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Writing Begins With Forgiveness: Why One of the Most Common Pieces of Writing Advice Is Wrong

by Daniel José Older

Daniel José Older
Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba Urban Fantasy seriesfrom Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015). His first collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna and the Locus and World Fantasy nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which he co-edited, are available from Crossed Genres Publications. You can find Daniel's thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at http://ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on twitter and youtube.

Writing advice blogs say it. Your favorite writers say it. MFA programs say it.

 

Write every single day.

It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice and it’s wildly off base. I get it: The idea is to stay on your grind no matter what, don’t get discouraged, don’t slow down even when the muse isn’t cooperating and non-writing life tugs at your sleeve. In this convoluted, simplified version of the truly complex nature of creativity, missing a day is tantamount to giving up, the gateway drug to joining the masses of non-writing slouches.

Nonsense.

Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.

Every writer has their rhythm. It seems basic, but clearly it must be said: There is no one way. Finding our path through the complex landscape of craft, process, and different versions of success is a deeply personal, often painful journey. It is a very real example of making the road by walking. Mentors and fellow travelers can point you towards new possibilities, challenge you and expand your imagination, but no one can tell you how to manage your writing process. I’ve been writing steadily since 2009 and I’m still figuring mine out. I probably will be for the rest of my life. It’s a growing, organic, frustrating, inspiring, messy adventure, and it’s all mine.

Two years ago, while I was finishing Half-Resurrection Blues and Shadowshaper, I was also in grad school, editing Long Hidden, working full time on a 911 ambulance, and teaching a group of teenage girls. And those are the things that go easily on paper. I was also being a boyfriend, son, friend, god brother, mentor, and living, breathing, loving, healing human being. None of which can be simply given up because I’d taken on the responsibility of writing.

You can be damn sure I wasn’t writing every day.

I got it all done because I found my flow and I trusted it. Back when I first started writing Half-Resurrection Blues and I wasn’t doing so many other things, I would write on the stretcher in the back of the bus, literally between heart attack patients and gunshot victims. My life changed, my flow changed with it. When I was on the ambulance full time, I didn’t even consider writing anything that didn’t fit in 140 characters spurts on days I worked. Writing was simply off the table.

We’re writers because we write tweet

 

On my off days, I’d get up as early as I did when I had to be clock in somewhere. I’d get my ass into the chair by nine or ten and try to knock out my first thousand words by lunch. Some days, I didn’t. Other days, I’d get all two thousand done by eleven AM.

And on other days, I didn’t write a single word. Yes, it’s true. Why? Sometimes, it’s because I was busy being alive. Other times, it’s because the story I was working on simply wasn’t ready to be written yet. As writer((also: my wife)) Nastassian Brandon puts it: “if you’re writing for the sake of writing and not listening to the moments when your mind and body call out for you to take a break, walk away and then return to the drawing board with new eyes, you’re doing yourself a disservice.” And that’s it exactly. I’ve spent many anxious, fidgety hours in front of the blank screen, doing nothing but being mad at myself. Finally I figured out that brainstorming is part of writing too, and it doesn’t thrive when the brain and body are constricted. So I take walks, and in walking, the story flows, the ideas stop cowering in the corners of my mind, shoved to the side by the shame of not writing.

Tied up in this mandate to write every day is the question of who is and isn’t a writer. The same institutions and writing gurus that demand you adhere to a schedule that isn’t yours will insist on delineating what makes a real writer. At my MFA graduation, the speaker informed us that we were all writers now and I just shook my head. We’d been writers, all of us, long before we set foot in those hallowed halls. We’re writers because we write. No MFA, no book contract, no blurb or byline changes that.

So if writing every day is how you keep your rhythm tight, by all means, rock on. If it’s not, then please don’t fall prey to the chorus of “should bes” and “If onlys.” Particularly for writers who aren’t straight, cis, able-bodied, white men, shame and the sense that we don’t belong, don’t deserve to sit at this table, have our voices heard, can permeate the process. Nothing will hinder a writer more than this. Anaïs Nin called shame the lie someone told you about yourself. Don’t let a lie jack up your flow.

We read a lot about different writers’ eccentric processes – but what about those crucial moments before we put pen to paper? For me, writing always begins with self-forgiveness. I don’t sit down and rush headlong into the blank page. I make coffee. I put on a song I like. I drink the coffee, listen to the song. I don’t write. Beginning with forgiveness revolutionizes the writing process, returns it being to a journey of creativity rather than an exercise in self-flagellation.  I forgive myself for not sitting down to write sooner, for taking yesterday off, for living my life. That shame? I release it. My body unclenches; a new lightness takes over once that burden has floated off. There is room, now, for story, idea, life.

I put my hands on the keyboard and begin.

About the Authors:
Published by Daniel José Older
Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba Urban Fantasy seriesfrom Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015). His first collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna and the Locus and World Fantasy nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which he co-edited, are available from Crossed Genres Publications. You can find Daniel's thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at http://ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on twitter and youtube. View all posts by Daniel José Older

Comments

  1. Dominique White

    I realized so much freedom once I let go of the guilt of not finding time to sit down and write every day. When I was very very beginning to write, I found so much advice on the Internet. YOU HAVE TO TO WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY! 2,000 words! Morning pages! Start your day with writing!!!111…ugh.

    And then advice that contradicted that advice. Then other advice that flew in the face of the contradiction. My head spun with so much… information. Which was really just opinion based off of what worked for *them*.

    When you say writers have a rhythm…. #truefacts. I know me and when I am most creative. I don’t have a ‘muse’. I just know when my brain is going to let me have access to these stories in my head, unencumbered. I don’t write every day. And since I stopped feeling guilty about that (and I stopped trying to subscribe to every piece of well meaning advice out there) my writing has improved and I feel less like it’s a to-do item and more like it’s a pleasure, an adventure, a visit with my characters.

    1. Michel Peres

      “All through my career I’ve written 1,000 words a day – even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.”

      J.G. Ballard

  2. Brian Lillie

    Dear Mr. Older,

    Firstly, thanks a ton for this awesome essay. I feel lighter after reading it…

    Secondly, SALSA NOCTURNA is one of my favorite books. I love how much energy and heart you instilled into every story, on top of the well-realized, creative weirdness.

    Your fan,

    Brian Lillie
    Ann Arbor, MI

  3. Gina Hiatt

    I’m Gina Hiatt, President of Academic Ladder, Inc. and the founder of the Academic Writing Club, which helps academics write small amounts daily in order to become productive writers. I will be the first to say , however, “Do whatever works for you!” There is research that shows that academic writers do better with small amounts of writing daily, but that doesn’t mean that this approach applies to everyone, especially those who don’t have any kind of writing block that is really impairing their progress. I also think that the process might be different for creative writing, although you do hear about a lot of famous authors that write (or have written) daily. If you write creatively, and you’re happy with the amount you’re writing, then don’t use anyone else’s technique! I do agree that counting number of words, as the previous commenter mentioned, can be demoralizing. I don’t think that people should get hung up on how much they produce each time they sit down to write. After all, some writing days consist of only deleting what you wrote. Our suggestion in the Academic Writing Club is that the writer devote some amount of time (even 5 or 10 minutes) each day to focused writing without interruption. For people who have built up a lot of anxiety about their work, it’s a way to tiptoe around that anxiety and get them writing again. http://academicwritingclub.com

  4. Grace Burrowes

    What you said.

    I recall sitting in a workshop (at the back of the room) about forty books ago on the habits of highly successful writers. The presenter had interviewed something like 150 NYT bestsellers, and was rattling off a list. EVERY ONE of these “mega-successes” (that’s another post) had written goals for their writing, wrote on a set schedule that was daily or nearly daily, had a business plan, had prominently displayed their writing goals in their highly organized, dedicated work space… every one of these bestselling writers, right down the list, hit every one of these wickets.

    Firstly, if your data has no anomalies, your experimental design deserves a good, hard, critical look. Secondly, I didn’t do ANY of that “mega-success” stuff, and I’d hit the NYT with three of my first four books.

    The punchline: I did not raise my hand and tell the presenter, “You’re potentially derailing a lot of very talented writers by presenting your findings as Celestial Truths…” I was too ashamed. Maybe, thought I, if I’d done as the presenter suggested, I’d be four for four on the NYT….

    What toxic tripe. There are as many roads to productive, satisfying, lucrative, successful (whatever that means) writing careers as there are authors to travel them. Do what works, what you can, for where you are now. Writer is an identity, something you are even when the words aren’t showing up on a screen, just as a rosebush is a rosebush, even when all that’s visible are bare, thorny canes.

  5. Mike Ambroise

    I tend to write every day. Accepting less than stellar results some days is similar to forgiveness. The other thing is forgiving other people. It liberates us from writing things based on anger. I have written one book like that and it’s not my best work.

  6. Heather Fix

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Guilt over not having the time to write every day has been keeping me from writing when I have a little time. Your words freed me up immensely. Creativity is more complex than a one size fits all routine. So insightful!

  7. Joanna Blake

    you are SOOOOOO right about this!! i have been feeling the pressure of ‘must write everyday or’, or……or what, the story never leaves my imaginings, and when i force myself to write when exhausted its rubbish and uninspired. i work on a farm so i’m tired in the evenings and writing when uninspired destroys any beauty. when i can pick it up it can take me a whole evening, six or seven hours just to get back into character, but i love the process. to force it removes the delight of entering my other worlds, and really, what is the point of it anyway?

    1. Author
      Daniel José Older

      Thanks Joanna – that’s it exactly, there are days when the work is manual labor or paying the bills, and expecting yourself to put in time on writing after all that can be way too much, especially if you’re more of a hours and hours at a time type writer. Who can say writing 4 hours in one day is worse than 1 hour a day for 4 days? What works works. Glad this spoke to you!

  8. Marie Dillingham

    This can apply to art or any other craft as well, I think. I’ll sit down to draw at times, and nothing. ( though teachers and other artists swear by random doodles.). Sometimes it’s just not there. Step away, work on something else, then come back to it.

  9. Shanta Lee

    This is a great article and to echo what others have said, indeed this applies to any realm of creating. We have to forgive ourselves everything that it is supposed to look like.

  10. Alan Brunstrom

    Totally agree with you: and it’s nice to see someone saying it so positively. Moreover, when we find ourselves unable to write, we should remember that beating ourselves up over it can be as unhelpful and destructive as telling a person who suffers from depression that they should buck up and pull themselves together. Know your own rhythm and follow it, with the maturity to know when to kick yourself up the arse and when to give yourself a break.

    1. Author
      Daniel José Older

      Totally, Alan. There’s a lot of assumptions and privilege in the notion that someone can “just get it together” – it’s the same dangerous mentality that holds folks responsible for oppression someone else created and upholds. It’s that balance between getting it done and giving yourself breaks, knowing how you move, valuing your own healing and humanity — no one teaches us that, not in MFA programs or writing guides, in part because we each have to learn our own rhythms but still – we need to know that that’s something to look for. Thanks for the comment.

  11. Adair

    “Particularly for writers who aren’t straight, cis, able-bodied, white men…” Oh, right: straight, able-bodied white men never feel self-doubt, never struggle, and have no reasons to suffer or complain. They, for sure, will never be forgiven.

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