by Annie Scholl
“Is it really true that I have to write daily to be a successful writer?”
That’s the question I explored recently in a blog post on Brevity. Helping me arrive at a resounding “NO!” were four authors I admire greatly: Beth Kephart, Abigail Thomas, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, and Bar Scott.
Knowing that these four accomplished writers don’t write daily helped me to stop berating myself for having slipped out of a near-daily writing practice sometime in 2016. I heard from other writers who appreciated this bit of news, too.
Because the Brevity blog had to be, well, brief, I’m delighted to share Beth Kephart‘s full interview at The Sunlight Press. Kephart is the award-winning author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir.
Do you write daily?
I’ve never had that time. I’ve never been impeded by not having the time. What I believe in is the power of holding one scene or moment in your head for a long time, before writing. I believe in urgency—that urgency must fuel the process and the page. And so I would say to you, ‘What of this story stirs your passion most intensely?’ Spend time with just that one small piece of it, mulling and mulling. And then take an entire day to write it—new or over again. To hell with an hour a day. Go with fervor once a week or once a month, or whatever your life yields.
Tell me about your writing practice.
I go months and months without writing. And so when I do write it all feels brand new—again. Right now I have written four paragraphs of what will be, perhaps someday, a new memoir. I thought, after I finished those four paragraphs, about what would have to happen next. Then I stopped. I said—nope, Beth. You can’t go on. You are already seeing a book in your head, you are already calculating sequence, but all you can possibly know at this moment in time is fragments. Celebrate the fragments. Write out of time and sequence, just the fragments. So I have a new fragment in my head and next weekend I’ll try to write it. Four or five paragraphs will make me giddy glad.
Do you believe there is pressure on writers to write daily – that if you don’t, you’re not a ‘real’ writer?
There is so much pressure in this world—real pressure. Melting glaciers. Deaf politicians. Angry electorates. Misunderstandings that ratchet up toward tragedy. Writers must take their work seriously. But we must also have respect for the larger contexts in which our work gets done. A real writer lives a real life first, in a very real, unpredictable world. A real writer may be distracted by a job, distracted by a father’s need, distracted by sadness, distracted by the news, distracted by illness or personal pain, or the pain of someone he loves. We are not more or less real writers if we allow life to intervene with the words on our pages. And besides: If we were all able to write the hoped-for three pages a day, we’d all be spinning out a couple books a year. Is that what we want? Productivity for productivity’s sake?
What are your thoughts about daily writing routine?
I don’t think there is any right or wrong in having a daily writing routine. But I do think there is something wrong about judging people who don’t have a daily writing practice. Or judging ourselves when we can’t make room for one.
Have you ever been one to write daily?
I have written over consecutive days when in the heat of a new book or within the crush of editing. And then I have had to walk away for weeks or months at a time. For close to thirty years, ending only this past spring, I worked an average of 65 hours a week for corporate America. Sometimes I worked 80. I had a son at home. I had responsibilities. We have only so much bandwidth.
Describe your writing routine.
There is no routine. None at all. But I’ll tell you my favorite thing. My favorite thing is to wake up at 5 a.m.—as I do anyway—and realize that I don’t have clients waiting for me, don’t have promises to keep, don’t have recommendation letters to write, or blurbs, or a blog post. That, for the next few hours, it’s just me, myself, and I, and I can write, if I want to. Or read. Now that becomes the hardest question: To read, or to write? Generally I believe that we need to spend far more time reading than writing. It’s the only way to get better at what we love to do.
When I slipped out of near-daily writing practice, I worried that when I returned to the page that I would have forgotten how to write.
I think it’s easy to feel that we’ve forgotten how. In fact I never go cold turkey back into writing without delving into a deep, intentional read of others’ work. The work of others is the bridge back toward myself.
Could you share any tips for creating a non-daily writing practice?
Well, the aforementioned reading. It’s a prerequisite. Even when we are not writing, we have to stay in touch with the humanizing possibilities of literature.
Second, if you are writing from life—and ultimately we all do, no matter the genre—take note of life. Take photographs. Take notes. Collect leaves. Whichever secret talisman you’ll need to return you to a secreted thought.
Third, don’t panic.
Fourth, remember we are not in a race. Remember that the goal is not quantity. The goal is memorable excellence.
Fifth, writing is a way of seeing. We don’t lose our writerly identity when we are not writing.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.