Don’t Write Every Day

November 19, 2020 § 25 Comments

We hear it over and over again from famous, respected writers.

“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.” (Stephen King)

“I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.” (Peter De Vries)

“Just write every day of your life.” (Ray Bradbury)

Write every day. Build a habit. That’s the only way you’re ever going to finish a book. It doesn’t matter how many words as long as you’re regular. I have many times told the story of Andre Dubus III writing The House of Sand and Fog, 17 minutes at a time, sitting in his car in the cemetery, and I tell it again in my forthcoming book about how to finish a book.

I don’t write every day.

I don’t even write every week.

Very often, I’m neck-deep in someone else’s manuscript, or teaching a workshop (last week, in prison!), or leading a retreat. I love teaching and editing, and I value doing those things. You might have a job you enjoy, or students’ work to read, or be the primary keeper of your home life. And while we can half-ass the things we don’t value to make more time for writing, it’s harder to pull time and focus away from things we care about doing well.

But even when I have vast swathes of open time, I don’t usually write every day. My brain needs fallow time. I’m working on three books right now, and I’m not writing every day on any of them.

I used to feel lazy and fake, because of course a real writer would use that time better. They’d spring from their bed, rush to the laptop, and bang out their daily word count, just like a real job! And since I didn’t act like a “real job” I must not be a “real writer.”

My creative life improved dramatically when I finally realized I run on what I call the “theatrical model.”

  1. Think about the project for maybe six months or a year, gradually accumulating notes and ideas.
  2. Sign up for a hard, non-negotiable deadline imposed by an outside source (the publishing equivalent of Opening Night).
  3. Rush through the entire creative process in six weeks, the last two weeks being 12-hour days.
  4. Tweak and revise after the deadline until it’s perfect. If it’s not revise-able, move on, trusting that I won’t make the same mistakes in the next project.

I’m fortunate enough that I can sometimes go stay in a hotel for a few days. In a self-made retreat, I’ll look at the manuscript I haven’t touched in weeks and pour out 5-10K words a day until it’s done, often at the very last minute.

What makes this way of working possible?

I’m not starting from nothing. When I was a theatre director, I already knew the style of the play, or had thought through what the staging would look like, or planned the acting beats, before I walked into the rehearsal room. I’d personally cast the actors, so I had a sense of what they were capable of, and approved the set, costume and lighting design. I don’t touch my manuscripts every day, but I stay in touch with the practice of writing sentences on Twitter. Short essays on Instagram. On an eleventh-draft novel, ten pages once a month for my writing group. And guess what? I bang out those ten pages the day they’re due. Every time.

I write 95% of my Brevity blogs in the 60 minutes before they’re published. But I know the rhythm of a post and what makes a clicky headline. I keep a long list of blog post ideas. Every day on social media and in my email, I see what writers care about, what challenges they’re facing, and I think about what advice will help, making notes for when it’s time to write.

As you fit your writing process into your life, enjoy the things you value that take time. Notice how you work best, and work that way on purpose. Maybe you are a daily writer who loves the rhythm. Maybe you’re better at the last minute. You get to write on the schedule you want. Keeping in touch with your work isn’t always sitting down at the keyboard for your daily word count. Sometimes it’s thinking through ideas in the shower, building up your story in your head, making notes in your phone or your notebook. Sometimes writing looks like typing, and sometimes it looks like keeping in touch with your world.

There are plenty of “real jobs” that operate on the “have a baseline of skill and resources and then do it all at the last minute under pressure.” Surgeon. Firefighter. Pilot. And in my case (and maybe yours), Writer.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking about Content Planning for Writers and how to come up with ideas at the drop of a hat, Tuesday November 24th at 1PM Eastern on The Writers Bridge. Sign up for the Zoom link (or post-show recording) here!

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