Not Every Day is a Writing Day

I Found The Sun Under The UmbrellaI have to confess: I don’t write every day. Not always. Not 365 days a year. Not 7 days a week. I don’t necessarily believe in the butt-in-chair method (isn’t the new thing that sitting is killing us?). I can’t buy into a one-size-fits-all definition of what a writer’s life should look like.

What I do believe in is fluidity. Constant change. My writing life is a lot like the seasons of the year, cyclical and ever-present, but also like the weather, unpredictable.

When I’m deep in drafting mode, I wake up before sunrise—almost daily—so I can catch the words just as they’re floating through that ethereal place between dreams and consciousness. I do this four or five days in a row and then rest for one or two, for however many months the story takes. It’s invigorating, and sometimes exhausting, but it’s all about momentum then, like getting caught in a storm and being left spent, breathless, once it’s over.

I can never dive back in right away. Always, there’s a period of decompression. I step away from the page completely and those are the days when I don’t write at all. Maybe I’ll journal, or I’ll write letters between characters, or I’ll write articles and copywriting projects but not fiction (blasphemy!) for weeks. I’ve managed to stop feeling guilty about this because it’s simply what works for me. Sometimes, the best thing I can do for my writing is to stop writing.

Eventually the wind changes. There’s always a point when, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve crossed over from recharging to procrastinating, and that’s when I know it’s time to start revising. I often do this early in the morning, especially if it’s a heavy rewrite. Other times I’ll steal away hours in the afternoon, balancing my freelance writing with a quick playdate with my characters.

I’ve gone through these seasons enough times to notice a pattern: no matter how busy life gets or how difficult the story becomes, in the end the writing gets done. I have to remind myself—on those dark, cold nights when I fear I won’t find my way back to the page—to trust the process. Yes, it’s fickle and uncertain and there’s no one to tell me: today’s forecast is a downpour of emotions followed by clear, sunny resolutions.

All I know is the days, weeks and months will keep passing, and I want to have something to show for it when they do.

What do your life’s seasons look like?

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

22 thoughts on “Not Every Day is a Writing Day

  1. I go by the seat of my pants. I’m in the middle of a story, but I’ve only written a few bits for a week or so. Well, it’s been a couple of very intense weeks. I’ve been thinking and I’ll write things down when I have the time.

    One time I got stuck on a particular plot point and I wrote movie reviews for a year or two.

    Then I came up with the answer and finished the novel. 🙂

    Because I’m a serial writer, I don’t have long periods of “drafting” and then long periods of “editing.” I’m always flipping back and forth, which really suits me. Like you, I don’t believe in the one-sided-fits-all thing. 🙂

    • I love that you can be so committed to a piece that you’d still come back to it 2 years later—many would give up sooner than that.

      To me, the only thing that really matters is that the commitment is still there, and that’s something that can be measured in so many other ways than just daily word count.

      • Well, everything I’ve written for the last 20+ years has been about the same (ever-expanding) cast of characters and mostly set in the same place (and a couple of the characters go back long before that).

        So, yes, let’s call that “commitment.” It’s a much nicer word than “obsession.” 🙂

  2. I’m up in the wee morning hours today, doing exactly what you just described–trying to “catch the words just as they’re floating through that ethereal place between dreams and consciousness.”

    • Yay for morning writers, Susan! Another author friend of mine, Jolina Petersheim, recently switched to morning writing and she says it’s transformed her life.

  3. I love this post, and Lori’s from yesterday. Both are good reminders that it’s not about rules or what “everyone else” does or what “they” say you must do to be a writer. It’s about what works. I don’t seem to be someone who can go from one thing to another without a gap between to recharge. I also can’t completely control when I’ll be productive, given the demands of my day job and my family. It helps to know others are the same way, and that “rolling with it” is a fine strategy, even for those who hope to be fairly prolific.

    • Thanks, Julie. I agree completely. There was a time when I’d hear the rules and wonder why I couldn’t follow them, and feel like a complete failure as a writer. It took some time, but once I figured out what worked for me, I felt empowered.

  4. Wonderful, eloquent post, Natalia. I find every writer is so vastly different in their writing regimes. It’s really interesting to me. I’m with you–up early and cranking away.

    • Thanks so much, Heather! You know what the funny thing about all this is? I’m soooo not a morning person. It’s one of life’s little pranks that the best time for me to write is so early when I really, really would rather be sleeping. But I figure as much as I love sleeping, I have to love writing more, so that settles that 😉

  5. I love how you compare your writing routine to the weather. Unpredictable. Yes! Exactly! Writers who are in the chair every day, including weekends, amaze me. Maybe one day that will be me, but today? Weekends and afternoons revolve around kids, mornings revolve around the animal feeding frenzy (dogs and cats), somewhere I fit in time with the hubby. And evenings? My mind is dead. But I, too, treasure those wee-dark hours of the morning before anyone (people and animals) are awake. Those are perfect fast-first-draft hours when the mind is fresh and chaos has chilled in the corner.

    • Aren’t they so perfect for first drafts? And I agree that part of the appeal about early morning isn’t just that my mind is just waking up, it’s also that the rest of the world hasn’t risen yet, so I don’t feel its pressures tugging at my sleeve.

  6. Great post, Natalia! It’s interesting that you and Susan both write so well half-asleep. I’ve tried that, and I mostly get nonsense. One thing I’ve done that works for my mid-day writing session is to write something for work right before lunch so that the writing wheels are greased, even if the topic is something else entirely. Better than trying to start writing from, say, spread-sheet work.

      • Haha…we must not let that inner critic get a drop of coffee or tea before we start writing…imagine what a mess that’d be!

    • I admire that you can switch gears so easily from work writing to fiction, Lori. That’s something I do only when I have to and life and deadlines demand it…it’s very difficult for me!

  7. Great post, as usual, Natalia. Wise words here: “Sometimes, the best thing I can do for my writing is to stop writing.” That down time is sometimes the best medicine for our writing, I think.

    • Thanks, Melissa. I admit it felt kind of liberating to write that line. It’s the first time I’ve said that without feeling guilty about it.

  8. Thanks for a great reminder, Natalia, that there are as many effective writing routines as there are writers. I used to write in coffeehouses all the time. I remember a writing teaching proclaiming that real writers didn’t write in coffeehouses. Really? Just because it doesn’t work for you, buddy …

    • Hmm…would this happen to be the same writing teacher as in your previous post about 5 people, etc? And if not, who are all these terrible teachers who speak in such absolutes? Frankly, I think absolutes have no place in any sort of creative endeavor. (Except for that sentence, which I realize is an absolute.)

  9. YEP this is me. I get very weary of people telling me YOU MUST WRITE EVERY DAY IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE A *REAL* WRITER. Y’all, I was a “real writer” by the time I was eight. Nobody needs to tell me what I have to do to get the title. It’s true I probably am writing something every day–journals, blog posts, e-mails–but I don’t write fiction every day because it just doesn’t work for me. I’m a binge writer, and it is a floodgate process. The intensity and emotional involvement of my creation process is not something I could endure if I did it daily. I’m not fussed if someone decides my way of writing isn’t valid. I have ten novels written that prove them wrong.

    • ::fist pump!:: Your comment had me shouting, “You go, Julie! You tell ’em!” in my mind.

      10 novels is pretty indisputable proof that the process can be different for everyone and still be effective.

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