Against Writing Every Day

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Like most creative writers (especially us wayward poets), I don’t relish being told what to do. Perhaps this is why I bristle when I hear the dictum write every day. To me, writing every day doesn’t sound appetizing: it sounds like a dry piece of rye toast with no butter. It sounds Machiavellian. It sounds like a chore, replete with brooms and mops and green jars of Comet. As it is, my To Do List is already chock-full of this and that and a little more of this.

However, a very favorite poet of mine, Carrie Fountain, changed my mind about the notion of writing every day at a recent craft talk at the University of Michigan. She urged a roomful of writers to write every day in order to develop a “compost heap” of ideas, images, scraps, and bits of language, a heap that can be mined at any time and transformed into a full-fledged poem, story, or essay. Besides providing the raw materials of art, the daily grind also serves as a “protection against stopping.” Fountain’s idea is that the more we commit to our beloved writing practice (even when it doesn’t feel so very beloved), the less likely we will be to give it up.

Thus inspired, I told myself: On October 1st, 2012, I will begin a daily writing practice. It will occur at first light. While everyone else is still under the covers breathing loudly through their mouths or drooling into retainers, I will alight at my desk, wrapped in a shawl: there I will sit, there I will write, there I will produce literature!

Monday, 10/1, dawned. I washed small Ziplock bags. I waited 10 minutes for a bus. I forgot to pay my rent. I streamed two episodes of Ice Road Truckers on my laptop. (Lisa couldn’t fix her brakes! Jack Jessie pulled a 16-hour shift!) As I chopped celery for soup, I considered whether or not I had the guts to haul a tractor trailer on an ice road in Alaska. (Maybe.)

All day, the phrase write every day played incessantly in my head. The only way I knew how to deal with such pressure, albeit self-imposed, was to pretend that what I really needed to do was chop celery into perfect, green chunks.

Of course, Fountain was in no way suggesting that I had to be a perfectionist about the whole thing. (Indeed, wasn’t she suggesting quite the opposite?) But, I’m writing this article for writers–you know who you are–who find themselves prone to perfectionism, prone to taking a good suggestion and warping it into a stern, uncompromising commandment.

Let’s be clear: I’m not attempting to figure out why we get scared or procrastinate. Or why the phrase write every day makes me worry about measuring up. Save that one for your therapist and Malcolm Gladwell. I am interested, however, in shifting the framework, so that we spend less time in fear, less time filling in our To Do list, and more time actually attending to our work: the business of writing.

I want us to move away from the Thou Must Write Every Day commandment, even if Moses is holding a stone tablet and looking rather fierce. What if we changed this commandment to a juicy suggestion? A thrilling invitation, instead of a hard-and-fast rule?

I can already hear groans from the peanut gallery, but I’m serious, dear readers. Have you ever tried dieting? Did it involve scales and cold baby carrots? If so, then you know the tedium sprinkled with fear and self-loathing that I’m talking about when we tell ourselves we have to do somethingOr Else. None of this sounds particularly fun or inspiring for the writer’s soul. I’m done with those days. What about you?

As I was groaning about the Write Every Day mafia (of my mind) to my friend Nate Marshall, a poet in the University of Michigan MFA program, he wisely quipped: “You don’t have to write every day, but it should be about the work every day.”

Something clicked in my brain when Nate said that. Being about the work every day (or BATWED, for fun) is a suggestion I can get behind.

So, yes, let’s be about the work every day. Let’s embrace the fact that this can mean a lot of different things, too. To be about the work could mean you plan out the next chapter of your novel while stretching in Downward Dog. Smooth the kinks of your poetry persona as you register to vote. Send a poem to a journal. Dream, muse, sink into reverie, remember, read—then read some more. On this blog, poet francine j. harris said in an interview with A.L. Major that having the “time to stare at a wall” is integral to the writer’s process. This is what writers have done forever on the off days, the down days, the days when the well is dry—and it’s crucial.

But, being about the work every day can also mean writing a chapter of your novel. Hell, writing two chapters. Writing three.  (Don’t worry, perfectionists: you can revise later!) It can be an all-nighter: just you, the keyboard, and a bottle of cheap Merlot. It can be a bevy of glistening, muse-kissed poems written in the time it takes for Jack Jessie to pump his gas and check the air in his tires.

As I took Nate’s suggestion to heart, I realized that—without trying, without worrying, without fretting—I am about the work every day. On a good day, one or two poems will course out of me like hot honey. On other days, the best I can do is read some Rilke as I watch Ice Road Truckers. Instead of punishing myself for this, I congratulate myself. Like all humans, I respond well to authentic praise.

The writing process is more than the act of sitting down at the computer, more than actually putting pen to paper. In no way am I suggesting that we should avoid writing. Not at all. But I am arguing that we should unloose ourselves from the tyranny of  write every day and understand that our writing life expands beyond the physical act itself. Let’s acknowledge all parts and pieces of the process. And, while we’re at it, let’s cut the guilt trips.

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