Writing and the Definition of Work

The other day I tweeted a few things about writing and work. I wanted to clarify what I was talking about. The first thing I said was that even genius authors often have other forms of income besides their books. I’ll talk more about that later. For now, I want to talk about the second thing, which is what it means for a writer to work.

(Of course, I’m squarely in the “aspiring writer” category, so take anything I say with a grain of salt.)

Smart people tell young writers (and other artists) that if they want to succeed in their chosen career, they better get to work. For a long time, my own interpretation of this advice was that I needed to push myself to the brink in order to succeed. I suspect I’m not the only one who thought this way. This is the mindset that makes you feel terrible when you miss a day of writing, or makes you feel good when you stay up all night to finish a draft. This is the mindset that turns writing into an exercise in self-flagellation.

I’m not against working hard. But you don’t have to be dirt poor and cultivate a rampant caffeine addiction to call yourself a writer. You just have to write, and work on getting better. Artists love underdogs so much we sometimes try to manufacture tough circumstances so we can feel like we’re overcoming them. Baloney. As Anthony Lane once said, “If you’re working on a piece at three in the morning, you’re not Keats; you’re just late.”

A “working writer” shouldn’t be defined as someone who kills himself in order to put words on the page. A working writer is someone who practices the skill of writing. We can all tell when we’re getting better at something. It’s not immediately obvious, but everyone knows what it’s like to see someone else do something and to keep trying to do it until you can do it too. If you’ve ever ridden a bike, learned to read, played a video game, or even figured out how to use the camera on your phone, you’re learning. The thing is – and Ira Glass says this very well here – most people learn how to do something, and then they stop. Or worse, they try to do something, find out that it’s harder than they expected, and then give up.

If you want to learn writing, or anything else, you have to push through those uncomfortable moments. Even better, start looking forward to the times when you stare at the screen or out the window with no idea what to write next. Meet those moments head on, and work to push through them.

That’s why it honestly doesn’t matter if you write 15 minutes at noon every day, or three hours in the middle of the night every two weeks. As long as you find that weak muscle in your story and work to build it up, you’ll improve as a writer.

Start looking for those moments. Make time for them. If you can’t be away from Twitter or Facebook for more than three minutes without sweating, go somewhere without internet and leave your phone at home. It will be pretty bad at first, but you’ll get over it, and you’ll save your attention for writing. You don’t need to kill yourself, but you do need to make time to practice your craft.

If you were trying to become a professional skateboarder, you’d spend hours at the rink, practicing your stalls until they were perfect. As long as you wanted to improve, you’d attempt moves that were more and more difficult until you had mastered them. Or you’d practice the moves you could already do until they were second nature. The point is, you’d expect to have to work in order to improve. Writing is no different. Put the time in. Practice your writing moves until they become second nature.

A few months ago, I started trying to develop a habit of getting up every morning before my wife wakes up and writing for an hour and a half. I set boundaries for that time. I’m not allowed to check my email or social media. On very dry days I let myself read a short story or passage from a book or watch a short film, but honestly, at that hour, those things discourage me more than they inspire. I haven’t gotten up to write every single morning, but I try to do it more often than not, and at this point, I count three early morning writing sessions as a good week. (Saturdays and Sundays don’t count, obviously. What, you expect me to write on the weekends?)

The point of getting up early isn’t some kind of masochism to make me a better writer through pain (though it’s hard not to derive some martyrial pleasure from it). The point is that I know it takes me at least an hour to write anything halfway decent, and the only time that I’m sure I’ll have regularly available is before the day starts. It’s not about punishing myself and hoping some great art will spring out of it. It’s about giving myself some space to devote to a hard, complicated task.

Success always requires some kind of sacrifice. Depending on your situation, you may have to sacrifice sleep. But here’s the important thing: you might not. Maybe it’s only because we’re writers, but we find something romantic in the idea of the kid alone in the gym, shooting hoops after everyone else has gone home. By all means, shoot hoops, all night if necessary. But that’s not the definition of work. The definition of work is putting time in when you don’t want to for the sake of improvement. That’s what will make you a better writer.