One Handful at a Time: Reflections of Daily Writing

If I’ve learned anything in quarantine, it’s that I can still polish off a gallon of goldfish crackers like I’m back in middle school with nothing but a weekend of gaming ahead of me. It’s done in fist-fulls, usually distracted by some kind of screen, until I’m so numb to the sensation of eating that my mouth feels empty without twenty crackers jammed in my cheeks. In mere minutes, my fingernails scrape the aluminum bottom. Then I dump the remaining salt dust into my mouth like the desperate fiend I am. Another carton, decimated. It’s interesting how fast it goes when you’re taking it bit by bit, and that notion extends beyond snacking. 

As of April 27th, I have written every day for an entire year. 

Throughout that time, I’ve written 16 short stories, 20 poems, 11 thought pieces, four cold case articles, reworked a whole lot of chapters in a book I’ll probably never finish and three chapters of an entirely new book I don’t want to get too excited about. I’ve been seriously writing since July 2017, but daily writing has transformed my outlook on the practice. And because writing every day still hasn’t made me hate writing (and also because I like to hear the clicky patter of keys), I’m going to be talking about what I learned, how I cheated, and why most accomplishments (even snacking) are done in bite-sized quantities.

Me every night during quarantine

For some reason, a bunch of people believe that routine is the enemy to creativity, like your muses will go on strike the second you try to schedule time to be creative. That’s false; they’re strike for better pay and working conditions. Anyways, I still had inspired moments throughout this year, which is why I take a notebook with me everywhere. About a month ago, I got up at 3 AM after not being able to sleep for a few hours, and hammered out a story in one sitting. I also wrote one chapter at around midnight last week and another at 2 AM sometime earlier this week. I happen to thrive writing at night, but I’ll get to that later. 

Before you assume you’re going to turn out a book each month by writing daily, recognize time devoted to writing does not necessarily equate production or quality. There are plenty of times I stare at a blank screen before writing about how peeved I am that I don’t know what to write. Though inspiration doesn’t hit me like a freight train every time I crack open my laptop, it does happen a lot more than it used to when I wrote semi-regularly. Many accomplished writers worked daily; Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut all belong to that elite club. Stephen King himself turns out ten pages each day, but his regiment is pretty insane and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not already in the practice of daily writing. 

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Pulitzer Prize nominee, Karen Russel, said of her daily writing:

“I think it’s bad so much of the time. The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare. But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy to despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly.

Sitting down at the keyboard or with my notebook made me more comfortable with writing even if I hated the words on the screen. I was a pretty regular writer before making the commitment in 2019, but when I started writing in 2017, I felt like I could only write when I was inspired. I would spend any moment otherwise editing those inspired bits to death. It was like overworking chocolate until the fat separated. I approach writing with a lot of insecurity. Heck, I approach life with a lot of insecurity. My biggest hurdle to writing isn’t creating characters, writing dialogue, or building magic systems; it’s climbing over my unrealistic expectations of perfection. Incorporating writing into a daily routine hasn’t obliterated these insecurities, but exposure made them identifiable, and eventually, expected. I know I’m going to be uncomfortable, so I can get that first draft over with and mentally prepare for the self-loathing when I read it later.

My biggest hurdle to writing isn’t creating characters, writing dialogue, or building magic systems; it’s climbing over my unrealistic expectations of perfection.

Familiarity with my hangups, and writing in general, emboldened how I write. Thinking out loud with talk-to-text programs, writing in pen, and using apps like Fighters Block have helped me write faster than I have time to doubt myself. If you find yourself paralyzed when picking up a pen, know it’s pretty common, experiment with different writing methods, and write on.

Daily writing also taught me about my work ethic. Silence is golden, but isolation is a complete treasure. If I’m anxious about what I’m putting on the page, my brain searches for every escape route and people are fabulous distractions. Waking up early to write before work does not bode well with me because I’m prone to staying up late in thought. I’d rather capitalize on my natural tendencies. Learn when and how you work best and try to reasonably adjust your environment. Before the quarantine when the world was still spinning, my designated time to write was after work. I’d get comfortable write for a while, then make dinner while listening to a podcast before my spouse would get home. Of course, those are ideal conditions and don’t happen accidentally, especially under quarantine. Get creative in your approaches. Ask for ten minutes alone if you’re in dire need of space. No coffeehouse? Make a frilly coffee, search Youtube for cafe ambiance and turn up the volume. Write in your bathroom, your garage, even your car if the yellow wallpaper in your workspace has driven you mad.

Ten minutes to midnight. That still counts, right?

Of course, abiding by a code of conduct can create a mindset of abiding rules rather than honoring the intentions behind the rules. The boundaries of a new diet, workout regiment or budget simultaneously create the possibility of bending the rules, or even cheating. While I wrote everyday; not every session was “productive.” There were many nights I’d glance at the clock and watch it click by, start writing once I’d hit 11:50 PM only to shut my computer at midnight because, technically, I had written that day. I didn’t see huge benefits from that kind of writing because technicality alone is not a great measurement of success. However, the practice of writing daily required me to stop, exist in my head, and work with the blank page in front of me. That alone made it worth it. And even “cheat” writing was better than no writing, which is what would have happened had I not made the goal in the first place. I require a certain amount of structure and accountability, otherwise I’ll never finish anything because it won’t ever meet my standards. Knowing this, I paired “write daily” with another benchmark I’d already been practicing: finish one short story a month. This second goal pushed me to finishing projects, but day-to-day, I was mostly left to my own devices and free to work on whatever inspired me. Pairing goals gave me enough room to be creative while also holding me accountable.

“Cheat” writing was better than no writing, which is what would have happened had I not made the goal in the first place.

I started writing poetry this year because sometimes I’d sit down to work on my fiction, but my e m o t i o n s would get in the way. At first I’d stuff them down and get to work, but they’d pop back out like Jack-in-the-Box toys until I’d be too distracted to write. Then I had this crazy idea about writing about my e m o t i o n s  and boom; poetry was invented. At least for me. I didn’t call it poetry at first because I had this preconception that poetry had to fit a certain style and structure and what I was doing didn’t look like any poetry I knew of. But after writing about a dozen or so poems, some of them featured on this blog, I had to figure out a way to describe what I was doing. “Poetry” just made sense.

Part of the shift in content was because I began receiving counseling a few months after I started writing daily, but the change was predominantly because I was spending time in my thoughts in ways I never had before. If you’re one of those people that needs a reason to do everything, I can vouch that my fiction has definitely improved after writing poetry; I write deeper and more vividly. Sometimes I just need to shake myself out of my system before I can step into someone else’s head. Poetry can do that. But if you need to rationalize every action, I encourage you to write words that will never see a screen besides your own. Writing for yourself as an audience can be much more difficult, humbling even, than writing for a hypothetical audience whose reactions you’ve already anticipated.

As you approach the never-ending, quiet implosion that has become our apocalypse, know that big changes often happen over time. You don’t have to finish a book by the end of quarantine, reading or writing. You don’t need to nurture a sourdough starter, learn a new language, fix up your house, or catch up on all those series your coworkers brought up every lunch break. If you decide to do anything of those things; know that little steps are more tangible to an overwhelmed brain than abstract, big ideas. It’s better to do something badly than to never do it at all, at least in most situations. Surgery not included. Or piloting a plane. Just think first. Bite off just enough to swallow without choking and focus on each day for exactly what it is.


Quote credit: https://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers

Feature Photo Credit: Evan-Amos / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Owl Photo: https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/pictures/120000/nahled/owl-eyes.jpg

Clock Photo: https://live.staticflickr.com/8673/28160763393_afb1606e2a_b.jpg

Tweet: https://astrologymemes.com/i/svenskt-invandrarbarn-vemsawarya-i-told-him-lets-get-this-bread-263f0728846b48de853ee8a8d1599dd6. Credit goes to original account-Svenskt Invandrarbarn, @vemsawarya

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