Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. I refer to this phenomenon as the Standard Writers Interrogation List. I’ve blog about this topic previously; you can find those posts here and here.
Have you ever heard the term binge writer?
Until listening to an interview with Cheryl Strayed; I hadn’t either. (Full disclosure: I’m yet to read any of Strayed’s work, not out of elitism – I just haven’t, but the interview was very enjoyable and can be found here). If you’ve been writing for a while, chances are you’ve come across the following aphorisms more than once:
- A writer is someone who writes
- A writer should write everyday
Cheryl’s heard them too and for years, she wondered if maybe she wasn’t a real writer because neither of these statements applied to her. “If a writer is someone who writes and a writer should write every day; if I don’t write for a day, a week, a month, am I not a writer?”
Long before the success of Wild, Cheryl had an established writing routine that formed through one part necessity (she had two small children) and one part natural instinct. She’d intentionally – happily – go without writing for months and instead, direct her attention towards that other cumbersome called life. When the need to write struck, she’d book herself into a hotel room for two night and do nothing but write.
For years, Cheryl had assumed her process was nothing more than the result of a busy lifestyle (two small kids, remember?) and a hint of laziness (not making writing a priority). She was attending a writing seminar the first time she heard the term binge writer. Cheryl was instantly relieved; there was a term for her process! Her preference to write ‘every now and then’ wasn’t some form of thinly disguised procrastination, but her own natural creative rhythm!
Now, when I heard the term binge writer, I was more than a little sceptical too. I basically thought it was a pretty label to make ‘the occasional writer’ feel better about only writing occasionally – and I get it! Many of us work full or part-time jobs, both in and outside the publishing industry. If you spend eight hours a day in an office, chances are you don’t want to spend your evenings and weekends parked in front of your PC.
But then you start to feel guilty for not devoting time to this thing you say you want to do. You procrastinate and procrastinate until eventually, the guilt becomes unbearable or the muse appears and swiftly kicks you up the backside. You take to your laptop like an ex-smoker who’s caught a whiff of a cigarette and caved – one smoke too many, a hundred not enough. You write in a mad delirium until three in the morning and then crawl into bed; finger tips still humming with the electricity of your brilliant prose. Finally, you’ve done it! You’ve found the story. You’ve started. Nothing can stop you now.
Then three months go by and not a word is added.
Cheryl’s description of binge writing is a salve to all those PAYG employees out there who can only write ‘every now and then,’ but I find it hard to ignore the obvious cons that accompany this process.
If you only write when you feel like it, then you may never finish that book or short story or essay.
If you start a novel on 1 January but don’t return to it until 13 March, how likely is it that your interests, voice and motivations would have remained the same? You may have been thrilled by the idea of exploring how friendships could be tested in a dystopian environment, but after a few months have passed, that idea may look kind of silly… or maybe you’ve ‘lost’ your protagonist’s tough, smart-ass attitude because now you’re reading Jane Austen instead of Kendare Blake.
Like it or not, these days we are bombarded with stimuli. The information we receive on a daily basis can change us in subtle and notable ways. The way you approach a story premise in January could be totally different by June. Plus, we have the addition problem of our shortening attention spans: an idea that it’s pulsing with life one day – if left unattended – may be dead cold a month later.
If you think you’re a binge writer, you may need to ask yourself some tough questions.
If it took you ten years to write this book, would you be okay with that?
Can you stick with a project, even if it no longer excites you?
Are you okay if writing is never anything more than an occasional hobby?
Are you okay if you never get anything published?
(Admittedly, daily writers should ask themselves these questions too, because here is the truth: The world doesn’t need your book. Believe it or not, the world will continue on regardless of whether or not your book gets published. If you’re going to invest the time and mental energy needed to complete a literary project, it’s important that you maintain perspective on said projects level of importance.)
Being a binge writer doesn’t guarantee failure. After all, Cheryl’s a binge writer and she’s done very well for herself. However, you need to recognise that this approach is far from productive and efficient. If you fit the characteristics of a binge writer, you may want to be super realistic when goal setting.
Really, all writers need to be realistic about what is achievable and what success means for them.
When asked what his advice to budding musicians would be, Josh Homme, frontman for Queens of the Stone Age, said, “If you expect music to do anything for you, you’re expecting too much.”
The same could be said about writing – about all art really. Now, some people may read that and feel really bummed out, but if viewed through the right lens, it becomes immensely freeing. There’s no pressure to succeed because there is no success!
You do the work.
You keep your butt in the chair.
Whatever happens to your writing outside the writing room – publications and accolades – are bonuses because you’ve already received your reward. Plus, if you’re a daily writer, you get to experience those rewards on a much more regular basis.
Though the term isn’t literal – though for some it may be? – daily writer basically means that you spend more days writing than not writing.
Judging from interviews, most published authors seem to fall into this camp (coincidence?). Though some work for eight hours a day, most admit that they only write for two or three hours a day while the rest of their time is spent researching, editing, beta reading, providing feedback to students or other writers – depending on circumstance.
The bonus of tending to your manuscript (MS) on a daily basis are fairly obvious.
- Warm bodies. It’s easier to slip back into your MS because the work is still at the forefront of your mind. The story is still warm. If I step away from my MS for as little as 1-3 weeks, that first writing session back at my desk is brutal. If I’m writing everyday however, I can usually slip back into the rhythm of the story within 5-10 minutes.
- It’s easier to maintain consistency especially with tricky things like voice and vital elements like character. If you step away from your MS for two months – or longer – you may find it difficult to re-establish and then maintain the work’s original voice or your protagonist’s previously snarky tone? Of course, this can happen to the daily writer as well, however, it’s much easier to catch and solve this problem when you are ‘close’ to your project.
- When you write every day, the pages stack up quickly. This acts as additional motivation because you can see that you’re making progress. Ever notice how when you get close to the completion of a MS, you start working faster, harder and for longer, because the finish line is in sight?
- People take your practice more seriously. This is more of a personal point, but if you maintain a daily practice then your family and friends will likely take your writing more seriously than if you only write every now and then. If you are seen to be giving this ‘writing thing’ a go, people will likely give you the space to pursue your passion. You know…ideally.
If you are a binge writer, know that this is not the easiest of writing routines and that you may need to find ways to work with or around your natural tendencies.
If you are a daily writer, you should also know that this is not the easiest of routines either and that you will have to establish boundaries in order to prioritise your writing and get the work done.
Neither option is easy because writing isn’t easy.
At the end of the day though, if you expect anything out of writing, then you’re expecting too much. Do what you can, when you can, and make sure your having fun whenever you’re engaging with your work.
*image: Interrogation – Samuel Leo