Amanda Smera Welsh
If you are a writer, especially a writer in the middle of a graduate program, you will undoubtedly encounter many craft materials through the course reinforcing the need to establish a discipline to your own writing.
Sometimes, they can sound a little delusional, which was precisely my reaction when I read Robert Olen Butler’s “From Where You Dream.” It truly is the most overtold advice any writer has heard before: “You may not be ready to write yet, but when you’re in a project you must write every day. You cannot write just on weekends. You cannot write this week and not next week; you can’t wait for the summer to write. You can’t skip the summer and wait till the fall. You have to write every day. You cannot do it any other way. Have I said this strongly enough?”
Yes you have, dude, now please shut up!
Plus, aside from craft readings about the discipline of writing, the other thing every person in a writing program has heard before for sure, is that you are probably not going to get rich out of this. Meaning, you have to commit to the reality that writing will forever be that side-gig that brings you joy, but doesn’t bring the food to the table.
Butler must’ve been really privileged to be able to fully commit to his writing every single day, without having to worry about, you know, every other goddamn thing there is to do in this life. And he is not the only one that has sold this discipline that way. I remember a few years ago, watching this interview with Stephen King, in which he claims to write, and perfectly edit his pages every single day. Which, I guess, is good for you if you are Stephen King, but what about us mere mortals? The ones who probably will never become millionaires out of this? I am certainly not the first to dwell on these questions. In a recent op-ed for Glassworks, Associate Editor Shea Roberts writes extensively about the inherent elitism of being a writer, “Writing comes down to a need for money and time, and unfortunately a lot of people aren’t in possession of either. You either need financial security (money), or you need to balance writing with another job (time).”
And here’s a very much ignored layer of the “writing discipline” discussion: if we are all nuanced human beings, with multiple, tangible differences in the way we think, create, and execute, why would we limit ourselves to a one-size-fits-all formula?
"If we are all nuanced human beings, with multiple, tangible differences in the way we think, create, and execute, why would we limit ourselves to a one-size-fits-all formula?"
Heading towards my final project for my M.A. in Writing, my professors, aware of the differences in personalities that compose their classroom, required each of us to take Gretchen Rubin’s tendencies test. I went into it blindly, tried to answer the questions truthfully, and accepted my result as an “Upholder” without much debate. I read the description: “Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations. They want to know what's expected of them, and to meet those expectations. They thrive with routines but may struggle with last-minute changes or when the rules are unclear.” And it truly fit me like a glove, I then thought to myself: “Damn, I sound super annoying, but it sure makes sense!”
In class, they separated us in groups according to the test results, where all the Upholders, Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers got to share with each other what discipline works best from them. While me and the Upholders were all about having a routine and a perfectly manicured writing schedule, the Rebels had a different method that worked for them, with rewards and last minute writing marathons that surely would drive me crazy. But this is simply their method, their discipline, what works for them. And since we are aware of our differences, why should we stick to advice that pretty much convinces us that there’s a right or wrong when it comes to what will work for each of our individual needs?
Because on top of being different people with different tendencies, we also have different lives, and consequently, different responsibilities. One of my good friends in the program, Barb, makes time to write 275 words a day. And I don’t mean each morning at 8 a.m. she sits on her computer and types until she reaches her goal, I mean a few words at whatever hour she can, she puts words together until she gets to the desired 275. And this is just one method that works for one person. I talk to every single writer in my classroom, and I hear various responses, from “I write between tasks,” and “I write once a week,” to “I can only write in the middle of the unholy hours of night,” and “I only write in the loudest of cafés and diners.”
I, for one, cannot work with a word count goal. It puts a lot of pressure into my craft and triggers my anxiety. So instead, I created a writing schedule in which, at least three times a week, I try to reserve my entire mornings to my writing. As a true Upholder, I am methodic with this process: I light up a candle, I brew a cup of black, unsweetened coffee, I manually write the structure of what I am about to create, and I enter the blank page of my Google Docs. It takes a couple of phrases to warm up, then I begin to feel comfortable, and it starts to come to fruition, the magic begins to happen and the writer arrives at last. And when the writer never arrives, much to Butler’s dismay, I close my laptop and try again another day.
It’s an outdated idea that anything successful we want to achieve comes with a formula, a ten-step program that will lead us to it. That whole book The Secret is now known as a huge scam for a reason: there’s no universal method to individual realities. And I am sorry to whoever wants to argue, but sitting at your desk and writing perfectly edited pages each and every day doesn’t make you a better writer, but figuring out what works for you, surely can.