If you’re a writer, you’re constantly hearing admonitions about how disciplined you must be in order to be successful. I’m not talking about the craft of writing here, just about self-control.
Rule #1: Put your butt in a chair. Dorothy Parker famously said, “writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”
Rule #2: Write for a certain number of hours each day. Flannery O’Connor, a believer in habits, said she wrote for two hours a day, no matter what. She refused to let anything interfere with that precious time.
Rule #3: Write a minimum number of words per day. Lisa See counsels aspiring writers to write 1,000 words before doing anything else each day.
This all sounds good. After all, according to Malcolm Gladwell, you need to put in 10,000 hours doing something before you can master it, so it stands to reason that you need to be pretty disciplined to get to a level of mastery in writing.
Also, sticking to rules and rituals can increase your fluency, power, and control according to The National Writing Project. “The writer who sets (and sticks to) prescribed beginnings and endings can say with assurance, ‘This will end soon.’”
But you know what? I just don’t like being restricted by set rules. And I don’t think I’m alone.
Take the butt in chair thing. Mark Twain and Edith Wharton allegedly liked to lie down to write. Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus liked to stand up. As for me, I do some of my best writing when I’m nowhere near a screen or a pen. Often times it’s while I’m walking the dog, and occasionally it’s (gulp) when I’m driving. Granted, I don’t always remember everything verbatim by the time I get home and actually begin to write, but its close enough. The point here is that it’s far easier to process a writing problem when I’m doing pretty much anything but staring at the page. Which could probably be said about processing many problems in life. When the kids were young, my husband and I used to discuss parenting issues while tossing a ball back and forth to one another. Worked wonders.
As for number of hours per day, I say good for Flannery. And good for anyone who has a regulated, routine-oriented life. I’m not saying routines are bad; as any parent knows, routines can be the key to order in the household. I admit sometimes my life is so chaotic that it precludes successful writing. But I also like having flexibility in the hours I spend writing, especially if that flexibility mirrors what my writing demands. If I’m working on an important scene (which, by definition, all scenes are), why would I want to limit my time there? Why would I quit mid-scene because my two hours were up? Which means, if I don’t have the time to make it through the scene today, I’m probably not going to work on it at all. I’ll just find something else to write in the time I have available. Being a writer is like being a chef. Would you say you’d only cook for one or two hours a day? Doesn’t that depend on whether you’re making Thanksgiving dinner for twenty or a PB&J sandwich for yourself?
Number of words? Sorry, but I don’t get that one at all. If I’m creating the first draft of a piece, why wouldn’t I want to just let my fingers fly across the keyboard, oblivious to word count? And when I’m in revision mode (which is where I spend the bulk of my writing time), number of words is far less relevant than whether I made it through an important goal. Again, this mimics the way life works. If I wanted to develop a relationship in real life, would I set goals or limits regarding the number of words I exchange with my friend? No, I would not. I treat my characters the same as my friends. Except that I don’t send them emails (usually).
I read that Charles Dickens had a pre-writing ritual to go out and get himself lost. Whether that’s true, or whether he just wandered the streets of London for inspiration and so happened to lose his way, isn’t clear. The point is that he did something that was free and unstructured. It seems to me that, when you let yourself go, you are more likely to invoke your creative muse and less likely to face the dreaded inertia of writer’s block than if you sit down with rules hanging over your head like an interrogator’s light bulb.
Recently I had the good fortune to visit the tropics, and each day after getting out of bed I went to my chair in my pajamas and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. I guess you could say this was a new tropical routine, but I didn’t have a set goal in mind in terms of hours or words. I just planned to write. And each day, shortly after sitting down, a gobbling cacophony arose just outside my door: wild turkeys were defecating on the lanai.
This was unsanitary, unsightly, exasperating, and I found myself racing out the door in my pajamas, yelling and flapping my arms at them until they’d finally take the hint and wander off, at least until the next day. And then I’d return to my chair, remarkably energized. Those few minutes of unplanned exercise and triggered emotional outburst did wonders for my writing.
Who needs routine and structure? I certainly didn’t.
Until the day came when the turkeys didn’t show. I sat there in my pajamas, waiting. Rubbed my eyes and waited some more. For turkeys. And for words. And guess what? My writing efficiency declined immensely without those damn birds.
So now I have to ask: were the world’s great writers right all along? Are rules and routines really critical to creative success?
My answer: yes and no. Yes, there is something to be said about structure, about knowing what is coming and what is expected of oneself. One of our family’s routines, when the kids were quite young, was discussing the day’s planned activities. Even if every day brought a new experience, that morning discussion provided just enough structure to let the kids feel grounded for the rest of the day.
But no. Structure isn’t the be all, end all. And I’m not just talking about writing here. Again, I’m talking about life. Sometimes it just feels good to let everything go and see where your mind and muse take you. Kick off the shoes, strip off the bra, set down the pen. Run outside. Flap your arms and yell.
Just watch out for any fowl land mines on the lanai.