I Am a Writer, Even on Days I Can’t Write: On Rejecting Productivity Advice
September 24, 2020 § 11 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.