There are several axioms of writing, trite sayings and ‘rules’ that we should all know by heart by now. Write what you know. Don’t use adverbs. Show, don’t tell.
There’s another one, too: write every day.
Several years ago, I wrote an entire blog post railing against this piece of writing advice. I said that sometimes, we simply don’t have the time; we don’t have the energy; sometimes we even need a break from that novel or story or essay we’re working on. This advice of writing every day is often paired with the adage that you should write even if it’s total garbage, because eventually the garbage will give way to the good stuff – but, I pointed out, what’s the point of writing garbage to begin with? It put too much pressure on new writers, I said, who are often told that they need complete X number of words or pages per day; that kind of pressure might induce some new writers to give up, convinced that if they can’t comply with this advice, they’ll never get anywhere. Like Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom, I thought this was a legend, a fable, a fantasy. Just as the sankara stones surely weren’t responsible for bringing life to that village, this ‘mandate’ couldn’t possibly be responsible for better writing.
I still maintain that I was right, to an extent. There are days when we do need to take a step back, for whatever reason. When we’ve had a totally sucky day and the work has piled on, maybe that’s the day we take a break from writing. When we sit down at the laptop and we re-read what we did yesterday, and the words won’t come and we just stare blankly at the screen, maybe that’s a day we take a break, knowing that tomorrow may be better. When we do write those 500 words or whatever, and nothing else is pouring forth, maybe that’s a day we take a break.
There is a lot of truth in this advice, too.
In her book Write Naked, author Jennifer Probst says, “. . . our work is different from other people’s work. We . . . try to create imaginary worlds strangers want to live in. We need to consistently discipline ourselves to begin writing each and every time we sit down. It’s exhausting to have to make a clear intention to write every single day.” Her advice? “Treat writing like a muscle.”
Liken it, she says, to working out at the gym (or running, if that’s your thing). We know that to stay fit, we have to work out X days a week. We have to stretch and warm up. We have to do the hard work. Sometimes, we do need to switch it up – weights one day, treadmill the next – or in writing speak, maybe we write one day, maybe we edit the next. But we’re still showing up. Editing or writing, we’re still working.
The novel I’m currently working on, this little romance novel (which I’m now glad couldn’t be submitted last year, because holy crap on a cracker, it would have been AWFUL!), takes up far more of my daily time than sometimes I’m comfortable admitting. But what I’ve discovered in the process is that writing every day is just plain necessary.
I mean yes, there are days when I sit down, I try to write, I edit a few paragraphs, and then . . . I walk away. But I make it a point to at least reread what I did the day before, to remind myself of where I was heading. Some days, I don’t write at all on my laptop – but later that night, something, some little kernel – a sentence, an idea for a scene – will occur to my tired mind, and I’ll open my iPad instead and use the Notes feature to write. Some days, I will draft an entire scene; other days, I tweak existing ones. This past week, I spent an hour jotting down a revelation about one of my characters, who, as it turns out, isn’t quite the heinous bitch I’d been trying to bring out on paper. (I’d been wondering why it was so hard to write the scenes with her in them! Turns out when you have a completely one-dimensional character, writing them IS hard!)
But it’s all still writing.
Writing every day, or as close to it as you can get, is necessary to keep you in the world you’re creating, and to keep you in touch with your characters. As Liz Gilbert says, the story wants to be told! The characters want to be heard! The work wants to be made! But you have to show up! Once we start to let the ‘real’ world interfere with our fictional worlds . . . they start to collapse. Slowly but surely, you lose the thread of the plot. You forget your characters’ problems. Your characters stop trusting you – this idiot can’t even show up? Why stick around? And soon, you’ve completely lost the story. You think Lin-Manuel Miranda took breaks from writing Hamilton? If he had, odds are I wouldn’t be seeing it for the fourth time live this coming weekend!
Don’t let that happen.
I know there are days when I don’t even open my laptop – yesterday was such a day. This past week has been horrible, and I was so busy last night that I simply didn’t have time to do anything like writing.
And I missed it.
I’m making up for it tonight, yes, but it took a bit to remember where I left off, where I was going, and what I needed to do today. At the moment, I’m in a place where I am reorganizing a few key scenes, which is requiring a lot of rewrites. I’ve also been cutting a lot of redundancy and tightening up the narrative, So it’s really important that I write every day – or almost every day – just to stay on top of all the changes. When I stop writing for the night, I leave myself notes that I can delete later – this is what’s coming up; this is where I should change X, we should move X scene to Y. That way, I’m not floundering the next day. And that’s especially important when I have to miss a day.
In that other blog post, I wrote this: Writing should be a joy, not a chore. It should be the place we go to express ourselves, to find an outlet for our creativity, to give our characters voices and lives and beating hearts. And I totally stand by that. That’s what it should be.
But even on days when it’s not . . . if we’re writing to be published, ‘joy’ is a luxury we don’t have.
If you’re writing just because you love to write, and you don’t have any expectations of being published right now – maybe the novel you’re working on now is destined to live in a desk drawer forever, as so many early novels do – then writing every day may not be totally necessary, but it’s still something to aspire to. When I was a teenager, I wrote almost every single day. I wrote longhand in a notebook specially set aside for whatever novel I was working on at the time. That notebook went with me to school; I could write during lunch, on the bus home, after a test, during study hall, and yes, even at night. When I got my first computer (no, I’m not telling you how old I am, but the fact that it was a Packard-Bell should clue you in) and my first job, I would often come home after closing at midnight, and write until 2 or 3am. None of those novels were really much good, and please God, never ever let anyone else read them!, but they let me practice the craft – and more importantly, I learned the art of writing every day. I did that mostly because a.) I was bored, and b.) I wanted to know what happened next, but still. The lesson holds.
But if writing is your job – if you hope to be published – then you have to treat it like a job. I don’t always want to teach. There are days I drag myself into the classroom and almost can’t stand the idea of lecturing yet again. But it’s my job. So I do it, and I do it to the best of my ability. Writing is the same way. If it’s your job, or if you want it to be your job, then you have to show up and do it every day.
So while I once railed against the mandate of “write every day,” and while I still think there are exceptions to it, I see why it’s become a mandate. Like Indy and the sankara stone, I understand its power now.