Writers need to be nicer to themselves. Maybe it’s pressure from the industry. Maybe it’s the idea that artists should build their careers on sweat and exhaustion and sleepless nights. Maybe you are so lucky as to have too many stories building up inside you that you want to stay up slaving at your computer, but the truth of the matter is that writing has become – or perhaps always been – an industry where working too hard, too much and too often is only the first step to success.
This might be an American think. After all, I have friends in all industries that work too hard. And don’t take this to mean that I think writers deserve praise and love for work they’re not doing. For those of us lucky enough to call writing a job, writing is a job and we have to work hard to succeed at it. I don’t shirk hard work and none of the writers I know do either.
But somewhere along the way, we romanticized the workaholic tendencies. Somewhere further along the line, we started expecting them. Yes, in order to be a writer you must write – obviously. But the idea that an author must put pen to paper every single day, must pump out a new chapter before breakfast every morning, it is no longer about a dedication to your art and craft and passion and now another excuse to make artists work far too hard for not nearly enough.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little raw on this topic. Tomorrow marks the third week of National Novel Writing Month and I am beginning to burn out. After many family obligations that required days off (a wedding, nothing bad!) I found that I had lost my significant lead over the story and was now writing nearly 2,000 words day-to-day.
I like this new book. A lot, actually. The characters are unique and I’m enjoying writing a third book in a series, familiar as I am with pre-existing characters and setting. The book isn’t the problem.
But the pace of writing 2,000 words a day (it’s actually 1,667, but the point remains,) that’s grueling. Even for me. I’ve accomplished National Novel Writing Month seven times. I’ve written manuscripts in two weeks. Writing quickly and a lot is not an issue.
It’s also not sustainable.
Writing isn’t a physical job. Unless you’ve taken it upon yourself to learn martial arts as a research project or you’ve gone ahead and gotten a standing desk, most of this job requires sitting. A lot of sitting. And staring at a computer. If you’ve never written a book before, it might look like we spend all our time not working. I get that. Storytelling is challenging to quantify.
But while writing isn’t physically demanding, it is emotionally demanding. Telling the story of how a young woman watched a serial killer take out her neighbor’s entire family, that brings you to a place you don’t want to spend your days. Even a love story, with its ups and downs, guilt, love, affection, sacrifice, every single time you put your pen to the paper or fingers to the keyboard you are entering a world of emotion, good, bad and the gamut between.
National Novel Writing Month is one thing. It’s a challenge that pushes us harder, higher, further than we believe we’re capable of. But it’s also short term. Think about the idea of writing 2,000 words every single day. Sure, you’d finish a remarkable number of projects, but you’d be wiped. Eventually, it would catch up with you.
Which is why it’s important to sometimes take a step back and wonder if you’re putting pressure on yourself to finish a book because 1) You want to, 2) It’s on deadline or 3) Because you feel that you should always be working, striving, pushing, jumping higher and higher. Yes, I understand that sometimes we do need to reach our deadlines – that’s a great problem to have. But it’s also okay to take a breather, to remind yourself that other jobs don’t exist in the 24-hour cycle, that in order to be the best writer you can be, you must step away from the desk every once in awhile.
We must still work hard. In fact, we’ll probably still work all the time. But while we’re doing it, it’s important to be nice to ourselves too. Writing is already a challenging career and a challenging passion, even more so when you combine the two. It’s not just okay to step back, it’s necessary to survival. At the end of the day, the world isn’t going to explode just because you missed a word count or two. Do your best not to explode either. ♦