One of the most beloved chestnuts of writing instruction is that you should write every day. There are many reasons that writing advice-givers (of which I am one, obviously) give for this advice.
But recently, some friends of mine, writer and novelist Esme Weijun Wang and writer Jacqui Shine conversed about how “write every day” advice has really terrible ramifications for a certain group of people in particular: those with physical and/or psychiatric disabilities. Some people—like them and me—simply can’t write every day.
Does that make us failures at writing? Answer: No.
Yesterday, for example, was a day I couldn’t write. My brain was a fog because I woke up with a migraine. I could barely see my laptop screen. My mood was terribly low. I answered urgent emails only and did all work that could be done by rote—invoicing freelance clients, entering travel receipts into bookkeeping software, and other work that I save up for just the sort of days when I can’t write.
I anticipate these bad days because they’re so common. I save rote work for those days. After all, not every day can be a writing day.
As a creative writing teacher, I never tell my students to write every day. It would be hypocritical of me.
The ironic part of all of this is that I’m often told by others how “productive” I am. Sometimes, though, the words don’t sound very complimentary. I remember learning about the criticism of Joyce Carol Oates’s overly productive writing output, as though she spat out too many books for them to be any good. Stephen King mentioned Oates in his own writing on this subject for the New York Times in 2015, in which he noted, “No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.”
Nowadays, we, as a society, are guided by the nose by the cult of productivity. Productivity is the modern-day incarnation of the Puritan work ethic with a dash of iTech thrown in.
I do not like being called “so productive,” especially when the person uses the vaguely judgmental tone that implies that I’m churning out mindless, crappy writing in vast quantities. That’s not a compliment; that’s an insult. Even when the “so productive” comment is a legitimate compliment, I feel like I need to make an appointment with my doctor because maybe I’m manic and I can’t tell and I need to change my medication and is that why I’m writing so much lately help I CAN’T TELL.
Worshiping in the cult of productivity is bad for writers because it is bad for human beings. And if you are a human who also happens to have a reason that you can’t write every day—because you have a disability like me and my friends do, or because of some family or work responsibility, or whatever—that does not meet that you are not a good writer or can’t become one. Some suggest that writing every day is actually bad writing advice, per se.
So here’s what I suggest: let’s try really hard not to confuse productivity with discipline.
And discipline is what this is all about. Theri Pickens, a professor, writer, and colleague of mine, helped me summarize my thoughts on this point, and I appreciate it. She pointed out that I was really talking about the “illusory concept of productivity and how that’s different from discipline.” I said I owed her credit for my thesis statement. (Did you know that writing is often a collaborative activity? Now you know. Let’s explode myths all over the place today.)
You do not have to write every day to have discipline. You do not have to “be productive” to have discipline. To be honest, I don’t really know what “productive” looks like. Who sets that metric? Who decides what productive means? How many books means you are productive? How many blog posts and tweets?
So what does it mean to have discipline if we’re not focusing on being productive?
Only you know what having discipline means for you. For me, having discipline means setting goals, and doing my best to meet those goals, and having compassion for myself when I do not. Discipline, to me, also means regular practice. But regular doesn’t have to be every day. Regular only has to be regular enough to show that I am making a commitment to yourself.
Because we are what matters. Not someone else’s opinion of us, of our productivity, or of how often we write.
Do you write every day? Why or why not? What does "having discipline" mean for you?
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Katie Rose Guest Pryal, J.D., Ph.D., is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Entanglement Series, which includes ENTANGLEMENT, LOVE AND ENTROPY, and CHASING CHAOS, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to QUARTZ, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE (late, lamented) TOAST, DAME MAGAZINE, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. She teaches creative writing through Duke University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and leads the Village Writers Workshops of Chapel Hill. She also works as a writing coach and developmental editor when she’s not writing her next book.
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