An alchemist peacefully writing in a room strewn with papers. Wellcome Library, London
True but cliché: when a student is ready, the teacher appears. In my own life it means that advice I’m not ready for rolls off me unnoticed, but wisdom I am seeking—consciously or unconsciously—resonates. In this spirit, I am sharing two articles about writing recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. To borrow a quotation from a much-loved book, Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah: “You teach best what you most need to learn.” I am noting these summaries here because I am the one who needs to learn them.
Rachel Toor’s The Habits of Highly Productive Writers reminds me what we all know and struggle so hard to implement: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Or, in her words, “. . .Writing is hard and requires discipline and sacrifice. Productive writers don’t reach for excuses when the going gets hard. They treat writing like the job it is. They show up, punch the clock, and punch out. Nothing romantic about it.” She adds that the consistency can soon add up to a full-length book.
Michael C. Munger’s 10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly qualifies productivity quotas with practical advice from the business world of measurable outcomes: “Set goals based on output, not input. ‘I will work for three hours’ is a delusion,’ ” he asserts, recommending instead, “ ‘I will type three double-spaced pages’ [as] a goal.” He also reminds us that writing is exercise. Exercise daily. Write first. Then squeeze everything else in. Make it a priority.
Rachel Toor helpfully points out that fallow time is also sometimes needed. “Productive writers have been through the cycle enough to know it’s a cycle, and sometimes you figure out problems while you’re walking the dog. They know to trust that and don’t get twitchy when the pages stop piling up.” This was a revelation to me. I haven’t been through the cycle enough to take comfort that this too shall pass. Last week was particularly unproductive. Partially I was burned out and needed a break. If writing is exercise, then I needed a rest. I gave myself a few days off, visiting a monastery one day and packing and delivering Thanksgiving dinners for donation to the People’s Emergency Center on another. I only felt slightly guilty. Even this guilt can be harnessed to become a better writer. Toor concedes that “a dollop of self-hatred goes a long way toward getting stuff done. You have to believe it’s your job to be productive and to feel bad if you’re not.” As in much of life, it’s the challenge of navigating a narrow balance.
While my fingers on the keyboard were resting, my mind was not. My thoughts had jumped ahead to fret over problems in a subsequent chapter, which if I have not fully resolved—it won’t be resolved until it’s written—then I have at least conceived of a resolution and thus given myself comfort and the courage to continue. Personally, I haven’t yet learned how to distinguish the need for subconscious ruminations from lazy excuses, but I expect that with more experience, I shall. Sometimes we all need to put a project down and come back to it later.
Which is when Toor’s other advice comes in handy. Toor gives us permission—nay, encourages us!—to work on multiple projects at once. I heard this expression in my Novel Writing class in graduate school, and it describes what I am doing at the moment by writing this blog: “Cheat on your writing with other writing.”
An additional piece of Toor’s advice was entirely new to me: “Leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again.” She explains that “some writers quit a session in the middle of a sentence; it’s always easier to continue than to begin.” Maybe I’d figured this out for myself unknowingly. It takes a little time—too much time!—from my writing day, but I usually start each session by re-reading the previous day’s work. It gets me in the mood; it primes my flow of words. I’ll have to try the mid-sentence tactic though.
I hope you find these suggestions as helpful as I have found them. As for me, it’s Thanksgiving week. I’ve banked enough chapters to have earned a vacation. I’ve given myself permission to take the week off from my novel. But I will still be writing: more blogs, a final project, even my CV. I need to polish and submit some other manuscripts.
Posted on my writing room door I have recorded this expression, in both English and Latin (which apart from a smattering I really don’t know, but it sounds impressive and is more concise than the English):
Nulla dies sine linea.
Never a day without a line.