Writing Can Equal Loving Every Day

Love Is a Word

At the community college where I taught last spring, my students and I read about twenty of the Writers on Writing essays that were published in the New York Times and that have also been anthologized. The one that I think about most, the one that enters my mind daily, is the one by Walter Mosley, “For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day.” 

This essay begins with refreshing directness, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day.” This sounds difficult. To me, this sounds impossible and if I stopped reading there, maybe I’d just assume I couldn’t be a writer. 

People have all kinds of ways of telling you you’re not a writer, that what you thought was writing isn’t even writing. They’ll say that research isn’t writing and fiddling with punctuation isn’t writing. Some people will say re-reading what you’ve written and tinkering with it aren’t writing. 

And they have so many rules about what must be done to achieve success: write the same time every day or for the same amount of time every day, write a certain number of words a day, write in a certain place each day, write in a different place each day. 

You need to write a whole story in one sitting, a whole novel in a month. Get it down. You can make it good later. You can make it into sentences later. You can determine the plot later, fine tune the characters later. What, then, are you doing now? 

Walter Mosely insists on the importance of writing every day. And this is why he insists: 

Writing a novel is gathering smoke. It’s an excursion into the ether of ideas. There’s no time to waste. You must work with that idea as well as you can, jotting down notes and dialogue. 

The first day the dream you gathered will linger, but it won’t last long. The next day you have to return to tend to your flimsy vapors. You have to brush them, reshape them, breathe into them and gather more. 

It’s because the process, the ideas, the images are fragile. If you depart from them too long, they’ll disappear or at least lose their inviting shapes or aromas. About the everyday part, Mosely is intractable, strict. 

But about the other things, and this is what I love so much about him, about the other parts of writing he is delightfully open, permissive, nurturingly kind: 

It doesn’t matter what time of day you work, but you have to work every day because creation, like life, is always slipping away from you. You must write every day, but there’s no time limit on how long you have to write. 

One day you might read over what you’ve done and think about it. You pick up the pencil or turn on the computer, but no new words come. That’s fine. Sometimes you can’t go further. Correct a misspelling, reread a perplexing paragraph, and then let it go. You have re-entered the dream of the work, and that’s enough to keep the story alive for another 24 hours. 

The next day you might write for hours; there’s no way to tell. The goal is not a number of words or hours spent writing. All you need to do is to keep your heart and mind open to the work. 

Lately I’ve been spending a few minutes writing each morning before I get wrenched in the tight muscle of the day. Some days it involves adding to the character sketches of my main characters. Other days it involves writing a few sentences or paragraphs of my actual “novel.” Sometimes it involves tweaking sentences or deleting them. What feels important to me is that I’m engaging with the work each day. Most days. And that gets the smoke working its way through my thoughts the rest of the day. When next I sit down to write, I have all sorts of ideas I want to try out. 

Over Christmas break I had coffee with my friend Lyall in Seattle. He told me that fifteen minutes is a long time to write. Fifteen minutes is enough these days to keep writing alive in my life. 

What are your rules? What are your secrets?

18 Comments

  • Joe Tynan says:

    “And they have so many rules about what must be done to achieve success: write the same time every day or for the same amount of time every day, write a certain number of words a day, write in a certain place each day, write in a different place each day.

    You need to write a whole story in one sitting, a whole novel in a month. Get it down. You can make it good later. You can make it into sentences later. You can determine the plot later, fine tune the characters later. What, then, are you doing now?”

    Love it. This is how I have to do it. While writing a first draft of anything, I can’t seem to go on unless the last phrase or word is exactly how I want it at that moment. Don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it works for me, sometimes.

    My main focus is to trying to keep consistent with a single idea and developing that all the way through. If I get knocked off track, distracted by the holidays or whatever, it seems tougher to “gather the vapors” again.

    Great post.

    • Shira Richman says:

      Jess Walter says he doesn’t write “drafts.” Instead he “combs,” refining what is on the page (or screen) as he moves forward with what happens next. This technique just might be the way for some of us.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    But sometimes leaving is a good thing. Yes, you lose the dream, but sometimes the thing you’re working on needs to be broken, needs to be re-imagined. Sometimes the dream needs to change. And sometimes you can’t see it very well from so deep inside the dream. For me to reanimate something, I need to break it first. And breaking it is hard. But I have to break it in order to reanimate it. That breaking and reanimating, though, can only come after it already has a shape, after a lot of days, working or living with it fully day after day after day.

    • Joe Tynan says:

      I need to make an effort to try this more, I think. Letting go of that control over a piece, even for a little bit, is rough.

    • Asa Maria says:

      For the same reasons you mention Sam, I need other people to look at my work and tell me how to break it. Which pieces should go away? What pieces needs to be reshaped or added to? I can never see this myself while I’m in the middle of creating.

  • Asa Maria says:

    I would love to write everyday, but unfortunately work and sleep usually gets in the way. If I count thinking about my WIP, then I write every day. I’m in the space right now where I’m just glad I write often enough to be able to say I have a process, as opposed to just tinkering with words every now and then–which is where I was a few years ago.

  • Asa Maria says:

    Oh, and can I just say how much I love your title? Writing = Love -> so very beautiful! It made my day.

  • tanya.debuff says:

    I agree with Asa. What a great way of looking at it–nurturing your writing like a child, giving it some quality time every day, space when you or the writing needs it. Interesting.

  • Jason says:

    I like to try writing every day based simply on my personal experience. There are days when I come home from my 9 to 5 feeling pretty drained, and considering what I do is academic publishing, I often don’t feel like looking at any more text. Yet, because writing is one of the most important things to me, I sit down at my computer, even at my most uninspired and drained and try to type at least one sentence. What I’ve found is that sometimes that sentence is bad, and I leave it at that. More often, however, that one sentence jump starts my brain and leads to a second, I start to get excited and feel inspired and I end up with a full page that wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t disciplined myself to make the effort.

    I believe this interview: http://www.believermag.com/issues/200311/?read=interview_wallace might have been posted previously on a blog entry here, but I think David Foster Wallace puts it succinctly with “What often happens is that when work goes well all my routines and disciplines go out the window simply because I don’t need them, and then when it starts not going well I flounder around trying to reconstruct disciplines I can enforce and habits I can stick to” and Eggers’ response that “a routine is just there for when you’re less inspired” drives the point home.

  • Shawn Vestal says:

    What if you wrote without fail every other day? And let your ideas breathe and expand on the off day? Or every third day, rain or shine, for two hours and thirty-four minutes?

    I used to be super-devoted to the daily whatever. For a while, I had to write 100 words — sometimes I wrote more, sometimes I wrote well, often I wrote dead sentence after dead sentence. At another period, my rule was I had to open the document once a day — even if all I did was look at that first line and despair. The rules were pointless and arbitrary, but it was important in some way to get me past sitting there waiting for a spark.

    These days, I can’t write every day. Or can’t without getting up at 4, and getting up at 4 is not a sustainable vision for me. But I’m working as much as I can, and the work is alive in my head, and I’m dedicated to it. Walter Mosley knows more about this than me, for sure, but I’m hoping there are different ways to be a writer.

    • Jason says:

      “I’m hoping there are different ways to be a writer” is a pretty accurate way to put it. I began my comment chalking things up to “personal experience” because I’ve found this is the way it works for me. But writers are so often an opinionated bunch that we try to tell other people, “This is the only way you can do it, and there can be no other…”

      One question I would put out there, however, to those who argue against writing every day is, “Are you making this argument because this is what you’ve found works for you? Or are you making this argument as an excuse to be undisciplined and lazy or because you’re frightened of what you might put down on the page?”

      One of the most difficult hurdles I’ve found in writing is the fact that everything I do was better in my head than it turns out on paper (makes sense because in my head it’s perfect while perfection is rare if it exists at all in the real world), and once it’s down on paper I have to face up to whatever limitations result from the translation. Back when I didn’t write every day, it wasn’t because I needed time to let things grow or let the inspiration take hold. It was because I could pretend that eventually the idea I was holding onto would become a masterpiece without ever shattering that illusion by actually trying to create that masterpiece.

      Now, to reiterate my point about this being the way it works for me, I’m not saying that every writer out there who puts off writing every day is doing this. But I think the question I’ve mentioned might be a good one to put to yourself if you walk around thinking writing is what you want to do, but you’re hesitant to sit down and actually do it on a regular basis.

      • Shawn Vestal says:

        well, I wouldn’t exactly argue against writing every day. I try to write as much as i can, and writing every day would be best. I just am not sure about the absolute nature of such declarations — a writer writes every day, period.

        I completely agree that you have to overcome the desire to put off writing. Writing when it’s not easy is hugely important. And in a few months, once some stuff clears off my calendar, i’m going to be writing every day again.

        or damn near.

    • Joe Tynan says:

      Shawn, we all pictured you getting up at 3 to write! :)

  • Diane says:

    I feel very inspired by the passion of the Mosley quotations, your article, Shira, and all of these posts!

  • Leland Seese says:

    This is a fascinating conversation, in my mind. I am trying to write poetry. I simply cannot write every day because we have six kids, three of them at home, one of those a very high-needs foster child. And I work full time. However, much of my work is writing (I am a minister…no, I will burst all the stereotype bubbles forming in your heads!). So, I do write, and creatively, on a weekly schedule. But I dream of daily poetry writing. Those of you who write daily…props! And I love Walter Moseley’s novels…btw

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