‘Write every day,’ they say.
‘You’re not a writer unless you’re writing,’ they yell.
‘Write, write, write!’ goes the clamour of voices in my head.
But they’re sneaky, these voices. Duplicitous. They also say things like
‘Hey, the football’s on!’
or ‘Spend some time with your kids, you idiot!’
or ‘Your wife’s going to divorce you unless you take her out tonight.’
They remind me – constantly, irritatingly, loudly – that I have a family, a life, a job, and several million things to do which are much more important/easier/more fun than trying to write. There are a thousand things other I can do which are less likely to result in my self-esteem being kicked to black, blue and yellow bruises than writing. There are at least twenty things I have to do – today, this minute, immediately – or the consequences will be both severe and irreversible.
‘And anyway,’ says the one particular voice, the slimy, grey-sounding little whine. ‘You don’t even have anything to write about, do you?’
So, sometimes I write, and sometimes I don’t, and if I’m not feeling guilty about writing too much, I’m feeling guilty about not writing enough, and the world turns, and I turn with it, and before I know it, I’ll be dead.
And so will you.
Okay, so perhaps that’s a little pessimistic. But the problem I have with writing is exactly this: I want to write every day and I can’t.
Five years ago, I thought this had finished me as a writer. I’d been scribbling stories for about four years, and I’d had some small successes. Competition wins. Anthology publications. Stories on-line. I even made a (miniscule) bit of cash.
And then, one day, I stopped.
Looking back, it had been coming for a while. Without getting all personal about this, things had become a battle: writing versus life. And life won.
So for the next four years I wrote nothing apart from a month’s worth of short stories and flashes one January when I dipped my toe back in the water only to quickly pull it back out again, shocked at how cold and uninviting it had become in my absence.
And then I got an email. Someone wanted to publish one of my stories in an anthology, an old thing I’d forgotten about that had been featured at a literary reading four years previously. I looked back at the story, embarrassed at how dreadful it was [it isn’t! – Cherry], but I said yes anyway. And I lay awake that night, thinking, I can do so much better.
[For example, Jason’s beautiful story in Lovers’ Lies, A Time and Place Unknown – Cherry]
That was April 12th last year. Ever since that night, I’ve been writing. Four stories a month, regular as clockwork (almost). I’ve won £200 and had six stories published. That’s all. In a year. When I look at it like that, in black and white, in makes me want to give up again.
But I’m not going to.
Because here’s the thing I’ve been looking for, and the thing that I’ve suddenly realised – today, literally about an hour ago – I can get, easily, without destroying my family or losing my job in the process, the thing that is going to make me a better writer, a more widely published writer, and a richer writer (there, how’s that for confidence…?):
It’s a thing called momentum.
First though, an anecdote. I participated in last November’s NaNoWriMo – a month-long rush to write a 50,000 word novel in exactly thirty days. And I did it. I wrote, on average, 1,700 words a day (actually, mainly at night) and came out of it with a novel.
It’s rubbish, obviously.
But it’s a novel, and it’s mine, and in my brighter moments when I think about it I realise that actually, if I could only find the time, I reckon I could pull it and prod it and push it and caress it until it becomes something just about publishable.
And the thing that made me get through that month was the thing I’ve just realised I can get without having to write nearly two thousand words a day (which translates as about two to three hours of time away from my wife and my kids and my job and my guitar and the television and my books and my life every single day for the rest of my life…)
The thing that I had in bucketfuls for that whole month was momentum.
And it’s the thing that I believe makes a writer a writer.
So, how to keep writing every day? How to convince yourself that you’re a writer by actually writing something, day after day after day, forever? How to do this thing, and not get sacked/divorced/a reputation as some kind of mad recluse?
Well, here’s how, in six easy imperative soundbites (followed by some details and stuff).
(And, yes, I know, five would probably follow the genre conventions of an article a little more closely, but number six is important).
1. Buy a notebook. Now, I know this is nothing new. I’ve bought literally hundreds of notebooks in my time, and I’ve been as full of good intentions as they’ve remained empty of writing. No, the thing isn’t just buying the notebook, it’s using it. Carrying it, every day, everywhere, and not being embarrassed by whipping it out and writing down whatever it is that’s just sparked the writer in you. If someone asks you, ‘Hey, what you doing with that notebook?’ you say, ‘I’m writing in it.’ and you just get on with it. So, if there’s a big football game on that evening, watch it. If you’ve got a sick kid to attend to, off you go. If your scowling significant other wants to eat out for a change, all well and good. Because you’ve already done your writing for the day! It’s that line you scribbled down about the man who you saw at the bus-stop with the sad eyes and halitosis.
It’s that conversation you transcribed as you listened to the two women in front of you in the queue talk about at completely cross purposes about a) Maggie’s funeral b) carrots.
It’s that four-line poem you scrawled across the page in the middle of the night when you’d just woken up from that weird dream about trying to get a girl’s phone number in a bar full of men with bare chests and horse heads. You might not have actually sat down in front of a screen and written a story yet, but you’ve been a writer, and sometime soon there you’ll be, deskbound, turning the stuff in your notebook into something a little more substantial.
2. Diversify. I write short stories. But you know what? I can write poetry, too. Or articles (maybe, you be the judge…) I used to write songs, and I’m going to start again. I’ve got a blog. There’s a novel sitting under my bed just begging to be ripped apart and put back together again. And there’s always another novel to write. No more sitting there thinking, ‘I can’t write tonight because I haven’t got an idea for a story,’ because there are so many other things to write.
3. Forget about the muse. Stephen King writes very engagingly in his perfectly-titled book ‘On Writing’ about the muse, and how you can’t wait for her to turn up (and actually, King’s muse is a he…). Just write, says King, every day, and eventually the muse will find you, because if you’re not writing, how’s the muse supposed to know you need her (or him)? So I say, sod inspiration. Perspiration first.
4 Don’t be embarrassed into submission. That poem is awful. That song sounds like the sixteen-year-old you wrote it. No one reads the articles on your blog. Your stories keep getting rejected. The novel doesn’t work, will never work, and no novel you ever write is ever going to work. Yeah, well, join the club, and make the decision: Do you want to get better, or do you want to give up?
5 Don’t forget to live. You can’t write all the time. Otherwise, all you’ve got to write about is writing, and that’s pretty dull (although £100 of the £200 I won last year came from a story about writing, or trying to write, or not writing, or something like that anyway…)
6. Don’t beat yourself up. I ride a bike to work most days, and the best advice anyone ever gave me about riding a bike to work most days (apart from ‘wear a bloody helmet, idiot!’) was to not beat myself up on the days when I simply couldn’t be bothered and jumped in the car instead. So, you know what? If you want a day off from this writing lark, take one.
But don’t take two.
© Jason Jackson 2013
Jason has been published twice by Arachne Press.