On Small Writing

There is a lot of writing advice out there that is tantamount to “you are your own worst enemy when it comes to writing”. I presume this advice is useful for a lot of people; it certain is very common. Writers famous for their productivity assure us we are our own worst enemies, that the thing getting between us and word count is our ego, or our self-doubt, and the best way to keep going is to push ourselves, hard, to reach our limits and not accept excuses from the self.

I am sure that is good advice for some people. It is horrible advice for me.

Writing has a high opportunity cost for me, like it does for a lot of poor and disabled writers. Specifically, writing has an opportunity cost of about $8 an hour (sometimes more), which is what I could be making if I was doing work for my freelance job instead of writing. It has an opportunity cost of a different sort, too, one that can’t be calculated in dollar signs but is much more expensive for me; it costs energy I cannot spend doing something else. Like many disabled people, I have really limited energy. If I am writing, I am not cleaning the house, buying groceries, reading a book, spending time with my husband relaxing. I literally cannot fit in all the things I would like to do in a day. I am too tired. The more tired I am, the more money it costs to do things like staying fed, since I have to buy convenience food when I am too tired to do my own prep work. This is one of the difficult things about being disabled.

Here’s the thing though — I love to write. I’m willing to lose money on projects I might never get paid for, because I love to write. I am okay wearing myself out choosing writing. I have written since before I could spell. I have always written. I hope I will always write. Writing is a thing I do for pleasure. But sometimes. Sometimes, even though I love writing, writing is not easy.

When I am at an intersection of pain and despair, writing is hard.

When I am busy, and used up all my spoons buying groceries,  writing is hard.

When I haven’t really slept, and something emotionally demanding is going on, writing is hard.

When I really just want to do something with no pressure whatsoever, writing is hard.

Sometimes, despite my best attempts, despite the encroaching deadline for a magazine I really want to submit to, I sit at the keyboard and I stare and I swear just thinking about a story will make me sweat blood and all I want is some ease.

What I am saying is, despite what famous, successful authors who write for a living tell you, writing is actually quite hard. Like everything worth doing, writing is difficult. It is not impossibly hard, usually, but it is already not an easy task that is made progressively more difficult by any remotely challenging life circumstance, and if you’re a person for whom writing already has a high opportunity cost, the stress of writing compounds.

And yet, we write.

Sometimes, you hit a project or have a day (or a week, or a month) where writing is full of ease — the words come quickly, whenever you sit down. The words are always pressing up against you waiting to be written down. You are in love with your project and you have a whirlwind affair. And when you’ve had days like these, especially if you used them to finish a whole project, you tell yourself this is what writing is supposed to be like, the true state of the author, how real authors write. This is the glorified Inspired State, where writing is finally easy.

For me, such projects are increasingly rare. There are still occasional days where I write 2000 words in a single sitting but they have high costs associated with them — I don’t get a lot else done. I just can’t afford to have that many days like that. Most days I am struggling against pain, against tiredness, a lack of time, a need to conserve my energy for things that can’t be put off for my own basic survival. I can’t put off eating to write. I can’t put off going to the doctor to write. Even when I want to write, the needs of my body invade, take up my attention, my energy, my time. Only so many functional minutes in a day, and not all of them are mine to spend how I want.

Often, a few days pass where writing is not easy, and I don’t have time to write, and when I make time, words themselves are hard, and, well, I’d rather do something else. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I forgive myself, and I say, you know; not today. Today, I am going to make a nice dinner and play video games. Today I am going to just hang out with my spouse and talk instead of hastening to write more words. Today I don’t have the energy.

There are days, though, I really want to write. I need to write. But the wall between me and writing is a hundred miles long, and I need a boost over the wall into the Kingdom of Words. For these days, I set the smallest goal I know: I will write 100 words.

Specifically, I will write 100 words in 5 minutes, and if I do anything after that, it’s all gravy. I will write 100 words on any project I want, or no project at all; wherever those 100 words appear, they are golden. They are good. If I do not keep those 100 words for any project, that doesn’t matter. The point is to have written anything at all.

100 words takes me about a minute and a half. If I begin to write when the countdown begins, and don’t spend those 5 minutes staring at twitter or typing in gchat, I WILL write 100 words. More than likely, I will write 200, or 300. But that’s not really the point. The point is that 100 words is such a small goal, and 5 minutes is so much more time than I need to do it, I can’t fail at it. I will, in fact, probably exceed it.

There is a weird magic in setting a goal and exceeding it. It gives an immediate experience of ease. I can spit out 100 words, even if they are bullshit. I can write one paragraph. 5 minutes is not such a long time to focus — it is about the natural length of my attention span, even medicated, even in pain, even when despair chokes at me thick like summer fog at dawn. I often find I have boosted myself up over the wall in five minutes. I tally my words — sometimes they are three times the goal I set, which feels great. Sometimes it’s barely over 100, but it’s done. I ask myself: would I like to write for another five minutes? Could I add another 100 words in those five minutes?

Sometimes the answer is no. No, I don’t want to write, after all. I haven’t got anything to write about, I’m just not ready, internally, to do any narrating. I’m too tired to get all cylinders firing, to do this story any justice. And I put thoughts of writing to rest, knowing I wrote 100 words, and go play a video game and eat some chocolate and focus on recharging so that tomorrow I’ll be able to write again.

But often the answer is yes. Yes, for another five minutes, I’ll see what I can write. And the five after that. Often I am trying to get close to a thousand words, but if that’s your goal, you get bogged down fast, mired in how long you have to sit and pay attention and how unnatural that flow can be. But 100 words? I can write that. Sometimes, I can even write that ten times.

And on days where the answer is no? That’s okay too. Not all writing is word count. In fact, for my process, the majority of writing is not word count. It is thinking. I spend a lot more time thinking than I do sitting and putting words down. I tend to write quite lean drafts, without too much flailing around, because I tend to know the story I am telling by the time I get around to writing it. I find many people who front load the thinking portion of writing — whether that’s in the form of making outlines, or talking about their ideas, or just spending lots of time day-dreaming in between actual writing sessions — write fairly complete first drafts. We are writing, even when no words are being written. When we think, and rethink, a scene, without putting a word down, we are drafting. When we ax a plot idea and change our minds, that’s a redraft. When we chat about our characters, we are getting to know them well enough to write their unique voices. When we read and consider our relationships to other people’s writing, or puzzle through themes and subjects and how they impact us, we are doing the hard preparatory work that shows invisibly in theme and message.

What I am saying is: you are writing, right now. When you make dinner and think about what food your characters would eat, you are writing. When you zone out while commuting and imagine what your characters talk about off-screen, you are writing. When you stare at Tom Hiddleston on tumblr and memorize the movements of his mouth (whether or not you lovingly describe them later as the romantic lead smiles at his future boyfriend), you are writing. You should count all your thinking, because the thinking is what enables you to write anything at all. And 100 words is as important as 1000, as huge and important a milestone on a day where you almost didn’t write at all. 100 words is 10% of the way to 1000, by the way, no mean feat. You should be proud of the small acts, because they definitely count.

It’s easy to fall in love with the writer you SHOULD be. You SHOULD be the sort of person who gets up early every day to write for two hours. You SHOULD have the kind of attention span where you love to do that sort of thing. You SHOULD produce perfectly lush, ready-to-read drafts on the first go. You SHOULD like to write as much as you like having written. Nothing should disrupt the perfect flow of your priorities, and if you don’t put getting words on paper front and center of your day every day, if you don’t love writing enough to break up with your significant other so they don’t cut into your novel-writing schedule, maybe you don’t deserve success or to call yourself a writer or–

But all the “shoulds” of Real Writers is bullshit. You are a writer right now, because you have stories you are trying to tell. You will not be a real writer someday when you have met some magical production speed, or published a certain number of the “right” stories, or made a certain amount of money. You are a writer right now. And you should be proud of the little steps, as well as the big ones. Every journey is full of small steps. You don’t take any big steps without small ones first.

And still, sometimes you’re so desperate to prove to yourself that you’re a real writer that you have to write something, anything, just so long as your word count for the day isn’t zero.

For such days, put on a timer. Aim for 100 words on paper in five minutes. If that number sounds too big, try 10 words. A sentence. The smallest unit. Write. And if you don’t have anything to write after that, call it a day. You’ve got this. Tomorrow the wall will be a little easier to climb over. Tomorrow you’ll have done a bit more thinking. Maybe you’ll have two 5-minute sessions in you tomorrow. It really doesn’t matter how many you have. All that matters is, when staring down your own doubt, you know you can jump that hurdle, that the story lives in you, and someday, you will get the damn thing out.

(Special thanks to EP Beaumont, who encouraged this piece into existing, and who is often my writing buddy, five minutes at a time.)

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6 thoughts on “On Small Writing

  1. I want to forward this to nearly every writer I know whether they identify as disabled or not. It’s all of those “shoulds” that are our real “worst enemy,” the guilt we put on ourselves for not writing enough or fast enough or often enough.


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