I went to high school in a rather bleak, industrial area of Winnipeg. There were power lines everywhere, few green spaces, &, in the filthy spring, mud, salt, & gravel from the winter roads was everywhere. & I thought it was all beautiful. I’d been reading Writing Down the Bones, & I was intoxicated by the possibilities.
Today, I can’t remember the last day I didn’t write anything. Maybe last year, when I was really sick, but even then, I think I might’ve written something…& when I think of all the times in my life I have disciplined myself to write every day, it usually comes back to the first time I picked up this book, Writing Down the Bones.
Yeah, there are other books, that recommend the same thing; Stephen King’s On Writing, is another (good) book, though King’s rationale is that once a writer begins on a novel (or some other suitably long piece of prose), they will forget/lose their place in the story if they let more than two days off go by, &, if I recall correctly, he suggests not even taking more than one day off.
Natalie Goldberg has a slightly different rationale for what she terms “writing practice”. For Goldberg, practice helps you access those feelings, those memories, all the visceral, skeletal processes & organizations that helps you express clearly, originally those compulsions that demand your attention. As Goldberg says,
…because the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where the energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel — 8–9
It is, too, practice, in the simplest sense of the word. A musician spends hours & hours honing their skills & abilities to play whatever instrument they love/want to play; why should it be any different for the writer? True, you may not have to pay for lessons (there are plenty of “free” ways to learn how to write, reading being number one on that list, but you could join/begin a writer’s circle), if you don’t practice every day, how can you ascertain whether or not you’re getting any better? Or, even if you feel like or know you’re a solid writer, how do you know what/how to reveal those expressions, & what it is the compels you to write?
I have seen, on Medium (though I confess I ignored the article), someone writing a story about how they don’t write every day, but they are doing just fine (I might be paraphrasing here…). That may be. If you talk a lot, you use words, too. But it’s hard to see how the writing could ever be better than “just fine”, though. That level of mediocrity needn’t satisfy everybody. If you want to do something well, though, then there’s got to be a significant amount of time invested. To this effect, Goldberg writes,
This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. — 11
I can speak to this pushing through, & I find this analogy between exercise & writing practice apt. Who of us, upon beginning a resistance weight training program, have not had to push through the next day or muscle group with a dull, aching, throb in muscles that were worked the previous day? I have. & I have similarly pushed through those moments where I sat down & said, “Fuck, no. I have nothing. I mean it! I have nothing, so don’t ask me to do this, just don’t…”, but wrote for my allotted time, anyway. I found something to say, something to connect with, even if it began with my refusing to write anything. Yes, it’s ironic, & fun, once you’ve pushed through, to look at whatever you did.
Of course practice writing does not have to be the sort of stuff you show anyone else. I have pages & pages & pages of shit I hope no one ever reads. Sure there might be the odd jewel crusted over by the refuse that one can go back to, polish off, & set out for the viewing of the public. But I don’t count on it, not from the practice anyway (I normally write at two distinct periods of the day, two distinct kinds of writing; while I’m having my coffee, I will write non-stop for ten minutes; later on, I’ll sit down to really generate content for future Medium consumption).
But even this second period of the day, though I primarily use it for writing poetry, I still try not to limit myself to a certain form. Like Goldberg says,
Don’t think, ‘I’ve got it! I know how to write. I trust my voice. I’m off to write the great American novel.’ It’s good to go off and write novels, but don’t stop doing writing practice. It is what keeps you in tune, like a dancer who does warm-ups before dancing or a runner who stretches before running. Runners don’t say, ‘Oh, I ran yesterday. I’m limber.’ Each day they warm up and stretch. — 13
So each day you come prepared to prepare. & perhaps this really isn’t every writer’s bag. But then I think the kind of writing you’re aiming to do will be reflective of the effort you put into it. I’ve written a wide variety of forms & styles, written academic papers & business writing, as well as poetry, plays, & short fiction, but nothing so much as poetry. & maybe one day I’ll work up the nerve to spend as much time trying to get my work published as I do writing it in the first instance.
The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true […] We don’t exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you — Goldberg, 34–5
One of the ways we can get through this difficulty is to practice writing — & I mean writing that you only care about because it is writing, & you did it, & it was part of your routine; other than that, practice writing can be garbage that you dispose of the minute you’re done with it. Sometimes I feel remiss in not having ever really done that. Oh, I remember burning “love letters” (infatuation lines?), & every now & then I think maybe I really need to let go of more of the shit I have written, but, again: the disposal was not the point.
The point was you accessed something in you that was trying to get out that was hamstrung by your attempts to make something out of it. Yes, of course, you can & will sit down intending to write poetry, a paper, an article, whatever. But it will only feel its expression generate naturally once you have done your practicing (for the day, at all, it doesn’t really matter), because the point was not to take yourself so seriously that your inner censor refused to let you work. You need to edit, oh, but yes. Please do. But not because you refused to let yourself generate anything at all; that specific form will material as some point, as your confidence builds. Because, even those moments where I think I’ll never write anything nearly as good again (& that self-sabotage comes up a lot), I am always pleasantly surprised when my practice takes me to the point where I sit down & (for my second writing period of the day) I can just let the words come out because I know they will. I have not stopped them up inside of me, forcing them to exit in a pre-determined manner. Sure, I have stylistic preferences. We all do. Perhaps we even have predilections for certain types of expression. But this is writing, not meat grinding: you don’t have to force it out because it will sound forced.
Regardless, they need to flow out of your writing space, not be picked at in the manner of stitches ready to come out.
If you really can’t bring yourself to write every day, or don’t care enough to begin to make writing a habit, I can’t speak to that. Writing is my favourite chore. Yeah, I sometimes worry I’ve got nothing to say…then I start typing. I always connect with something. You could be a writer with a lot of experience & I’d still say this is a good read. Goldberg is frank, relatable, & totally unpretentious. But I’d especially recommend this book if you’ve just started to dip your toes in the ink, or are feeling stuck, like you need to revisit your process. You might have great eyes, but lack the confidence to show the rest of us what you’re looking at, what you see.
There is, after all, only one requirement for calling oneself a writer: one must write.
J.D. Harms 2020