On Not Writing and How We Always Already Are

By Wes Jamison

I began to follow Writing About Writing on Facebook when I redesigned my English 101 course. We entered the class focusing on what we learn about writing when we pay attention to what writers say about writing, both the noun and the verb, and how they learned to do it. I thought that a Facebook page with the same title as my course would provide meaningful excerpts or funny passages or articles about writing on writing that I could use for journal prompts and other small assignments. This is instead how I discovered that I Should Be Writing.

I took it personally, and that is the point of the memes: to interpellate each of us as writers who are not currently writing and who already know that we should be. Right now and every day. I can easily list a dozen writers who claim they write every day, hundreds of others I assume wrote every day, and I can think of at least a handful who recommend others do the same. This has since been offered by professional writers as go-to advice for those individuals who claim to be writers and talk about writing, read about writing, but do not actually write.[1]

The benefits of writing every day (whether 1000 words, 750 words, for one hour) are found by the thousands in a cursory Googling. Chris Brecheen’s “A Dozen Reasons to Write Daily” is notable, not only because he is the admin of Writing About Writing but also because he reframes the reasons in a positive way—a welcomed change from the perceived accusatory and shaming tone of You Should Be Writing memes.

Some of his reasons for writing every day seem obvious, albeit more related to writing than to writing every day: we will finish our projects sooner, we will remind ourselves of our writing dreams, and we will enjoy some psychological benefits such as speaking more eloquently as we become more confident in our ability to search for words or how even a small success can produce others.[2]

I can attest to these benefits.

But I do not write every day.

And I do not think we should—not as it is presented: with an (often implied) “or else.”

I say this as a person who wants to be a great writer, who wants to improve constantly—which seems to be the main claim of this Write Every Day and You Should Be Writing crowd: “You will improve. Quickly.”[3] But, having been a writer (and an English professor) for many, many years, I don’t know that writing every day will make anyone any better:

We could practice golemancy ten hours every day, knowing what little we do about it now, and never succeed at animating a lump of clay. We could practice some sort of crazy ancient Egyptian quantum abstract algebra (because, really, if there is an analogue to creative writing in mathematics, it would be something like ancient Egyptian quantum abstract algebra), complete problem after problem for years without the guarantee that we ever get better at it or ever solve even one correctly.

My students’ final essay prompt was “What makes someone a good writer?” It cannot be a coincidence that no small amount of students had a thesis similar to my favorite: “Writers write; good writers read. A lot.”

And the benefits of reading are confirmed in the You Should Be Writing literature (which is, with few exceptions, simultaneously Write Every Day literature): “You become aware of other people’s writing,” “Every book of great writing becomes…a rich lesson,” “Your vocabulary will expand.”[4] My students liked to add that reading each other’s work also gave them a sense of how not to write so that they could themselves improve.

We should each practice writing, and often; but if we want to be good writers, better writers, it seems logical to dedicate as much time to not writing. Not solving ancient Egyptian quantum abstract algebra problems will allow us to learn other methods, pause to check our work and proceed. If we stop our unsuccessful seventy-two hour dance around a lump of clay and twigs while chanting permutations of the tetragrammaton and aleph-bet, we can sleep, finally, and try again more whole-heartedly the next day and with renewed energy. Not writing will give us time to reevaluate our projects, word choices, voice, forms, personae. That is, to overemphasize You Should Be Writing or Write Every Day is to neglect the equally (or more) important not writing in the form of feedback and critique, instruction and reading, all already touted, and neglected or footnoted, by this culture.[5]

To navigate both writing enough to be productive and reading enough to become better is a challenge exacerbated by family, work, hygiene–that list goes on. So we do not need to feel guilty about or shamed by how we should be writing; instead, we can rethink the word “writing” in a way to recognize that, if we are writers, we are always already writing.

Abhijat Joshi’s description of a construction site in India has become a formative model for my own writing. At the site, the women workers—which were all the workers—had no choice but to bring their babies with them. One woman watched over all the babies. To make this a manageable feat, these infants were buried to the waist in the sand. Throughout the long, hot day, the excruciatingly long work shifts, each mother had one eye always on the work being done and the other always on her child, buried in the sand, to make sure it was okay, knowing that both it and she were simply waiting for a break or the end of the day to finally come. When it did come, the mothers would immediately drop whatever work they were doing and rush to their child and scoop them up out of the sand.

All my writing is project-based, and I treat those projects like the babies: keep them safe and in sight while I tend to the necessaries: eating, sleeping, cooking, showering, grocery shopping, going to the doctor.

But it is also necessary to gather the goods and supplies that allow us to tend to our babies: research, rest and dreaming, instruction in writing, reading good examples of writing, reading bad examples, and reading to provide material to put down. (Reading here means many things, and I only want to point out that it doubles as experience.)

Once we recognize and prioritize those necessities and their benefits, then we may abscond the shame and fright that the You Should Be Writing memes instill.

[1] https://writingcooperative.com/why-just-write-is-terrible-advice-to-give-to-novice-writers-a1e0831a93fb

[2] http://www.chrisbrecheen.com/2016/05/10-reasons-to-write-dailyaccentuate.html

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] http://www.chrisbrecheen.com/2012/09/15-less-well-known-things-that-will.html?spref=fb