Friday, October 17, 2014

It's the Law, Except When It's Not

Is this a From Me to You post? I don't really know.

I asked for some feedback on what to blog about on Facebook last Friday. Responses ranged from helpful to scatological:

The only thing (aside from poop) that came up more than once is time, so let's go with that for now.

I've heard of writers who get up at 4 AM to write for an hour every day before they fix their kids' breakfasts, functioning on six hours of sleep for years on end. I've heard of writers who compose novels with their thumbs, on BlackBerries, while they sit at security-guard jobs. I've heard of writers who do a couple hundred words at a time on their lunch breaks.

I do not write this way. I admire the dedication of those writers, but OMG no.

This past spring I went to a reading by Aimee Bender, whose novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake I adored. Someone asked her during the Q&A how she found time for writing, and she gave an answer that, while not personally helpful to me, I pass on whenever I'm asked a question about finding time to write. She said that for most of her writing life, she got up every morning and wrote for an hour. This was not a new suggestion to me, but the way she phrased it was novel: she told herself this is the law. You have to write for an hour, no matter what; it's the law. Something about that phrasing worked extremely well for her, and I can see how it would be helpful for other writers.

So yeah, just put Judge Dredd over your desk and you'll write up a storm

Pretty much the only rule of writing that I've heard repeated everywhere, that does not change from site to site and teacher to teacher, is that you have to write every day. And I don't do it. I don't like to advertise this, because it makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong, but I just can't write every day. It would become rote and unfun and impossible if I had to do it every day, and how could I build a fulfilling life out of that?

But I suspect few people are as stymied by routine as I am, so "write every day" is probably a good rule for the majority of writers. It means you get in the habit of constant writing, whether you feel like it or not, whether what comes out is good or not. It means you do a lot of work, and that's how you get better. Besides, in truth, I don't recommend my method to anybody. I'm a binge personality (I don't recommend that, either), and bingeing is how I write: for hours and hours on end, for hours every day for perhaps weeks at a time, setting aside food and sleep and husband until the project is done and I go back to my life. My whole focus is on the project and I'm sleepwalking through everything else, and when I try to imagine focusing on the project for a little bit of time every day for months or years of days in a row, it sounds like hell.

Literally the only other writer I've ever heard of who works/worked like this is Faulkner, who, I understand, wrote his books in a matter of months each and then went on alcoholic benders until it was time to write again. It's nice to be in that company (if not that lifestyle), but again, I don't recommend it.

(awkward pulling at collar)

The best way I've ever heard of to write every day when you don't have time to write every day is what my friend Katie does. She has no time to write, and she has a quota of 200 words per day. (Keeping your goal low is crucial for this writing-every-day thing, because 200 words a day, piddling as it sounds, is still 70,000+ words per year.) If she can't meet the quota one day, it's not something for which she berates herself, which is crucial. Even better, she's not allowed to write more than 200 words per day to get ahead on future days, but she is allowed to write more per day to make up for past days. This is such a kind and forgiving, yet steely, method of making writing happen, and I admire it so much. It means that she can feel better about making up for her whole week on a Friday night when she's on fire, but she can't get cocky and give herself days off the next week.

(By the way, check out Katie's new website and, thereby, her essays and fiction. She's the best.)

The heart of this question, for me, is not how to make time for writing in your day, but how to make time for writing in your life. For most people, carving out a bit of time every day is how to do it, but for me, it means non-actual-writing stuff on a regular basis and actual writing only every so often. That is, constant people-watching and eavesdropping is how I build the foundation for a story or a book (sorry, world, but I'm always observing you), and then a big release every so often is how the story or book happens.

Over the past two years, I've pretty much stopped agonizing about dry spells. I'm not sure if I accept or reject the idea of writer's block, but I sometimes fail to write for six or eight months at a clip. I used to fret and complain about this a lot, but now I just shut up and wait. I accept that dry spells are an unavoidable aspect of a binge personality, and that the machine will start up again. (There's proof on this very blog that it will.)

And I will not run out of ideas. I have three book-sized ideas sitting in my notebook, waiting for me to be ready to write them. One of them has a few more years at least (it's about God, so...I could be forty or older before that one comes together), one of them I've tried twice and it's just not ripe yet, I guess, and the third is gonna go, most likely, in the next few months. Plus there's the sequel to Highbinder, which I'm readyish to write, but I don't think it's a good idea to start yet, and a western that I'm not in the least ready to write. That's plenty of work for a while, along with short story ideas that'll crop up along the way and old work that I could retool now that I know more.

So that's how I make time for writing. I spread out my arms and settle into a cross-legged position and wait. It's the attitude of making room in my head for it. When I'm ready, the writing happens, kind of like bowel movements happen - whether you have time for them now or not. I go through the motions of resisting or procrastinating, but every cell in me knows, when it's time, what I have to do: butt in chair, fingers wrapped around pen, concentration on page, until the work is done. When it's time to binge on writing, it's time, and everything else in my life has to move aside for it.

If you don't feel the same get-to-the-bathroom-now urgency that I do when it's time for you to write, then you should probably try to write 200 words every day. If you can't manage that, try first making room in your head for writing to happen, and eventually, hopefully, you'll find room in your life for some small quota per day. I wish I had more reliable and less mysterious methods I could share for how I do it, but I hope I've shared some helpful methods of others, instead.

Also, I managed to write about poop. So there.

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