There is an anecdote in David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear that gets repeated a lot. I’ll repeat it here too, from memory, just to add to the mythology. The story goes that a ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups. He told the first group to spend the semester making one perfect object, which they would then be graded on. The second group got different instructions: they were simply to make as much pottery as they could. They would be graded on the total weight of the pieces.
At the end of the semester, the work produced by the two groups was compared. The students who aimed for perfection got caught up in self-criticism and produced so-so work. But the group that aimed for sheer mass also produced the best art.
I read Art & Fear some years ago. It’s a fine book — whenever I dip into it I find great insights, including some I was not able to appreciate on the first read. But that story is the one that stuck with me (and apparently with the authors of about a million creativity blogs). A few years ago, at some level — half conscious, half not — I decided to apply that approach to writing. I thought I should just write a lot. Short pieces, long essays, whatever. As long as I was writing.
Part of my logic was this: I am one of those people who is convinced, at the start of each writing project, that I have forgotten how to write and will never be able to do it again. If I could increase how often and how much I write, I figured, I might be able to bypass at least a bit of that fear.
Then there is what I half-jokingly refer to as the “write every day industrial complex.” If your work or your passion involves writing, chances are you have run across writing mavens who tell you that the answer to your creative problems writing every day. Sometimes, they use different terms for the same idea: discipline, putting your butt in a chair, sticking to it, professionalism. For someone who has spent a long time thinking of myself as terminally undisciplined (even though I’m probably more of a workaholic in need of a nap), “write every day” is appealing. It bypasses all sorts of uncomfortable questions: do I have the intelligence or the talent I need for this project? Do I have the stamina? Will it turn out the way I imagine it in my head? Will anyone even care?
The problem with “write every day,” or with productivity-focused approaches to writing, is not that they’re wrong. It’s that they’re only half right. For what it’s worth, I do find that writing a lot helps with the takeoff anxiety. If I’m starting pieces all the time, then starting becomes less daunting, at least when it comes to writing in a genre I know well. It’s also easier to convince myself that I’m just writing a draft that can be fixed later. My trust in the process as a whole grows. The positive memories of flow and of finishing are closer to the surface, easier to recall when I need to get over the beginning hump.
So that’s the good part. My issue with “write every day” is that it’s very easy to think of it in terms of a very specific kind of writing: producing drafts of good enough quality that they can be revised towards the final project.
And even this approach can work great in certain situations. I can do chunks of academic writing like this, short book reviews, short essays. If I’m already deep into a longer work, one in which I’ve found my groove, then writing every day (or close to it) is the best way to keep that momentum going.
But I find that if I’m developing something larger, more demanding, more ambitious — a book project, say, or an essay for which I have work out a more complex structure with multiple arguments — it doesn’t necessarily help to force myself to compose prose every day.
I have found out the hard way that is possible to sit in a chair, every single day at hte same time, to type and type and type around a project, and not to get any further with it. In fact, if the writing doesn’t know where it’s going, it also doesn’t gather the right kind of energy. It can’t be revised into something more polished, because there’s nothing there to revise. The muse doesn’t show up. I can’t describe what a dispiriting thing this is to experience — to do everything “right,” to write every day, and to lose more faith with every page.
Doing something badly every day is not all that useful, it turns out.
I had a bit of a breakthrough on a project recently, and it came from working with Nikesh Shukla’s Your Story Matters: Find Your Voice, Sharpen Your Skills, Tell Your Story while reviewing it for the Times Literary Supplement. Shukla’s book is mainly about writing fiction, but he includes a series of exercises at the start that help you think about your project, what its point is, and why you want to put it into the world. I have been recommending the book ever since for these exercises, because they helped me to rethink what I was doing from the ground up.
This is how I realised: it’s not necessary to write every day, but it is a good idea to think every day. Sometimes, thinking hard about a project can save a lot of effort in pointless composition.
Now, this is where the objection will come that writing is thinking, and that’s true. In fact, I did Shukla’s exercises in writing, in a notebook. But at least in my experience, there’s a difference between formless, word-barf “writing-as-thinking,” in which I write thousands of words and maybe realise a few interesting little things along the way, but still don’t build momentum, and “writing-as-thinking” in which I ask myself the most important questions and try to answer them, gaining momentum and clarity.
This is where I come back to defend “write every day,” because I think there is a way it can be interpreted that works. My friend, the writer and coach Anne Bramley, once told me to think about writing more broadly — as reading, taking notes, thinking, sketching outlines, drafting, and so on. It’s helped me enormously to notice that sometimes, if I try to write a piece and it’s just not coming, it is because the thinking is not there yet. I have to learn to pull back from my own desire to make visible progress, and to spend some more time figuring out what I want to say.
This means I also have to consider a day “productive” even if I have solved a problem or drawn a connection between two ideas or arranged my notes in the right order. Even if I haven’t written a single sentence that will wind up in the final draft.
And here is the hardest part: sometimes the creative process requires neither writing nor thinking, but rest. A break. A distraction. Knitting, or a movie, or listening to music, or travel. Doing something with the hands. Doing something with the body. Sleep. Meditation. Because writing — like other creative work — is a complex process that takes all of our cognitive abilities, and our most powerful cognitive abilities are not our conscious ones.
The trick is finding the balance between active work, subconscious musing, and putting words together on the page. But I find that if I can get my subconscious activated — usually, this involves thinking about a project in the shower — it starts to feed me sentences before I sit down at my computer, which means I don’t have to struggle to begin at all.
Now, most of the people who tell you to “write every day” don’t say, “write every day, but I actually mean anything that is conducive to working through the project, and that might mean typing out quotes or going on a walk or lying in bed with your eyes closed and thinking about how you could structure the damn thing.” They don’t tell you that the most useful work sometimes doesn’t look like work at all.
What many writing sages do do is make you feel that if you are not at your desk, typing, every single day, you do not take your calling seriously, you are not like the great and successful writers of the past who wrote for five straight hours every day starting at 4 a.m., and the muse will look at you, sniff, pull away her skirts and find someone more serious and disciplined to inspire. And that leads to shame. And trying to write when you already feel ashamed is like trying to do fouettés in quicksand.
What do you think? Do you write every day? And how do you define “writing” anyway?
Speaking of shame, this week The Walrus published my essay on getting over my embarrassing fear of roller coasters. It’s been a wonderful experience putting this out into the world as I realised — I was not the only one! Apparently I know tons of people who either have never enjoyed them, or at some point stopped. Write to feel less alone, man. Write to feel less alone.
In my column at the Times Literary Supplement, I wrote about the pain of trying to heal someone we love.
I was in London when Queen Elizabeth II passed, and went over to Buckingham Palace to see how people would react. What I saw taught me something about how incomplete reporting on events like this often is, focusing in on what they want to present. The Romanian literary journal Scena9 published my impressions in English and in Ioana Pelehatăi’s Romanian translation.
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I love this advice. I do try to write every day--that is, to actually put words down. But I don't think expect that writing to end up in a finished project. I do it because it helps me pay attention to myself and the world. It's really more an act of meditation than of composition. Periodically, I look back over the past few days or weeks and come across bits that coalesce into something substantial. But that isn't my expectation.
But more importantly, I absolute agree with your sense of what "working on a piece of writing" means. It could mean examining an idea or experience (with or without writing a word), drafting, identifying where the piece is going, pausing my writing (resting), playing by brainstorming/freewriting/clustering, revisiting my idea of where a piece is going, and shaping (revising) writing I already have.
So excited to find this Substack!
Very helpful as always! Probably because I've found myself in a bit of a - "not writing so better feel guilty about it" - creativity slump. Will try applying some of the newly acquired wisdom... (Then again, am I ever not in a self perceived creativity slump? Food for thoughts...)