Discipline. Stamina. Routine. I’ve lost count of the number of quotes and advice that tell you that in order to be a writer, you have to write every day. No exceptions, no excuses.
I’ve tried every technique I can think of, but I just can’t do it. My writing is typified by bouts of extreme enthusiasm and lots of words, followed by huge chasms where I stare at the wall and wonder how I ever thought I was a writer.
There’s a bit of a theme, here. My habits and enthusiasms are typified by a short flurry of intense enthusiasm that all-too-quickly wanes. I spent my first year in London drumming almost every weekend, before I met a lovely man, made some new friends and stopped having the impetus to go. At the start of lockdown I threw myself into HIIT workouts with Joe Wicks like the rest of the country, before it dwindled to three times a week, then two, then not at all.
Whether it’s doing yoga, meditating, eating healthily, shaving my legs, it all ends up the same. I look back at old goals and realise I’ve missed them, or moved on entirely. But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I hate to fly in the face of what is apparently accepted wisdom, but I’m pretty sure that when someone tells you there’s only one way to do something, you should be a little suspicious.
But there are many other reasons that a daily word count is impossible. It’s all very well for Stephen King to say that unless you spend six hours a day reading and writing you’re never going to improve as a writer, but who has time for that? Most people write on the side, and being a parent severely limits your free time and energy. Predictably, writers who are also mothers tend to get the worst deal (yes, even Jodi Picoult, as this article discusses).
But I’ve quit my job (unfortunately, like many other teachers). It seems there’s even less of a reason (excuse?) not to have a solid 1,000 words under my belt before I pick the small one up from nursery.
But I wonder whether it needs to be like that at all. I suspect that a creative life is most likely to be a bit erratic. Everyone from Julia Cameron, Elizabeth Gilbert, the meticulous Joanna Penn and the lovely lot over at Lightbox Originals tell us that we need to ‘fill the well.’ That is, do stuff outside your comfort zone in order to generate some actual ideas so you have something to write about.
Could I have been working on a short story when I painted a picture of spring? Absolutely. Might I have got through a huge amount of editing my novel instead of finishing my jigsaw? Without a doubt. Only I have a sneaking suspicion that when I did get down to it, what came out was not only better, but it also came easier.
I can’t tell you the amount of days I’ve said ‘no, it’s my writing day,’ sitting stubbornly at my desk for five hours, trotting out a measly 300 words that I don’t even like. What if I’d gone for walk? Done an online dance class? Learnt how to sing ‘Let It Go’ in sign language? (Which, by the way, looks like great fun).
Instead of being a slave to the word count, I try to do one thing each day that ‘keeps my hand in.’ If it’s a day where I’m looking after my toddler, I’ll try to scribble some thoughts on my day once she’s in bed. If she naps, I might try and read a short story (Electric Lit sends one to you every week, handy). At the weekend, I might just talk through an idea I’ve had or take a picture of something that I find interesting. As long as there’s a little spark at the back of my head, ready to light up the next time I have the available time/energy/impetus.
In an ideal world, we’d all be sleek, disciplined machines who can consistently stick to exactly the same workout routine/diet/creative process for years on end (I do know people like this). But I’m just really, really not like that. To try and crowbar myself into this rigid mould would take all the joy out of writing.
So here’s to the fly-by-night enthusiasts. Those who flit delightedly from one fascinating thing to another. Think how much more of the world they get to see than everyone else. Keep your hand in your creative life, obviously. But don’t let it get to the point where it bores you. I’ll be over here, learning how to juggle, filling my well.
Do you try to stick to a word count? How do you ‘fill your well’? Please let me know!
Thanks for reading