I think one of the reasons why writers are so spectacularly prone to crash and burn is because we’re notoriously terrible about acknowledging what a sustainable writing practice looks like. It also doesn’t help that we’re great at talking about unsustainable writing practices, like drinking all day and drunk dialing our exes before we get to our novels, or neglecting our dependents for cabins in the woods, or wandering around muttering about blocks only we see.
I don’t think this is an issue of stubborn privacy, as though all writers secretly know what makes them tick but take some kind of perverse pleasure in withholding that information – at times even from themselves. I think it’s more of an issue of accepting that a healthy writing practice looks very little like any other kind of dedicated and serious endeavor. We don’t see patients or consult with clients or sweat at the gym or cover ourselves in paint; we rarely even see a change in our bank accounts for all the effort we put in. What’s more, for every moment a writer spends with her fingers on the keyboard she must spend ten times as many reading and thinking and germinating and developing — all of which look very much like nothing at all.
And it’s not just writers who have trouble with this; as a society, we’re pretty incapable of recognizing the value of internal work. If we can’t externalize or prove that we’ve been at something important, even if we know it ourselves, we are seen as suspect – and frequently even see ourselves as suspect. I know that I frequently have to beat back my internal demons after even the most successful day of writing – one in which I’ve devoted myself wholeheartedly to conceptualizing and mulling and considering and stopping and starting accordingly – because I fall victim to judging only those moments when I increased my word count as valid.
But when I’m on my game, I own the fact that the toil of writing takes place in the mind and very frequently in the heart, and that oftentimes getting into the depths of these places requires silent and quiet and intangible progress. I remember that the best writing is a distillation of thought and experience, and that rushing to put words on a page can often mean bypassing the very depth I’m hoping to capture. I am able to remind myself that the best kind of practice doesn’t look polished, that aiming higher and better first involves a great deal of stumbling.
So yes, it’s frustrating when the work you most care about – the work that represents your highest potential and ideals – looks like daydreaming or lying on the floor or driving or staring into the middle distance or rereading that book you’ve read countless times, etc., etc. – but that frustration doesn’t matter. What does matter is recognizing what works, and having the courage to stick to it. Because it isn’t only about the writing; it’s about taking a stand for the fact that the work of the mind and heart is just as worth our protection and respect as anything else we do. Maybe even more so.
Art: Artashka Lowman, “Daydream”