Updated: Sep 15, 2021
Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of things to try and trick myself into writing – regularly, again, or at all. “Writers write” never seemed like complex enough advice, but it's what all the writers I admired said. It sounded much too simple for someone accustomed to telling stories about why he wasn’t writing. There had to be a reason I wasn’t writing, and I needed to tell you and me and anyone who would listen the story about it. I also thought I needed something special and unnameable in order to write. I thought things needed to look and feel a certain way and that it was my job to figure out the secret to make everything fall into place before I could sit down and bang out my masterpiece. Or, it turns out, to bang out anything at all.
I’ve tried The Artist’s Way and NaNoWriMo and 1000 Words of Summer and an MFA program, where one teacher suggested we write for 10 minutes a day, which I tried. I've tried setting word count targets and page count targets, joining writing groups and going on solo writing retreats, writing first thing in the morning and last thing before bed, writing only at home, only not at home, with and without earplugs in, with and without music, writing in bed, at a desk, on the floor, outside, by hand and by dictation and by computer and by typewriter and by text. I’ve bought word processing software I couldn’t figure out and never used, I’ve asked for deadlines, bought subscriptions to magazines and literary journals, and I've written innumerable new year’s resolutions. I’ve written in a cabin in the desert and one block from a fire department in the middle of Los Angeles, and I’ve written before caffeine and during caffeine and after caffeine and without caffeine. For the longest time, I thought I couldn’t write without smoking, and so I’ve written as a smoker and now as a non-smoker, and I’ve written while drunk and mildly drunk and hungover and sober.
I’ve tried researching and not researching for my projects, and I’ve tried reading great literature and not reading anything at all before I sit down to write. I've tried writing what I know and writing what I don't know, and I've read books on how to write and cursed books on how to write and snuck peeks at books on how to write while pretending not to need books on how to write.
I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve tried a lot, and all of it was great at the time, while it lasted, as long as I ended up writing something. But why didn't any of it stick?
It should come as little surprise to hear I recently jumped at the chance to sign on for another hack with a small group of writer friends: writing for 90 days in a row. I needed another jumpstart and the universe seemed to be nudging me to start writing the book I’d been thinking about for over two years. So, 90 days, no matter what, the rest was up to us.
Some folks are writing comedy and some are writing morning pages and some are working on academic stuff and others are writing blog posts or collateral for their businesses. There’s no time requirement—the goal is just to write—though I decided to commit to 30 minutes a day. Not all of that time has to be actual pecking on the keyboard, but I must be in the chair, staring at my document or closing my eyes and meditating on the document, and not on my phone or on the internet or doing anything else. I chose 30 minutes somewhat arbitrarily, because it wasn’t an hour, which seems unrealistic right now, and because it was more than 10 minutes, which seems like not enough time to give magic a chance to happen.
Today, I’m happy to report, is day 51. I didn’t really feel like writing when I woke up this morning, but what I keep learning during this latest experiment, and from all of those experiments before now, is that my head wants me to stop and take a break at every opportunity, and especially after major milestones along the way: 10 days, 30 days, 45 days, 50 days… 50 days?! Isn’t that enough?
This morning I certainly thought so, but I got up and wrote again anyway. Why? Because by now I have a little bit of a habit forming, and because I’ve already been here before (see days 2, 11, 31, 46) so I know there’s something on the other side of 1, 10, 45, and 50. And, because, much to my former groveling self’s dismay, writers write—no matter what. My book didn’t need me to sit on a bench on day 51 and marvel at it; it needed work, there’s a lot left to do, and there are discoveries waiting in the wings, characters who are still waking up, and decisions to be made. So many decisions. It all needs to stay in motion, and it needs me to keep engaging it.
50 days felt great, but 51 feels better.
When I show up no matter what, when I want to and when I don’t want to, on a Sunday and on a Monday, on a glad day and on a mad day, the day after the writing retreat ends and the day after I send something to a first reader, I do it to strengthen the habit, and because I never know what might come through in the particular state I’m in on any given day. Some days I get the muck and other days I get the magic, but most days I get something in between. Books need all the glad and mad and in between they can get, and they need the ennui or angst or doubt you might be experiencing today as well. Perhaps only a certain striking image or series of words or epiphany can come to exist in the world by your showing up exactly as you are today, writing from that very specific mood and circumstance in which you find yourself. If you wait until you feel better, or for the circumstances and conditions in your life to look differently than they do right now before you sit down and write, you might sacrifice the best line of your book, and then you’ll never know what it was, and neither will your readers. And that's a shame.
Don’t sacrifice the best line your book will never know by not writing today. The work needs you now, and it will need you later, just as you are. Keep showing up no matter what.