Friday, August 7, 2009

Do you write every day?

I feel like there's a bias, process-wise, in the creative writing community toward people who "write every day" versus those who write in spurts, with prolific periods and fallow periods (I prefer not to think of it as being "blocked"). So when people ask me this question ("Do you write every day?") I have tended to feel a little defensive. The thing is, I don't always have anything worthwhile to say, and when I write on those days, it feels hollow and frustrating and the resulting work sucks—it's an exercise, not a real poem. There's a kind of law operating here: If I don't like writing it, no one is going to like reading it.

But lately I've been looking at this question another way. I usually assume, because I'm a poet, that people are asking "Do you write poetry every day?" And in fact that's probably what they mean. But from now on I'm going to say yes, because I do write every day. It's just not always a poem.

Let's say there's a scale of satisfaction I get from writing, and a poem (a good poem, a poem I'm moved to write as opposed to forcing myself to write) is a 10—meaning I achieve full-on "flow," lose my sense of time passing and awareness of the outside world and so on. This writer's high is as much the reason I'm a poet as the satisfaction of having the finished product of the poem.

So if this is the scale, writing a blog post is probably a 6 at worst, maybe even up to an 8. Writing a good email is around a 6 or 7 too, though just any email not so much. Writing something interesting for work is like a 4 or 5. Reviews are probably in the same range. (Note that a 1 would still be some satisfaction.) I also write with Kathy every day via email. Collaborating doesn't give me the same satisfaction as working on a solo poem because it's so much more diffuse (like time-stop photography) but when we get a good one going it can be a 6 or 7. Fuck even Twitter is a kind of writing and a tweet might be a 2.

My point is that even when I'm not writing poetry, my daily life is still very much about words, arrangement of words, semantics, mode and genre. I look at almost anything I write as an opportunity to write well. I'd probably get satisfaction out of a grocery list if it had a certain style to it, a symmetry ...

Also, I need those fallow periods to cultivate thoughts, ideas, feelings, experiences that can turn into poems. I have thoughts and feelings every day, duh, but it takes an accumulation/aggregation to form the complex emotional scape and actual ideas that go into a satisfying poem.

You know? Is this lame.

I realize it's different for fiction writers because if you never force yourself to write it'll take 35 years to finish your novel. As it is it could easily take me five to write another book ...


  1. We've talked about this at length before, and yes, it's different for fiction writers, though Susan Sontag said she'd go through long periods writing nothing and then suddenly write a novel or essay in a rush. And I agree absolutely that a long break from writing is usually good for me, though I get antsy after a week or so. But I wanted to share this quote from Joyce Carol Oates that I found recently; I'm not a big fan, but I like how she puts this:

    "One must be pitiless about this matter of 'mood.' In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function -- a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind -- then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I've found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes ... and somehow the activity of writing changes everything."

  2. This was discussed a little bit on my blog last year. I'm embarrassed to reread whatever it was I wrote, but I think I feel the same as you.

    Incidentally, I'm going to try NaNoWriMo this year... at least 1,667 words per day (assuming 50,000 is the minimum for a novel). It's gonna be insane.

  3. I write seven days a week almost year round. Didn't write anything much while traveling, as usual for me, and that's very much a relief.

    Sadly, only a small portion of that writing is poetry and fiction, etc. Mostly it's e-mail and endless administrative business.

    Writing as much as I do can have negative effects on my creative efforts. One: writing all the time means I'm often already worn out from writing when I actually have a moment to write a poem. But two: writing about administrative and classroom issues uses a part of my brain that can actually crowd my creative brain out. I not only need time to write a poem, I need to remember what writing a poem is like.

    Of course, by almost anybody's standards I'm pretty prolific, and so I guess it's a good thing that I have as much of a fetish for writing as I obviously have.

  4. Not to be obvious, but I think everyone is different--and I find that my writing patterns change a bit with each project. There are certain kinds of writing that I do every day, though (versions of the many kinds you already mentioned). I'm seconding Mark's comment the ways that writing associated with professional obligations (whether it's email or having to write an article) can have a negative effect on my creativity.

    As other people have suggested, though, writing is a process that includes periods (long or short) of not writing, or of writing things that aren't necessarily for immediate or (even eventual) publication.

    I think that conversations about how much one is or is not writing are on the same level of the yoga conversation about how sore you are--sometimes legit but often thinly veiled bragging or self flagellation.

  5. KLG, re: yoga and soreness, definitely thinly veiled bragging. Reminds me of geeky people bragging about how little sleep they got and how much coffee they must guzzle to start working...