From 2002 until about 2012, I stopped writing. This is not a boast. I was not shooting for some sort of record, or even a clean decade.
I didn’t finish a poem or an article. I couldn’t manage to put together a sentence, a stanza, a line, an image. Not even a title. And at the time was pretty severely convinced I never would again.
This isn’t a singular story, of course. Plenty of people go through dry spells, or stop writing altogether or believe sincerely they have. But those 10 years did a bit of a number on me. All during college, and then all during my MFA program, and for a few years after that: I was a writer. Sometimes even professionally, although mostly I was a waitress and a bartender and a restaurant manager and a flirt and a lover and a drinking buddy and a perpetual grad student.
But then I wasn’t writing. And so then, of course, I wasn’t a writer.
Even the most rudimentary internet search for writing advice brings up a galaxy of responses, from the precious to the ruthless. They’re usually grouped in an approachable number. Seven, or 10, or maybe 20 tips compiled in a list—though you can also find 21, or 30, or even a list of 50 if you’re in the mood to eat the entire bag of chips.
Many offer wisdom from established authors, and they can be fun to read, in the way that coffee table books are fun to look at for a minute, when you find them at someone else’s house, while you’re waiting for them to come back with a glass of wine for you.
Many of these lists, though, tend to include some version of “Write every day.” Which is the worst. The absolute worst. And more people need to start saying so.
During the non-writing decade, I wasn’t the person I was when I was writing before. I wasn’t in the same body. I wasn’t walking the same world. It’s hard to give a perfect description of what happened. There was the disillusionment of what it meant to be post-MFA. There were several unexpected deaths of people very close, very dear to me. There was a directionlessness. There was what I can only charitably describe as a damaging romantic cohabitating relationship. There was law school.
There was way too much memory, and a drought of desire.
Don Draper goes to the movies to jump-start his stalled imagination. He
edits in his head, and only puts out ideas when he knows they’re good, when they’re something more than just cellular. We see him thinking > we see him writing. But when we see him writing, we know it’s press time.
I’m sure writing every day works for some people. Some MFA classmates of mine would write 20 poems a week. The weekly workshop would usually chew up all 20 and spit out half a poem, with suggestions for revision. This was not me. I was lucky to type up a single poem every other week. Some sculptors, I s’pose, start with a mammoth block of wood and then chainsaw pieces away until they have what they want; some start with nothing and build a thing piece by piece, weld by weld.
A few years after poetry school, I went to advertising school. I reckon I thought that I needed my day job to match my night brain. We were assigned product after product, and for the writers, the jingle was always the same: write 100s of tag lines until you find the one.
Write through the crap, no matter how much of it you produce, no matter what it feels like to see it on the page. Advertising is about throwing everything, anything at the wall, including pieces of the wall, to see what sticks. But what if you can’t live in a room with such filthy floors?
One problem with “Write every day” is that it sets a person up for failure. Every damn day.
The other problem with “Write every day” is its passive-aggressive suggestion that all it ever takes is hard work. If you put in the time, you’ve earned the spoils. Spoiler: it don’t work that way.
“I think there’s value in procrastination. I do a lot of writing in my head, doing the work mentally before I ever commit something to paper. I think our minds are telling us something about what we’re ready to do and not do…You don’t have to write every day to be a good writer, but you can’t not write every day.”—Roxane Gay
“I don’t write every day. I write all the time.“—Beth Bachmann
There is nothing anyone can do to me that my brain slipping me a note that reads “Maybe you can’t write this” can’t do ten times worse. Sometimes it comes in the similar format of “Maybe you shouldn’t write this” or “Maybe you’re not the one to write this.” That’s the demon, and writing every day will not stake its heart.
Friday I drove to Richmond with Allison and Dahlia and Aaron to see Neko Case play at Brown’s Island, an outdoor venue on the James River. I don’t usually hang out socially in Richmond, mainly because I work but don’t live there, and at work I am my work-self. That’s not to say it’s inauthentic: I’m not embarrassed of my work-self at all—I often feel bold and strong and smart and capable in that persona, but it is a kind of performance, and that can be exhausting.
Going to see bands play makes me feel young, and by young I mean free. I
mean unencumbered by the world, or by particular grief. Existing without feeling existential. Neko is one of my favorite musicians & songwriters—I’ve heard her nearly a dozen times now, and it’s always a revelation. That night, as her final encore, she sang “I Wish I Was the Moon Tonight,” the first part of it nearly a cappella, and it was nearly a rapture. It made me wonder why people always locate love in the heart, because it is a gift so obviously attached to the lungs.
But it’s evenings like that one that make me want to tell “Write every day” to fuck off, because that evening, I was completely open, and let the world have its way with me a bit—the coal train and the almost-rain and my dear friends and all the heartbreak and strength and purity embroidered onto hearing Neko sing—the way she sings up and out, often with her eyes closed. Like she’s calling out into the landscape, and who knows what might answer back. That was a draft of something, and it didn’t have a word count or a time limit. I created it by living in it, through it.
It’s still doing its work in me, writing itself onto me, every damn day.