Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The choice to write.

There are the prolific writers: Stephen King (whose daily goal was 2,000 words), Mary Faulkner (904 published books), Joyce Carol Oates (56 novels and counting), Leo Tolstoy (whose novels, plays and essays take up a small room). And then there’s me. My daily word count often comes out to negative numbers, thanks to my liberal use of the delete key.

When I was younger, this lack of productivity used to depress me—in fact, often stopped me from writing, period. What was the point, if all I had to show for hours of work was a few measly sentences? Back then, I’d come home from my job exhausted, without a functioning brain cell left. Saturday was my “day to write.” I dreaded the weekends because of this pressure to create, and then I’d look for any excuse to do something else. (Say, doesn’t the house need painting?)

Clearly, this wasn’t a workable system. Why not? I knew the secret to being a successful writer—we’ve heard the advice a thousand times. Write every day. It’s as simple as losing weight: Burn more calories than you eat.

Which was how I gained 35 pounds and didn't finish my novel.

Like losing weight, writing is a self-directed goal. Sure, we can decide to lose ten pounds for a high school reunion, but what happens when we come home? Where’s the incentive now? If the goal is to impress someone else, we slowly lose the motivation. The little voice in our head convinces us it’s hopeless. Same with writing. If our goal is to impress the critics (and our friends/relatives/old English teacher), or to break an Amazon sales record, we’ll find a million excuses not to work. I'll start tomorrow, we’ll say. Just like the diet.

The truth for all of us, whether we’re talking about words or pounds, is the same: we wake up every day and decide what matters. If we set a goal of writing a few good sentences every day, and we string those sentences together, week after week, we will become successful writers. Mind you, I didn’t say financially successful, or critically acclaimed. That’s out of our hands. (Oscar Wilde died penniless, and Snooki got a six-figure book deal, God help us.) The practice of writing is what defines us—nothing more. Here’s a cold, hard fact: Nobody else really cares if you write, any more than anybody else cares if you eat that pint of Häagen-Dazs. It only matters to you. Writing is hard, and nobody’s going to pat you on the back for all the long, lonely hours at the keyboard. You have to find the meaning in what you do. You have to believe in the value of your work. No one else in the world can write your story. Only you.

Last week, I spent four days at the beach, alone, writing. After a walk along the sand each morning, I sat down at my laptop and worked (with short breaks) for 10-12 hours. For the girl who used to give up after 20 minutes, this was nothing short of miraculous. So is the fact that I’m back to my fighting weight (pre-college days). Every morning, I have to make a choice, which is why I wrote this reminder to myself. Same thing tomorrow, and the day after that. Simple (or not). My choice.

1 comment: