watching a movie, listening to music, taking a walk, etc. “She who takes a nap today may live to write another day.” 😉

  • […] just read a thought-provoking article about what constitutes writing productivity.  There is a lot of pressure on a self professed writer to write.  In fact, the first entries I […]

  • Melissa Cronin says:

    Oh, how much I needed this. I’m a writer with a TBI and there are many days when my brain can’t seem to keep up. Sometimes a nap is what my brain needs, yet I tend to beat myself up for not actively engaging in act of writing. But, this, your post, Ruth, reminds me that I’m still a writer, no matter what. Thank you!

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