I Don’t Write Enough Because…
I don’t write enough because…
I have a day job—teaching.
I have no unscheduled time.
I have too many e-mails to answer.
I need to know what all of my Facebook friends are doing.
Writing is lonely and boring.
It’s always easier to come up with explanations of why we can’t write than it is to actually write. My personal explanation: I can write only while sitting at a particular table in a particular coffee shop, when there’s a certain kind of music on that reminds me of my misspent youth, and it can’t be too crowded but it also can’t be too empty, and the decaf has to be the exact right temperature, and the barista has to be wearing his sailor-striped shirt, and I have to have gotten at least seven hours of sleep (not nine, because then I’ll have a sleep hangover), and I have to be wearing my jeans with the holes at the knee.
OK—that would be my rationalization if I allowed the nutty little voice in my head to run the show. As a longtime runner who has finished marathons and ultramarathons, I’ve had to learn to smack down the nutty little voice in my head that supposedly speaks for my body. If I listened to that voice, I’d lie around and read novels all day rather than go for a run.
I’ve had to use the same force to quash that voice when it tries to enumerate all the reasons I can’t write. I do have some neurotic habits that I cling to more than others (I prefer to write in the morning; I prefer to write at a coffee shop), but I know that I can write in the evening at home if I have to. Sometimes I have to.
Frequently I talk with academics who feel they don’t write enough. Even people with a tenure blade dangling over their cervical vertebrae don’t usually have to reach far to find justifications for not getting stuff done. I don’t want to use the word “excuses,” because they are often valid and real problems, and I don’t want to minimize how hard it is to have something to say and find the right way to say it.
Friends of mine who are in the creative-writing field (such a strange misnomer; what writing, I ask, is not creative?) mostly don’t have a hard time finding the discipline to get the writing done. It’s the most important thing we do—even those of us who have day jobs as professors—because it often goes to the deepest issues of identity. It’s not only what we do but who we are. If we are not writing, we are nothing. For many academics, however, writing is what comes after the real and engaging work. It’s like having to wash the dishes after preparing an elaborate meal.
What can scholars learn from other kinds of writers to help them put words on the page?
Make it routine. Ensure that writing is a scheduled part of your day. Figure out when you can fit it in—though it may mean giving up a shower or making baked Alaska—and protect that time.
Give yourself interim deadlines. The idea of having to write a whole book can overwhelm. What if you have to write only a chapter? I’d never run a marathon if I thought I had to run 26.2 miles. Instead I run one mile at a time. You can do anything for eight or nine minutes.
Have a goal. Maybe it’s 500 words a day. Maybe it’s two hours in the chair. Decide and commit. Perhaps you will have to get up on Sunday mornings at 5 and work until you hear the kids screaming. Sleep, like showers and baked Alaska, is overrated.
Don’t buy into your own neuroses. If you think you can write only in the morning, prove yourself wrong by writing at midnight.
Use competition as a motivator. Which of your frenemies do you want to beat?
Get a complete draft done, even if it’s terrible. I love tinkering, refining, rethinking, and cutting. Having something to edit is my reward for churning out a crappy first draft.
Stop when you know exactly what will come next. That can make it easier to start again, even if it means quitting mid- (see, I know exactly where to pick up).
Enlist help. Make a writing date. Join a writing group. Writing is lonely and boring. But it can help to have support. Or accountability.
Finally, say out loud your own particular and peculiar reasons for not being able to write enough. You probably won’t need someone else to tell you there are ways to work around them. Your excuses—I mean, reasons—may even begin to sound a little nutty.
Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.