On Writing Habits (& Letting Go of Guilt)
It’s been a busy time here. Last weekend I was in New York for the PEN America World Voices Festival, which was an honor and a joy. I mean, look at this crew! Lucky me, getting to talk and laugh with—and listen to, and learn from—these brilliant people.
I’m wrapping up book tour for You Could Make This Place Beautiful, with just a couple of May events left. I want to highlight one, which is local to me, especially because the local launch at the Drexel Theatre in April sold out. On Tuesday, May 23, I’ll be in conversation with my dear friend and fellow poet Ruth Awad at the WOSU studios thanks to a terrific indie bookstore, Prologue Books. (Thanks, Gary!) If you’re in the Columbus area—or if it’s drivable for you—I hope you’ll join us.
One of my favorite parts of book events is the audience Q&A. My favorite questions are usually the ones about craft and process—how the sausage gets made—and one question I’ve gotten again and again is about my writing habits. So I thought I’d talk about that here, Dear Lifers. We all need a pep talk now and then.
For those of you facing a hectic day, here’s the TL;DR: I’m always writing, but I don’t sit down to write every day.
Maybe you don’t write every day either, and you feel a little bad about that. Maybe you’ve heard or read that “real writers” sit down at the same time every day and write for a specific amount of time, or write a specific number of words, before they stop. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of writing every day—whether it’s morning pages, or journaling, or just getting a messy draft done.
I love the idea, but I don’t do it myself, and I try not to feel guilty about that. Not everyone has the time, space, and support available to make writing daily realistic. What if you’re working multiple jobs, caregiving for children or aging parents, or commuting long distances for work or school?
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When my children were very young, I was rarely left alone long enough to shower without a small human talking to me on the other side of the shower curtain—“Mom, think up an animal and I’ll try to guess what it is!” Left alone long enough to write daily? I think not.
I sometimes wrote when they went to bed at night, sometimes when they napped. As they got older, I could find writing time when they were at school, but I also wanted to take care of myself in other ways. Taking care of myself means not using all non-caregiving, non-teaching, non-working-for-clients time on my own poems and essays. I need balance, too—lunch with a friend, or a long walk or run, or frankly, two episodes of some show I’m binging, as a treat.
Taking care of myself is taking care of the writer in me. And as I talk to friends, walk, run, even watch TV, I’m thinking and experiencing. I’m making connections. I’m not at my computer and I may not even write anything down (in my notebook or my phone), but thinking is part of the writing process. Yes, thinking counts. Inspiration can strike at the unlikeliest of times.
Earlier this year I moderated a book event for Lee Martin in support of his beautiful new novel, The Glassmaker’s Wife. He said something about research tricking you into thinking that you’re actually writing, when really all of that work is “pre-writing.” But I’m all about the pre-writing. It’s an essential part of the writing process. It counts. We’re all filling the tank with gas, then revving the engine a little, before we speed off.
Still, even knowing that thinking and living and all of the groundwork we call “pre-writing” counts, we might still feel guilty if we’re not putting pen to page, or fingers to keyboard, every single day. We’re remarkably adept at feeling guilty about things. Doubting ourselves. Beating ourselves up. Questioning our own dedication and work ethic.
So if you still have that “you should be writing every day” voice in your ear, do it! Write every day if you can. But if you can’t, for whatever reason—whether you’re feeling depleted or uninspired, or life’s rhythms and demands aren’t conducive to it right now—I’m inviting you to try this instead: Commit to doing at least one thing in service of your writing every day.
This one thing can be a small thing. You might scrawl some notes in a notebook or revise an existing piece. You might chip away at a book proposal. You might research journals or presses, query an agent, or submit work. You might request books at your local library for a project or do some background reading. Yes, reading counts. Thinking counts. And since I find that I do some of my best thinking in the shower, yes, showering counts, too.
Love & solidarity—