Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why you can take your "You must write every day" advice and shove it...

I think some people are born story tellers whether they choose to write them down (type them up) or not. I told stories before I could read, and after I could read I would sit on my swing and tell my "Jackanory" stories to the pretend camera that filmed me. I was a great gossip at school, I always knew how to get maximum impact from relating anecdotes and so on. I told true life stories in chronological order, I ramped up the anticipation, I delivered the punch lines with flourish. I still get irritated when people can't tell me the exact details of things. "Ooh, what did he say when she said that?" I will prompt. It matters. I will see an old woman with a shopping basket and create a sentence about her in my mind, sometimes the sentence expands, a possible story floats for a moment or two, I dismiss it or mentally file it. It's how I see the world and try to make sense of it. It's the way my brain works. I know other people who feel the same, and I know plenty of people who don't. I can't turn it off, it's part of me, which is why when I don't write stories still waft in and out of my consciousness.

Countless times I have read or been told that to be a writer one has to write, which is fair enough surely. If you're not writing you're not a writer are you? But what you could be is a story teller, soaking up those moments, absorbing the possibilities and waiting to see if you feel like writing. Yup, I said "feel like". Gasp. Because the other thing I read/get told repeatedly is that a writer HAS TO write every day. No matter if you feel like it or not, if you want to earn the label writer then damn you, you'd better fucking write.

Really?

So if I am erratic, chaotic, slave to my own whims, ill health, duties and so on, then my words aren't as valuable as they could be if I forced them out every day? I think that's untrue. For quite some time I gritted teeth and wrote daily, determined to prove my worth as a writer and do whatever is necessary, and the words landed on my screen dry as dust. Day after day, nothingy words that I kidded myself I could "polish and shine."

Now I know, they were worthless. They remain useless. Meaningless. I stopped writing. And I have heard more than once that if you can't cope with the grind then maybe you're not cut out to be a writer. That makes me want to tear down walls and bellow - "How dare you be so judgmental?" I think everyone should deviate from whatever feels wrong. I detest the prescriptive advice of "write everyday, at least X amount of words". I want to challenge this wisdom. Or what? You have to write X amount of words per day or else you can't be in my gang? If you don't write daily you aren't serious enough? Really? I am pretty damn serious about my words actually, that's why the cheap, easy words that I spewed out felt so crappy.

On Sunday I wrote a flash, it bubbled up inside me on Saturday, insisted on being written. I like it, it has something that was lacking in all my daily words, some heart.

I'm not a big cheese author but I have had some successes, been published in some fabulous places, placed in competitions, had positive feedback and even, gasp, payment for my words. I'm a mother, a human, a writer, a bookseller. You telling me I don't have the right to call myself a writer is as ridiculous as you saying I'm not a bookseller because I only work one day a week at the bookshop.

16 comments:

Chris Davies said...

Hey, I do that too! (the sentence-in-the-mind thing; oh, and I still have my pretend camera) I think I'm actually better at thinking up first lines/paragraphs than I am full stories, so I may just aim for a short story book of very, very short pieces :)

Douglas Bruton said...

Not sure that is what is behind 'You must write everyday'... Of course you are a writer.

I think it's something to do with what gets a mention in Malcolm Gladwell's current book on 'Success', about the need for the hours to be put in if a person is to reach a certain level of expertise (the level where we begin to describe them as genius - eg David Beckham is a genius with a football... etc). The recognised level of input of hours is around 10,000. That's 10,000 hours of really putting in the graft. Then, once that's done, something has happened and you are sometimes then an expert in whatever it is you have worked at.

Just maybe all those hours you have spent 'telling' stories has made you already an expert in that field. The rest of us are playing catch up with the 10,000 hours and the writing every day in order to get there.

Just a thought?

D

Susannah Rickards said...

I think if we respond to 'every day' as a whipcrack and feel like failures when we miss a day, it's counterproductive, yes. But... My own experience is that it's much like exercise. If I wait weeks for a great story to come into my head, when I put it down it comes out all cranky and lopsided. I'm out of practise. Writing very regularly helps guard against this.

The attitude we have to regular writing affects the work too. You sound furious with the people who suggest you practise the art you love regularly. Don't you wonder why? (I mean beyond the 'I prefer to let the muse take hold' argument.) Perhaps it's too reminiscent of school or piano practise or some other joyless way of being forced to spend time which ought to be fulfilling but is just dull and desperate. So the words come out flat and dull: writin' em cos I got to.

Yep, been there. But I'm not sure it needs to be like this. I think if we treat it as play: I'm going to let myself mess around with words more often, we will, as Douglas points out, get gradually better at saying what we really mean when inspiration does strike.

Anonymous said...

Oh, God!

That email I sent you yesterday, the one about how I'm taking part in a July blast, trying to write a story a day for the whole of July...

... you don't have to answer it, Guacamole. I know just where I can shove it ;-)

Cheers

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

I wish I wrote every day but with life going on, it's pretty impossible. But I do think about words & scenarios every day - I'm always in writing mode - and I just know that that counts.

Sara Crowley said...

WRW - I am the same, one doesn't turn the words off when one isn't in the act of writing. The creating continues, and you can feed creativity with reading, observing, word play and so on.

Susannah - Not furious no, but a bit peeved perhaps. And not really for me personally but for all writers who read that advice and feel that they can't possibly be serious enough because Mr Writing Teacher says they need to write daily to prove their worth. There are many reasons why some people can't write daily, but I think the reading, thinking, soaking up of life all contribute to the writer one becomes.

I didn't approach the daily writing as if it was a chore, but it became that way to me, not because of any rebelliousness but because the words were pointless. I don't know why that would be so. I don't think I am a wafty sitting around waiting for the muse kinda gal, I want to work at this and hone my craft and learn so much more.

I know it works for some, and that's fabulous. But I think if it doesn't work, for whatever reason, then there's no need to feel disheartened, unworthy, useless.

Of course if one wants to be seriously good at anything one has to practice, practice, practice. And I do, and I will, but I remain unconvinced of the value of x amount of words per day.

Bob - ha ha ha oops! : )

Chris - Have you ever tried writing flash? It's perfect for concise writing.

I honestly admire all writers who write daily and who are able to do so. I thought I could do that too, I thought I could write chunks of words and knuckle down to it, and perhaps one day I will. Right now, however, I will write when I can. I will enjoy it as much as possible & not worry if it's not fun. Sometimes the thrill I feel on having written a piece is such a good buzz that it doesn't matter if I haven't enjoyed the journey.

Jim Murdoch said...

No matter what it is you are doing there will always be someone out there who will tell you that you're not doing it right. Since we were kids we have been told that we should conform to some arbitrary standard: don’t run in the corridors, don't go up the down staircase, don't leave the playground during a break. It's tiresome. And when we get older we always seem to be being put on the defensive: so, you're a writer – proooove that you're a writer, tell us where you've been published and how much you got paid and who reads those kinds of magazines anyway? And now there's the distinction between 'writer' and 'author' to contend with. If I put a poem on my website then I automatically disqualify it for submission to loads of mags and ezines because they say it's been published but it's not really been published has it?

I am also not a "big cheese author" and for so many reasons that it would be tiresome to go through I'm never going to be. I don't write that kind of stuff. My second novel will be available next month and no one will buy it who hasn't read the first book so I pretty much know what my maximum sales will be. Not a lot. But that's not why I wrote the books in the first place. Publication of any kind was never a consideration. It's like saying that Van Gogh wasn't a painter because he never sold any paintings. What has success got to do with it?

And I would ditch the term 'story teller' right away. It diminishes what you are. It's apologetic and what do you have to apologise for?

Douglas Bruton said...

Jim - just a comment on the arbitrary rules you quote... the school ones. As a teacher at a school I would have to say that they are not arbitrary... running in the corridor creates obvious dangers for schools with hundreds of pupils all moving about at exactly the same time; Up and down staircases are usually there to ease the congestion and to allow the 'traffic' to flow quickly and easily; and the playground thing... it's a dangerous world out there and when kids are in school the responsibility for their welfare is with the school.

No issue with anything else you say, except the ditching of the term 'story-teller'... it has a rich heritage the term and should be embraced as a term of commendation. I consider it high praise indeed.

Best

D

Sara Crowley said...

Jim, thanks for your thoughts. I like the term story teller though, it doesn't seem apologetic to me, it seems bright, proud, rich and traditional. I am also a writer!

Bt the way, I enjoyed your tiny piece at RHP. Very cool.

Jim Murdoch said...

@Douglas – As an adult I know full well why those rules exist but as a child they made no sense to me at all. And it was a child's perspective that I was trying to get over here. Maybe I could have expressed that a bit clearer.

@Sara – Thanks about the RHP piece. As for the term 'story teller', yes, I fully appreciate that there is a rich tradition to the telling of tales but it's how people would view you if you handed over your business card and it said "Sara Crowley: Story Teller" on it. You'd have to stand there and justify yourself or at the very least explain yourself. If I told people I was a plumber they wouldn't want to see pictures of bathrooms I'd installed along with testimonials from my customers but as soon as I say I'm a 'writer' I get asked all the questions under the sun. Saying I was a 'story teller' would just confuse everyone.

Tania Hershman said...

Sara, you're spot on here, this is something that makes me "mad", to appropriate the American use of the word, too. I've been told I should be writing 1000 words a day. Why?? Someone, somewhere picked that arbitrary number as signifying weightiness - just as "they" picked novels as signifying the serious writer over "flighty" short stories.

You and I, and all lovers of great writing, know just how much can be packed into a fabulous 500 word flash that may be written in 20 short minutes. It ain't about the quantity, it's NEVER about quantity. And YES YES YES, if you force yourself to do it, then there's no damn point to it.

Set yourself goals, sure, but if there's no joy, if it doesn't come from that deep, dark part of you because it absolutely has to, because you can't keep it in, then I'd rather not read it, thank you.

Jo Mortimer said...

spot on, laydee. x

Alex Keegan said...

There are some neat sleight-of-hands posts in these comments.

I am one "teacher" who stresses the importance of daily writing, but the number of words "alleged" is stupid.

Would I expect a serious poet to write 1,000 words a day? No. End of.

And my definition of a writer is a person who wakes up and is immediately thinking when/where will I get my writing in today.

"Writing every Day" doesn't even mean "producing 200/500/1000 words a day "no matter what"

It means BEING A WRITER every day, every minute of the day.

if I take a month out to read six hours of poetry every day (filling the well) is that not "WRITING"?

I am doing it, specifically, deliberately as part of the process.

If I choose to go walkabout in the wilderness to fill up my soul, is THAT not writing? It is, if my intent is writerly.

People who fail simply because they don't write enough are so often full of bullshit and excuses, watch loads of TV, sport, play Bridge, socialise etc.

As DB mentioned, and as many great authors have mentioned, we have to write a lot of crap before we become "real writers'... That is, we learn the process until it runs in our blood, so the mechanics of writing are automatic and we can then free the subconscious.

You do NOT get that way writing 50 words a day unless you have a few spare lifetimes.

I do a regular survey of attendees on writing courses, at writing conventions etc. These are (presumably) those people who are MORE committed than average.

The running average is 134 words a day, that is ten MINUTES or less.

Six-seven days to log one hour's work. Now multiply that by 10,000 which is Gladwell's figure.

6.5 x 10,000 = 65,000 days or about 200 YEARS

Alex Keegan said...

If Galdwell is right and it takes 10,000 hours to become serious master of any art or sport, then 3 hours a day = about 30 years.

As writers, every book, poem, short-story we read, every English lesson in school or university, every deliberate listening-in to a conversation counts as this work, but if we imagine we start at age 7 years and we are serious, then at 3 hours a day, we will just be achieving our potential as we reach our forties.

Whether that means actual physical writing or whether people-watching etc counts is another part of the debate but I KNOW and have seen the effects of hard-work, of so-called grinding it out.

it's true that if you treat it as grinding out it can feel negative. Exercise is the same. We can learn to enjoy being out their running or treat it as a chore.

The various "Blasts" I have run almost always produce the same range of responses, PLEASURE responses, people producing more than they thought possible, becoming more creative, and finally allowing their subconscious to work


why? Because the daily work stops being work and the angels cut in

Douglas Bruton said...

I chime pretty thoroughly with words from AK... I have wanted to 'be a writer' since I discovered proper books at about age 12. I tried writing throughout my teens but was clever enough to know I was crap. I read and read and thought and thought and made notes in a wee book... several wee books. I never really thought I was in the writing league. Then in my early thirties I seriously began writing... several hours a day... just for the fun of entertaining myself, and later entertaining my kids.... then there were a couple of years where I stepped up the commitment and spent hours and hours writing stuff... again just for my pleasure... Then I joined a writing group and even more writing and more hours put in.

I don't know if I have put in the required 10ooo hours of setting words down on paper, (unless you count a lifetime of essay writing and marking and exam passing) but I feel I must have done 10ooo hours of 'being a writer' and I am still learning how to do it.

I do think that to get better you have to 'do it' and to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes and to keep learning and to keep doing. That's being serious about writing... it consumes you and is all that you are and all that you do even when you are not in the physical act of writing... it is how you read the world every day and you can't stop doing it without feeling like the addict without his fix...

Be a writer... all the time... that's what being a writer is... it can be 'painful' sometimes... god what a lot of crap can be produced in those hours... it can be hard going back to the table when the crap is still in your head... but then something happens and from nowhere (or the subconscious) something amazing spills onto the page. You don't ask why or how, you ride the wave and get it all down before it evaporates... then you thrill and attack it again with an eye to craft... all that previous pain and the crap, it's all worth it for moments like those.

Be a writer: it hurts, it sucks and it is the biggest high.


D

Sara Crowley said...

Tania – great to hear your thoughts. Absolutely agree.

Alex – thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s somewhat a relief to hear you say as a teacher “"Writing every Day" doesn't even mean "producing 200/500/1000 words a day "no matter what"

It means BEING A WRITER every day, every minute of the day.” I do feel that being a writer is something deep within, as daft as that may sound, that I don’t turn on and off. And I do wake up every day wondering where and when I’m going to write. I do also enjoy “blasts” greatly. I love how words and characters previously unimagined spring forwards almost magically. I don’t find that sustainable on a daily basis though. I’m interested to know how one can take that pouring of ideas and words and apply it to larger writing projects (my novel in progress for instance.) It’s there in my head, but when I sit and try to “grind” it out it becomes dust. When I leave it alone the well slowly fills but I am making snail like progress.

The other thing is that when I refer to daily writing amounts I do not include the blog I write, the critiques I do on other writer’s stories, the reviews I write. I don’t “count” those words because they aren’t fiction, but I suppose it all goes towards feeding the writer within.

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