On Not Writing Every Day
Contributor
Written by
Rita Arens
January 2013
Contributor
Written by
Rita Arens
January 2013

I am a writer who doesn't write every day.

There are very few of us, the writers who will admit publicly to not valuing daily writing. Not just not doing it or scheduling it, but not seeing the point at all.

Let me back up. I know plenty of successful writers who are much more disciplined than I am. They get up early or stay up late or tap away while their kids leap around them. They have word counts and time limits, and they produce good books -- even if they have day jobs-- at a fairly consistent pace.

I won't do it.

My young adult novel, THE OBVIOUS GAME, comes out on February 7, two days after my thirty-ninth birthday and about twenty-two years after I developed a pretty bad case of anorexia. My 15-year-old protagonist, Diana, has a mom with cancer, a wrestler boyfriend, and yes, an increasingly serious battle with anorexia.

It took me at least ten years to recover from my eating disorder mentally, even though I looked pretty normal after three. Here's what I learned during my recovery: I don't deal well with "shoulds." I am, however, very good with self-motivation.

I worked on THE OBVIOUS GAME once or twice a week for two years, then kept revising it as needed throughout the process of finding an agent and a publisher. I spent a lot of time thinking about the story and my characters and the scene I was working on between my writing sessions, but I only sat down with that intent maybe 120 times in two years, sometimes for an hour and sometimes for six. If I'd put a daily word count or time limit on myself, I know I would've spent far more time worrying about when I was going to write than what I would be writing about.

When I was sick, all I could think about was when I was going to eat and exercise next, to the extent that those thoughts crowded out everything else. That happens to me very easily when I adopt rigid daily goals for myself.

Ironically, the only way I can effectively write is to not thinking about actual writing unless I am actually doing it at the time.

Right now I'm focusing on getting people to give THE OBVIOUS GAME a look, but in a few months I'll be getting back to the novel I started about six months ago. I learned a lot about myself while working on THE OBVIOUS GAME. I won't be giving myself a deadline to finish, a daily word count or a daily time limit. I've learned I can easily write words, but if they suck, what's the point? After one awful day when I cut 10,000 words in two hours, I now much prefer to have thought things through beforehand, then write in sporadic but more productive bursts. That works for me.

Other people may find value in daily goals, but I can't think of anything more toxic to my writing brain.

Let's be friends

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Comments
  • Rita Arens

    I have been thinking for a while now I should start on my new novel now that THE OBVIOUS GAME is out, but I'm realizing all the guest posts and interviews I've done to support TOG have sapped my words for the moment, so I'm giving myself the month of February to just think about it.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I love this post -- I think my writing too and then have explosions. Recently I was prevented from my daily writing for a full week, and was so discouraged/depressed, but as my mind worked on the chapter to come, I realized that what I would have written had I had the time that week would have been totally different than what it will be now that I gave it more time to percolate in my head. Not sure what to make of that, but it's interesting...

  • Julie Luek

    There's a part of me that really gets what you're saying here. I have to be really careful with self-imposed goals-- they quickly become binding rules I have to obey, and soon I'm locked in a prison of heeding the rules instead of finding joy in the living. Good for you for finding a pace and way of writing that allows you to operate in freedom and joy. 

  • Daphne Q

    Hi, Rita:

        I admire your ability to have this schedule. I have to write every day. It's the way I am.

        Congrats on your book, too!

    DQ

  • Karyne Corum

    I'm with you. I have tried various methods for writing goals. Each one a kind suggestion from another writer. I have found that when I get the bug, I will write till I'm exhausted and what I produce is significantly better than when I force myself to write. What I try to set for myself is a loose run through, sort of like a movie or play run through, of scenes then I work on each scene till it's what I want. Each writer has what I think is a personal playbook of how their craft likes to come out and play, it's like a Ink and Paper or Keyboard DNA stamp.  No two ones are alike.

  • Rita Arens

    I love the idea of a Ta Da list, Adela! I need to make one of those.

  • I can hardly wait to get my hands on your book, Rita.  You give me encouragement that my pace is the best pace for me.  I do set goals and have lists, Although I prefer the Ta-da list (list what I've done) over the To-do list (list what I must do.)

  • Rita Arens

    I don't know that daily goals are a men vs. women thing, but that's an interesting way of looking at it! I am such a listmaker normally, so this is actually me attempting to be less structured in my writing life.

  • Cathy Cimato

    Hi Rita,

    I've had a problem with the idea of writing every day and setting word count goals as well. It's never really worked for me either. I don't think it means you're less of a writer if you actually think about things in your head first before you write. You're still writing, you're just writing it out in your head.

  • Patricia A. Watts

    I,too,am a writer who doesn't write every day but like Kristen I "think" my writing every day and then write by explosions. Sometimes I write for 12 hours straight because the ideas won't stop exploding. I think as women we spend a lot of our time trying to be what others need us to be--the supportive wife, the attentive daughter, the caring friend, the responsible employee, the super mom. At 61,I am learning to pay attention to what is mine and not feel bad about it--and my creative process is mine. Mark Twain was a disciplined writer who wrote a minimum number of words every day. I know there are countless ways in which I can improve as a writer but I also know I am never going to be Mark Twain, and, more importantly, I don't need to be Mark Twain.

  • Elizabeth Yon

    Leslie, I think you may be right about daily writing being a man's invention. I was sort of thinking the same thing. I think the way men and women approach writing is very different (this is a generalization, I know), but I don't know of any how-to writing books that deal with the dynamic. Hence the guilt we feel about not writing daily. Just a theory. I once had a doctor who told me he didn't believe in "me" time (when I lamented that my stress level was partly due to lack of it). I had to wonder who in his household took care of cooking, cleaning, kids, laundry, etc. My guess is, not him!

  • Kristen Elise

    I think the larger theme you present here is, to what extent does putting pressure on yourself help and to what extent does it hurt?  This is totally different for different people.  Some thrive under pressure and accomplish the most when they are already too busy.  Others just don't want the pressure and operate best when they view writing as fun rather than as another job.  I, too, am more sporadic with my schedule.  

    Also, there are many times when I'm "writing" internally, creating a scene for my novel or a blog post, thinking about a character's motives and development, etc. - totally away from my computer.  I can solidify things internally to a pretty good degree, and then sit down at the computer when I have time and bang it out pretty quickly, because it has already been thought through, at my leisure, without that annoying cursor blinking before my eyes, saying, "do something...do something...do something..."

  • Leslie Lehr

    Thank you! Yes, thinking time is important! And daily writing was invented by men, don't you think? That's why I hate Stephen King (check out all ten reasons on my Lehrlist blog at www.leslielehr.com) I was so nervous to admit this, and your reasons are so good! Bravo.

  • PM Kester

    Thanks for your very honest post.  I have trouble writing daily.  I mean I set goals and alarms, etc but if its not in me to do it - I'm not forcing it!

  • Rita, Thanks for your post. I had a friend who once said that should was a four letter word. I'm like you. I write steadily, but not every day. My latest project is always in the back of my mind no matter what I'm doing. Lately, I've been directing plays. That takes an enormous amount of time and effort. I When I'm doing that, I write when I can fit in little bits of time. Who says we all have to write our books like common wisdom says? I hope you get a great response to your book. Thanks again.

  • Amy Dionne

    Oh thank goodness - others who are the same with regards to not writing every day. I find that anytime I try to follow through on what I "should" be doing, my muse runs in the other direction. If I don't try to put her in a cage, she hovers around constantly. Word count, outlines, discipline all derail my writing until the first draft is complete and then I can let my editor side kick in and take over. Anyone else feel like they have two writing sides that never quite agree with each other?

  • Maureen Dunphy

    I wish you all the best with your book, Rita!  As a long-time writing instructor and writer, I've learned that writers are just  different, at a very basic level.  If I don't write for three days because I have a sinus infection, I know it will take about three more days before I'm back in the groove.  I know that's the kind of writer I am.  I wish I could think about my plot, characters, even the scene I'm currently working on when I'm away from the computer; I don't feel like I even know what I'm thinking unless I'm writing (here's where I could feel "deficient"). I do trust my subconscious is working on my writing projects.  But consciously?  Not so much.  I think the key is learning one's own needs and rhythms and being okay with, trusting, whatever they are.  Some writers who write just about every day--like me--don't have huge reservoirs of self-discipline; it's just the only way they can get a story told.  For me, the daily goal is not the thing I focus on; keeping my toes in the water just makes the swim less taxing.  Also I try to keep three writing projects (some of which will never have a life beyond my computer) ongoing, so that while I may not add words to each one every day, I perform a quick "project check-in" at the start of a writing session and remember what I was doing, where I am with each.  That's about as far as the discipline goes.  And then to paraphrase writer Heather Sellers, in my daughters' vernacular, "I (try to) dare to suck."  Something else, I've found helps the kind of writer I am.  Or as Anne Lamott would say, I need to get get it down, so I can fix it up.

  • Caryl

    yeah- I have a tough time with "shoulds," too. Thanks for letting us know we're not alone if we don't write everyday.

  • Kelsey Berryman

    I understand this too. When I was in college studying writing, ironically, there was one semester where I didn't write at all. But I was still living with my characters and the plots that I mulled over then were some of my most fruitful. I just feel whatever works is what should be done. Some people write everyday, some not so much. As long as you are still writing. Good luck on the YA!

  • Sari Maree Smith

    Thanks for sharing this, Rita! I think it's a really good idea to not focus on "not writing" which is what I mostly go, with guilt and shame to go with it. I have published a lot of stories over many years but don't actually have a book out. I also have a very demanding life, though I retired from teaching writing a few years ago. Between arthritis and other auto-immune conditions, plus supporting my daughter to bring up my disabled grand-daughter, I don't have much "worry free" time. Pain is sometimes an issue too. I'm going to take a leaf out of your book, take the pressure off and get back to the joy of the writing!!

  • Rita Arens

    My writing professor called thinking about writing "couch time" and reinforced that it is important, too, which I clearly internalized. :)

  • Patricia Robertson

    You are not alone!  I read somewhere that there are some writers who write their first draft in their heads before putting anything on paper. I'm one of these. I write and rewrite in my brain before I put anything down. I don't write every day. When I'm ready to write, I write. I don't beat myself up for not writing every day. It doesn't do me any good when I do, just leaves me feeling depressed and dries up any creativity. 

  • Aithne Jarretta

    Rita,

    Thank you for sharing your writing experiences. In today's fast paced world we see so many statements about how writers should be. Some of those comments are good... others can be self-destructive if we try to follow them. The best we can do is follow our own time clock and produce the stories we want to express. Each writer is an individual and that's the beauty of the universe. For a long time I had health issues and it affected my production. Now days, I write when I can and I'm completely guilt free about it. Guess I'm trying to say don't feel guilty about your methods. Instead, CONGRATULATIONS! on your coming release. Best of luck to you. ;D ~ Aithne

  • Calandra Coone

    Thank you for sharing this! I'm trying to develop better habits when it comes to writing consistently, but the bottom line is, when there's nothing there, there's nothing there.  I can't force it no matter how hard I try.  I think about writing all the time. Every time someone asks what I'm doing, my response is, "thinking about writing" I do realize that no one will ever get to read my book if I don't actually write it, but sometimes the thought process is just as important.

  • Elizabeth Yon

    Sometimes I write everyday. Sometimes a week passes, or even >gulp< two weeks. But on the days I am not putting words on paper, I am thinking about my story. I'm mulling it over, puzzling out plot twists and character development, getting Aha! moments. It's cooking. When I can see the scene or scenes complete, I feel like writing again and I get it all down.  In between all of this, I live life. This is the way it works for me, and I know it works this way, but I do still feel a bit of guilt about not being a daily workhorse.