Stephen King said of writing, “Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks,” and I believed him. I knew from past creative endeavors like playing cello or making art that the only way to consistently get things done was to consistently try to get things done—that is, sit down at the same time every day or at least for some time every day and work at it. I got a similar lesson when confessing to a meditation teacher immediately before sitting down for a long silent meditation that I really didn’t feel like it right then. She said that sometimes the hardest sessions are the most valuable. And sometimes you just have to log the hours. Like Stephen says, opening up your mind is just like any other job.
But as much as I believed in the nonmystical process of writing, I’d never really put this theory to the test. In my own way, I was still superstitious about my process, believing that I’d just know when it was time to write and that I’d get nothing from trying to force myself to write. I routinely sign myself up for writing workshops so I have social pressure to write and show my writing to others, and I try to submit a certain number of stories to journals every month (I’m a believer of getting 100 rejections a year, too). But I’d never set myself a word count goal and a deadline to reach it, secretly believing this sort of thing to be too restrictive for a true artiste like me who only wrote when she didn’t know where she was going.
But I’m pretty sure that, to some extent, was lazy bullshit. Because this past month, I set myself a goal to write 30,000 words in 30 days, and I did it. I wrote some absolute garbage, but I wrote 107 pages, and I wrote something—good or bad—nearly every day. I took days off and wrote well over 1,000 words on other days, but I still surpassed any other previous chunk of time in terms of consistency and pages written. Although I set out only to hit my word count, allowing for unfinished stories and story fragments, I ended up completing seven stories, start to finish, including one that, at forty pages, runs more than double the length of the longest story I’d previously written.
When I stopped focusing on getting clean, finished stories to submit, and instead worked towards a word count, I found my style expanding. I usually try to write as briefly as possible, favoring simple sentence structure and few metaphors, but I found my sentences stretching out, stacking phrase after phrase, and extending to allow complex structures and wordy narrators. By changing my goal, I found a new voice and a new writing technique.
I also realized that I actually could write every day. I’d always secretly felt that I didn’t have enough hours in the day, that I didn’t have enough ideas, or that some days I’d be better off turning off the laptop and taking a nap. Even though in the past I’d noticed that weeks and months when I wrote or talked about writing more frequently, I had more ideas to put into my writing, I expected that this pattern had an asymptote somewhere down the line, and that I’d run out of things to write about. This absolutely happened nearly every single day. But because I had a goal to make and I’d set aside an hour or so to work towards it, I had to find some way to work around whatever obstacle was there and get my shit done. This meant a lot of staring at empty word documents, and a lot of reading over these essential (and really hard) John Gardner prompts. But usually about five to thirty-five minutes in I’d hit my stride and I often ended up writing for an hour past the end of my designated writing time. It was just like Stephen King and my meditation teacher had said: if I committed to showing up and trying, something would come out of it.
I also figured out how to start off a writing session to make it most productive: I’d get a playlist going on Amazon Music and a timer going here, and I’d have a cup of iced coffee and my ear buds and I’d know that I wasn’t allowed to get up until I’d hit my thousand words. I broke this rule about half the days that I wrote, but the idea of it helped a lot.
Another helpful element of my experiment was competition. I only tried to take this project on because one of my wonderful writing group friends invited the whole group to sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo together. For the uninitiated, Camp NaNowriMo is a product of the same group that brought you National Novel Writing Month (NaNowriMo), which challenges participants to write an entire novel over a single November. Camp NaNoWriMo is less specific and challenges writers to assign themselves goals for the month of April and track their progress online. The website organizes writers into virtual cabins which can be picked or randomly assigned, and everyone in a cabin can see how many words everyone else has written, but not read each other’s work. Now, I’m a super competitive person. Obviously this project wasn’t a race—I’m a mature adult and I don’t need to beat someone else to have fun. But what if, hypothetically, it was a race? Then of course I would, hypothetically, obsessively update my word count and check whether I was on track to finish and who was ahead or behind me. Hypothetically, that would be a terrific motivator for someone like me to stay on track with my personal goal.
Now, of course I have some caveats to my wild success story. First of all I’m only working part time right now, which is incredibly stressful monetarily but does leave me a ton of free time to write. I live with my amazing boyfriend which means that I had someone to spend time with when I was done writing at the end of the day, so I didn’t struggle with feeling isolated with all this time spent sitting by myself at my laptop. I also left my goal pretty open, content-wise, deciding to just write whatever I felt like every day as long as it was what I considered publishable prose—that is, fiction, prose poetry, or creative nonfiction, but not journaling or just rambling. I actually did a fair amount of journaling over the month to get my brain warmed up before my writing time for the day, but I didn’t count these words because to me the whole point of journaling is not planning to share with an audience. So I wouldn’t have been able to write as freely if I was in the middle of a novel or a thesis. I also didn’t try to edit, except as I was working on that one super long story, so my writing time was nearly all spent writing.
The biggest takeaway from this month was how great it felt to be reaching small, manageable goals every day. As I’m sure is standard among writers and creative professionals, I’m constantly wondering whether I’m really doing everything I can to improve my technique and get my work published. Being a writer is sort of like having an enormous, unfinishable homework assignment all the time—there’s no clocking out at the end of the day like some other job, and some writers keep insane schedules and are absurdly prolific. There’s always someone who’s doing more and better work than you are.
I’d always assumed that the guilt of not being productive enough was just a part of being a writer, like feeling insecure about one’s work. But I found that when I wrote nearly every day, and when I could check and see exactly how many words I needed to write to be on track, that guilt vanished. Even on days when I was behind, I knew I was 1,200 words behind, for example, instead of just feeling like a failure. And on days when I hit my goal, I felt proud and relieved. I could shut my laptop at the end of my writing time and go think about something else, my work complete for the day. I could feel excited about what I’d write the following day without feeling guilty for not getting down to it that instant.
Instead of making writing less fun, writing every day made it more fun, or at least less fraught. I trusted myself to put in the work and spent less energy trying to talk myself into it or weasel myself out of it. I completely lost the constant not-writing-enough guilt, and instead got a sort of runner’s high each day I checked off my words. Writing stopped being an artistic struggle and started being a part of my routine. It became, like Stephen said, just any old task, and I discovered anew, as I do each and every time I accomplish a writing goal, that it’s a task I love, that brings me indescribable challenge and satisfaction, that brings me hope and makes me whole.