If you want to be a writer you have to show up, sit down, and write. Words may be dictated to you by God as they were for Giacomo Puccini when he wrote the opera Madame Butterfly, but then it’s up to you to do the menial work of getting them down on paper, because you’re just the designated typist. That job involves a lot of hard, laborious, meticulous work that takes dedication and persistence. When it comes right down to it, writing is just a job, and like any other job you have to work at it. Okay, and it’s the only thing that makes you happy.
Writers like to tell other writers to trust the process. Show up, sit down and write, and trust that something good is emerging.
But how do you trust the process? It’s simple. You need a plan that guides your writing:
Pick a place to write in every day
Pick a time to write every day
Pick an amount of time to write every day
That’s it. It could be your favorite coffee shop at 7 a.m. for 30 minutes or your lunch hour. It could be your armchair in your living room at 7 p.m. Do that every day—or at least more days than not—and you’ll find the process is working.
Make it a habit to read work that matches roughly what you hope to write and publish. Read the kind of books you’d like to write, the poems you’d like to write, the articles you’d like to write for magazines. Make it as important as anything else you schedule in your day, and never allow busyness to crowd out the time you devote to consuming other good works.
Here’s a little ray of writing sunshine: It’s easy to assume absolutely, finitely, without question that writing everyday leads to a productive writing career.
To be clear, for some people it does.
But contrary to the common advice that writing every day is essential to being a writer, “no particular work schedule is associated with high productivity. Even working on a regular basis yields a mixed pattern of results” (as cited in Kellogg, 1994, p. 194).
Further research is needed to investigate the question of whether the advice to write every day is sound advice or if it is just a fallacious argument that we think is true because so many say it is.
Almost every writing teacher argues that the basic unit of writing is writing practice, usually a timed exercise, with the admonition that through practice you actually do get better.
However, I have never enjoyed exercises like: Look at a plant. Write the life of the plant – what it’s done, what it’s seen, where it’s heading, its thoughts. I have never found advice like, try writing in your notebook upside down, or turn the book sideways, or write outside the margins to be helpful. I just do not believe that these small tasks will force me to think in creative ways, that forcing my brain to think outside the lines will make me a better writer.
I used to despise writing practice.
I felt like I had little enough precious time and I did not want to fritter it away on writing that was just practice. After rereading Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Campbell’s The Artist’s Way, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, I revised my aversion to writing practice. I mixed up their ideas and came up with a system that works for me, and it is one that I now encourage my writing students to use as well.
I advocate writing for either fifteen minutes or three pages, whichever comes first. However, from there my approach differs. I warm up with the first page of writing. I am primping the pump, so the rules are simple: Write without stopping. Do not be concerned with being good. It is warming up the writing muscle, just like stretches warm up our physical muscles.
But after the first page is done, I switch to deliberate writing, and this different type of writing. This is where I deviate from Brande, Goldberg and Campbell. In the next two pages I generate new writing. It’s deliberate. It’s specific. This advice does not originate with me—I got it from Priscilla Long who said, “The writing done in writing practice can be about anything . . .It can be an observation exercise. It can be work on an essay, story, article, or scene. It can be used to conceptualize new work” (p. 15,16).
Since I read that advice a year ago, I have done writing practice almost every day. I have written poetry. I have done character sketches. I have drafted new essays. I have done observation exercises. I’ve moaned and complained (I do it once in a while). Usually, I plan, conceptualize and draft new work.
I agree with Long when she says, “In a busy life, a week and then two weeks can go by in no time at all, with little or no writing done. The practice of writing for fifteen minutes per day simply deletes this problem” (p. 15). More importantly, writing for fifteen minutes a day helps commit to safekeeping a woman’s writing life.
In June, I developed my One Hard Thing Rule: I do one hard thing every day. For me, it is often something that needs to be done that I’ve been avoiding.
It can be a simple as mopping the kitchen floor or writing an email that I’ve been avoiding.
Weeks after I started this, I came across Angela Duckworth’s work and something that she calls, the “Hard Thing Rule”. It’s a ritual, where, every single day, you have to do one hard thing. For Duckworth, “A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice”.
It’s satisfying to write down the One Hard Thing I’ve done each day. Sometimes, it’s even fun. But, most importantly, every day is an opportunity for me to perform one small act of bravery that has the potential to change the course of my (writing) life. Duckworth believes that by doing hard things is how we develop grit. I believe it makes me a better writer. It is a way of purposely, safely, joyfully challenging myself to do just One Hard Thing every day.
Writing is hard. Committing words to a page day in and day out is hard.
It requires some amount of confidence and commitment.
Writing might be a passion, but it requires perseverance. It requires grit.
Duckworth said, “Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it” (Chapter 4).
That just may be the advantage of the One Hard Thing Rule for women writers.
This is the fifth in a several-part post.
The theme of virtually every article about how to write is straightforward: Just do it. Just find the time to write. Just write! So why don’t we? How can so many women be so morally bankrupt that they can’t take this simple advice?
Here’s what I think: we try to pretend that the advice we are given is really good and the failure lies with all the women who can’t make it work for them. That’s wrong. It doesn’t make any sense. Is it not more logically that the advice we are given is just really bad advice for women writers? In a Paris Review Interview Toni Morrison admits that she has no routine. She says, “I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time” (p. 3). This woman gives me hope.