When I say “work”…

“When I say “work” I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs” – MARGARET LAURENCE

thedeskThe one thing to make for yourself if you are a writer is a routine. I doubt, if you are writing any kind of fiction that attempts to be even slightly challenging or new, that writing will ever become something you are well-versed in, something easy. It’s one of the few jobs where you feel like you don’t really know what you are doing most days at work. I don’t know if this is true for everyone. I imagine it has something to do with writing being like making light out of darkness, turning the unconscious into something conscious, trying to represent something that is almost beyond your grasp. I feel like a fool or a fraud for most of the first draft, all of the second, most of the third, some of the fourth, all of the fifth, etc…Until I manage to convince myself that I know what I’m doing. Then when it is published I feel like a fool/fraud all over again. One day is always as hard as the day before. One story is as frustrating as one written years earlier. So sitting down at the desk day in, day out, is the only way. You have to make a routine so steel-encased you won’t break it for anything less than earthquake.

Most people don’t get the sheer amount of work involved. I mean dull, monotonous, frustrating work. The pages and pages of drafts. The number of times you look at what you have done and wonder how you could have been so stupid to attempt it. The neck, back and shoulder pain of leaning over a desk. What it comes down to is hours at the desk. That is all. If you don’t have time to write you don’t have time to become a writer. Yes, most people are going to wonder what you are doing all day. Yes, it is self-indulgent. But if you have to do it you have to do it.

I was twenty when I started treating writing as a job. I was lucky, something just came over me and I knew this was what I had to do. It was a perfect storm. Finally I knew I was going to be a writer. So, four hours a day, preferably in the morning. If that’s not possible, whenever I can squeeze it in. There’s not much point sitting down for less than two hours at a stretch. Sometimes editing can be done in shorter stints, but a big block of time is what is going to get you somewhere.

In the morning I sit at my desk with a cup of coffee. Sometimes it’s like trying to start an engine on a frosty morning. I sit rubbing my eyes, staring at the road and the trees out the window, feeling nothing like a writer. This can go on for some time. Sometimes this can be useful, turning the mind over. Sometimes it’s a waste of time and makes for nothing but frustration and thoughts that I may as well give up this charade.

Only one coffee a day. On Saturdays, or if I have been particularly cursed by insomnia, I may have two. Otherwise, my nerves get the better of me. I take a break after about two hours, get some chamomile tea, some food, read a few pages of a novel.

I have music on when I write. Seems sloppy, of course. But for reasons unknown it lets me focus, keeps me in the place I’m in.

I’m lucky if I have five minutes of intense, ephiphanic writing per session. When I have those periods I am happy and excited about the writing. Every other minute is close to drudgery. Some days I won’t have those periods. But every other minute of drudgery is worth it for those minutes of focus. Every other minute I am avoiding distraction, trying not to watch the clock, hoping for those moments. When they come it is like accessing something bigger than myself. I had that thought many years ago and it is still how I think about the process of writing when it is at its best – it is as if you are in touch with something bigger than yourself, and your only hope is to get it on paper.

Writing every day is training. If you do more waiting than writing, everything gets flabby. It takes a long time to build a habit. It is certainly not pleasant to get up on a cold morning and sit at your desk when acquaintances have planned a good day out. I have definitely been seduced away from the desk and it was doubly as hard to stay at it the next day. But if you have done it for six months every day previous, it will be a lot easier.

I have learned this from doing it. But learning from the habits and philosophies of other writers is one of the best things you can do. Like many adolescent girls who think they have both literary potential and hidden depths, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. I read her journals very young and it made the way I think about writing. Plath was tough, disciplined, angry and assured about her writing. Reading great works of literature is the bread and butter of writing, the way looking at, feeling, smelling a carpenter’s creations and watching a carpenter work is the bread and butter of carpentry. But you also need to listen to the carpenter talk ABOUT carpentry. Reading journals, letters and biographies of writers will let you fashion your own writing philosophy and routine.

“When I stop, the rest of the day is posthumous. I’m only really alive when I’m working” – TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

“I write with the blood that goes to the ends of my fingers, and it is a very sensuous act.” — A. S. BYATT

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing” – DONALD HALL

“Writers don’t have lifestyles. They sit in little rooms and write” – NORMAN MAILER

“Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards” – HENRY MILLER

“Be ruthless about protecting your writing days. Although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg” – J.K. ROWLING

“I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going. Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.

I think it’s bad so much of the time. The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare. But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy to despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly” – KAREN RUSSELL

5 thoughts on “When I say “work”…

  1. Vanessa Mendoza

    By the way, I also find journals inspiring. I read Sylvia Plath’s journals about a year ago and they truly changed the way I look at writing. There is so much discipline and pain involved, but that’s what makes writing so amazing to me.

  2. violavalentine

    Exactly what I needed as well. I’m in the process of finalizing my first manuscript…sometimes I want to give up! But I know when I have my first book published it’s going to be absolutely worth it.


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