In her book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg says,
This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. […] That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk.
I’ve always thought of my daily writing routine the same way I think about exercise.
Most days I don’t want to exercise. I don’t want to go for that long run around the neighborhood, and I certainly don’t want to make the trek to my local gym a few days a week. If it were up to me, I’d maybe go for one run a week (Wednesday evenings) and attend one gym session every few weeks (the occasional quiet Sunday afternoon).
And weirdly, as much as I love writing more than exercising, some days I really, really don’t want to do that either. I’ll sit down at my writing desk early in the morning and stare at the computer screen and want to do literally anything else. A run and a gym session, plus a deep clean of my entire house. I will stare at that blank page and wish I could have found something else to do with my life, anything else.
This kind of feeling never goes away. Whether I’m writing the first draft of a novel or a story or I’m working on a new revision or I’m struggling with a query letter or a synopsis, it’s all hard, it never gets any easier, and oftentimes the most difficult part is just getting started.
But as Goldberg talks about in her amazing craft book, it’s necessary for us to exercise every day to keep our bodies healthy the same way it’s necessary for us to write every day to keep getting better and never allow our work to get stale.
This is not to say you have to write thousands of words every single day.
Many years ago that’s exactly what I thought writing every day meant. I thought I had to be constantly working on a new novel or a story, and what ended up happening was I was writing so much that I could never slow down to make any of my work richer, deeper, more complicated.
The best writing doesn’t come out during that first draft, after all, but in subsequent drafts where you do your best to build up everything that’s working well and then cut down or eliminate things that fall flat. The most important part of a first draft is to finish it, always remember that. And then the real work begins.
What I believe Goldberg is saying in her quote, and what many authors mean when they say to write every day, is to just write something every day. It doesn’t have to take hours. It can be just a few minutes. It can be ten minutes of jibberish just to get your mind racing. It can be three super clever tweets for Twitter. It can be a short review of a film or book you read recently you want to share on your blog. It can be a Medium piece about writing, which is the main piece of my own writing I’m focusing on today!
It does not have to be two thousand more words of that novel you’re working on.
Because here’s the deal — once you get started with some kind of writing, usually you get into a groove that makes you want to write more. Again, getting started for the day is often the hardest part. And especially when you’re drafting a new piece of fiction, you don’t want to make mistakes, you want to produce good work, and usually that kind of mindset can debilitate you to the point of writing absolutely nothing. You do not want this.
So try to treat writing as you do exercising — do a little bit each day for your health and for your mind.
Don’t feel like you have to run for three hours the same way you don’t need to write for three hours. Yes, a few days of the week you might want to write more than usual, at least try, but what’s most important is that you find little pockets of your day to write something of value to you.
What helps me a lot is planning a schedule every Sunday for the following week, and I do my best to stick to it. Even when my day is crazed at my full-time teaching job, I will fit in even just ten to fifteen minutes of writing. I’ll draft a brief new scene in a work of fiction. I’ll revise a chapter of that book I plan to query later this year. I’ll write a new Medium piece. I’ll just journal my thoughts even!
And you know, if you happen to go the occasional day with no writing whatsoever, don’t feel bad. I went on a five-day trip to Los Angeles earlier this month and did almost no writing of any kind. It’s okay! It happens. None of us is perfect, and it doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer.
When it comes to the writing life, always remember to think about it as a marathon, not a sprint. The same way I think the best kind of exercise is a slow life-long marathon to keep me healthy rather than a frantic, heart-pounding sprint here and there.
Just try to find time to do a little writing every day, no matter what it may be. No matter if anybody will eventually see it. Enjoy the writing, and come back to it often.
And you’ll be surprised after years of daily practice how much better of a writer you will eventually become.