My cousin is a swimmer. My proud aunt recently passed an article of him in the Winchester Herald around to her friends on Facebook, in which the writer admires his dedication and talent—the fact that at only sixteen he ranks twenty-seventh in the nation for the breaststroke, how in two years he will likely qualify for the Olympic trials.
The fact that my cousin is a swimmer probably seems completely irrelevant right now, but when I read the article in the Herald, all I could think about was that if more writers treated their work like athletes do, we’d probably get a whole lot farther. You see, my cousin used to play football and run track. For his first three years of high school, he was able to do all three throughout the school year, but this year—his senior year—he decided what most of us realize at some point in our lives: we can’t do it all and still give it our all. So he got rid of the distractions and focused all his efforts on swimming.
Athletes, like my cousin, practice their “craft,” if you will, roughly twenty-two hours per week (mind you, this kid is just in high school). They aren’t allowed to get “athlete’s block,” and they understand that whatever fears and anxieties they have—like not being the best or questioning whether your love of the game will take you anywhere—will only cease to exist with practice. By getting better and working harder. Twenty-two hours a week equals a little more than three hours per day, and I struggle to name one writer I know personally who gives their work that much dedication, including myself.
Now, I understand there are differences between my cousin and you, reader, or even myself. We aren’t in high school anymore, and even if we were, we might have part-time jobs that distract us. We might have shitty family lives, bills to stress over, or, for those out of college, full-time careers that drain our energy before we even head home. But even with those completely valid excuses, they are just that—excuses.
If you truly believe that you are a writer, then you have to carve out time in your day for writing. Even on my worst and most unproductive days, I try to dedicate at least thirty minutes to writing. And if that time is spent staring at a blank page in my notebook, until, in the last five minutes, I press my blue pen against the smooth page and draw up an outline for my magnum opus in writing so messy I can hardly decipher it the next day, then, well, so be it. At least you did something. Use the stress and the heartbreak, but don’t let it stop you.
I know a lot of writers, particularly up here in Portland, where every publisher, editor, and designer I’ve met is also a closet writer, aspiring to connect the manuscript they work on by night with the literary world they’re a part of one day. And I know a lot of writers who, well, never seem to actually write anymore. A few months ago, a friend told me she was so down on the whole thing—on never being able to finish a project she started—that she had to take a break from it all. I tried to console her and empathize, because surely even the best of us can understand that overwhelming sense of doubt that follows us around like a rain cloud. I offered advice, because, heck, even when I fail to follow my own advice I research and study writing enough to be able to dish it out.
I told my friend to try writing short stories instead of thinking of every piece in terms of the novel. It’s less overwhelming. Write for yourself, for the pure enjoyment of telling one, cohesive story, instead of trying to write a bestseller. I told her to try using writing prompts. Pinterest is great for this. We have a board dedicated to writing prompts for the blog, and you can find many others if you search. Sometimes just writing anything—anything at all—creates sparks in the brain that lead to more ideas, more inspiration.
More importantly, I told my friend to not give up, and while I haven’t spoken to her about it since, I hope she hasn’t.
Writers are like athletes, but the muscles we use are different. You have to keep reading, you have to keep writing, and you have to keep thinking about writing, even when you’re unable to. It’s like that Louis L’Amour quote, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” And if you never turn it on, the pipes rust, our muscles atrophy, and we will never know what could have been.
Writing takes a long time, which is something I was recently reminded of by an author, Chris Leslie-Hynan, who I interviewed over on Late Night Library. I asked him to tell me one question he wishes someone would ask him about writing:
Does it have to take so long? Here I am on the Rookie Report, and I’m looking at the rookies who’ve come before me and they all have grey hair and wrinkles, too. When I was a senior in college, a fiction professor gave us all a rather dour essay called I think “Writing In the Cold” that asserted you probably had to write seriously for ten years before you could reasonably hope to have any success. Of course I pointed to evidence that I’d been serious since the age of ten because I didn’t want to believe it. Then it took me four years to go to grad school, two years there, and five years after to write a book that doesn’t even tip 250 pages. I can’t tell you why, but yes, it usually does, it does have to take so long.