It's a disservice that we don’t see great writers at work. They tend not to take a lot of photos because the actual work looks like a person sitting in a chair with their fingers wrapped around a pen or keyboard. And that doesn’t make for good television.
This shortage of documentation fuels an already-dangerous myth that writers sit down at their desks, flush with inspiration, and write with ease, the words flowing from their fingertips in a single burst of genius.
The real-life stories that support this myth are the exception rather than the rule. For most writers, including the most prolific among us, writing is a process that requires that we show up for it day in and day out, even—perhaps I should say, especially—on the days genius doesn’t strike.
Stephen King writes ten pages a day, which—over a three-month period—amounts to around 180,000 words.
Alice Walker and Barbara Kingsolver are morning writers. As was Toni Morrison, who got in the habit when her children were young and she had to write before they woke up.
Maya Angelou rented a hotel room where she wrote every day from 6:30-2.
Phillip Roth worked all day, morning and afternoon, just about every day. “If I sit there like that for two or three years,” he said, “at the end I have a book.”
Roth and Walker, Morrison and King, Kingsolver and Angelou are the kind of writers Malcolm Gladwell calls outliers—those exemplary individuals who are willing to devote the hours required (10,000, according to Gladwell) to become a true master or outlier in their field.
There are those who question his number. But whether or not it takes precisely 10,000 hours, the fact remains that to master anything requires practice.
Gladwell’s 10,000 hours
When I started writing, the great short story writer Lee K. Abbott told me I’d have to write a stack of papers several feet high before I’d write anything worth reading. To do that he recommended I sit down in my writing chair for three hours every day—which, over a ten-year period, adds up to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.
This was not what I wanted to hear. I’d arrived at my writing program—as many of my colleagues had—bursting with equal parts of bravado and self-doubt. I had things to prove. Great works to pen. Who had time for rehearsal?
Why create a writing routine?
Like doing yoga, or going to the gym, there is no one forcing you into the writing chair. You and you alone are in charge of getting yourself and keeping yourself there. And, much like yoga or the gym, we have so many ways of avoiding what is good for us. We tell ourselves we will get to our writing when we feel inspired, or when we have something to say. We tell ourselves there is always tomorrow.
The trouble with this thinking is that most of us find that thing we have to say by actually sitting down to write. Which is why it is important that we create a routine. A deliberate practice of sitting down every day at around the same time and putting ourselves in the path of inspiration.
When to write?
You might be a morning writer or a nighttime writer, a when-the-kids-are-napping or a whenever-the-mood-strikes-you kind of writer. Your daily practice might be a half hour or an hour or two or three. It could be as little as eight minutes eeked out between appointments or on the bus each day to work.
What matters is that you get into a routine. Because if we don’t sit down, if we’re not there with our fingers on the keyboard, then inspiration won’t know where to find us.
There will be days when inspiration will not meet us. We will be distracted, uninspired. We will be tempted to stop showing up. On these days more than ever it is the rhythm we establish that will save us. An hour a day. A page. A doodle. The act of showing up to the page, day after day, even—especially—when we don’t want to.
The practice of writing is the art
In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro writes that “it’s the doing of the thing that makes possible the desire for it.” Indeed, there is a magic or grace that happens when you get into a writing rhythm. For the first days the routine feels like work. You are going through the motions. The words come slowly or badly. And then at some point those words start working on you. They speak to you while you’re jogging or folding laundry, or just as you’re drifting off to sleep. Suddenly the ideas, the narratives, the lines and characters you’ve been chasing are right there whispering in you ear, dispensing new insight to take back with you for your next day of writing. And as long as you keep coming back to them, they will keep coming back to you.
It’s okay to take a day off
Sometimes you’ll need a break from your writing. It’s okay to take a day off, or to build a lighter day or week into your schedule. You are human.
Just know that however many days you take off, it will take you that much longer to re-enter the work when you return to it.
Which is all the more reason to establish a routine—a number of pages or hours or words—so you will know how to find your way back to them when you’re ready.
Where can you make time for your writing? Schedule it on your calendar. My bet is that, once you start writing, you’ll want to keep going.
What would you write if you knew the world was waiting to hear what you had to say?
And why not start writing it today?
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