categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
As literary crushes go, Aimee Bender is definitely in my top ten. I discovered her short stories as an undergrad—the first one I ever read, a bad photocopy of “The Healer,” featured a girl with a hand of fire and a girl with a hand of ice. It was bursting with two of the things I value most in fiction: imagination and heart. I was hooked.
So of course I read Aimee Bender’s recent article, “Why the Best Way to Get Creative Is to Make Some Rules,” even though it was categorized in the “spirit” section of Oprah’s website, and even though a banner of three white women hugging and smiling, the text glowing “Empower Yourself” floated at the top of the page. Even though I find the word “rules” to be something of a turn-off, and am especially suspicious when the word is being applied to creativity.
In the article, Bender makes the case for maintaining a strict, daily writing routine, complete with set start and stop times, and even goes so far as to suggest drafting a contract. She makes her argument by citing psychotherapy and Hemingway, and by using words like “discipline” and “structure.” It is a method that has, without a doubt, worked for Bender. But the article isn’t meant to be a peek into her writing process; it is a call to action.
Bender’s counsel will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has studied, or even dabbled in, writing. Developing a daily writing routine is a widespread piece of craft advice, one given especially to novice writers. Bender goes on to say:
With all its wonderful bureaucratic stick-in-the-mud specificity, the contract is then also a fighting gesture against the ever-present idea that writers walk around with alchemy boiling in their fingertips. That we are dreamy wanderers carrying a snifter of brandy, with elegant sentences available on call. It’s such a load of crap. Sure, there are writers who work this way, who embrace their writerliness and are still able to get work done, but most I know have found their voice through routine, through ordinariness, through some kind of method of working.
The writers who keep a daily schedule—let’s call them Dailies—often take this tone of superiority to writers who work in fits and bursts, who have long stretches of no writing followed by intense periods where they do nothing else, sometimes forgetting to sleep and eat. The Bingers.
The language between Bingers and Dailies is reminiscent of the Mommy Wars. The Dailies fancy themselves disciplined and dedicated. They have conviction. If they happen to have day jobs or children—or both—then they are doubly superior. They make sacrifices. They practice “a method of working.”
Which is to say, or at least imply, Bingers don’t work. They are the “dreamy wanderers” with their brandy and their bohemian tendencies. Like the Mommy Wars, each side feels the other receives more praise and admiration. Bender writes of the “ever-present idea that writers walk around with alchemy boiling in their fingertips.” And yet Bingers are often painted as less serious and less authentic than their structured comrades. Among other writers, Bingers are mostly in the closet lest they be painted as frauds merely wanting to look like writers, of not putting in the time.
I’ve lied about being one of the Dailies for quite some time.
“Do you write every day?”
“Oh yes,” I answer, indignant that there was even a question. Of course I write every day! What do you take me for?
In fact, there was a time where I did write every day. I thought that to be a “real” writer, I must. (What is this preoccupation was being “real” with writers, anyway? Like we are a bunch of wooden puppets praying for the Blue Fairy to visit us.) I was guilted into developing the habit. For three months of so, I showed up at my desk, every day, for at least thirty minutes. During this period, I spent a lot of time staring at the wall and fidgeting in my chair. I would write a few awkward sentences and then put my head in my hands. I would never be a real boy writer!
Finally, I gave up and went back to my messy, disorderly ways.
The trick to binge writing is that, unbeknownst to others (or maybe even yourself), you are “writing” even when you are not. Before I start a new story or project I spend days or even weeks letting it tumble around in my head. I do most of my writing while walking, “dreamy wandering,” if you will. Once I went for a walk in my neighborhood, looked up, and realized I had no idea where I was. I write while I’m driving, I write in the shower, I write, sitting very still with my cat in my lap on the couch, staring off into space. The story builds and builds until I feel like I could just boil over, and when I go to sit at my lap top—which could be anywhere, by the way: my bed or the kitchen table, a noisy coffee shop or my couch—I need to know I have a long stretch of time ahead of me. I need my calendar cleared; I need to have nowhere to be. I enter into what psychologists call “flow,” a mental state in which time disappears and I am fully immersed. Flow is, supposedly, the ultimate state of happiness.
Louise Glück, reading from her new tome of a collection, “Poems: 1962-2012” said she couldn’t believe how much work she had done. “I feel like I’ve spent most of my time not writing,” she said to a packed room at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge.
Glück isn’t the only writer who has come out and openly admitted to not writing every day. In an interview with The Paris Review, Susan Sontag said, “I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific.”
Cheryl Strayed in an interview with 99U said, “I’ve always been a kind of ‘binge writer’ even in my waitressing days. After not writing for a few months I’d apply to a residency in an artist colony and just go and write for months.”
The very existence and artist colonies suggest that there are more Bingers out there than the Dailies would have you believe. Why go away for block of time if not to, hopefully, write in a great burst?
This is not to say that writing every day is necessarily a bad thing. There is a mystique and kind of superiority, too, to binge writing. Writing in bursts does not make one more inspired, does not mean you are closer to the muse. It does not make you more authentic. Frustratingly, and like most aspects of writing, there is no “right way.” You listen to other writers, you try out their techniques. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but in the end, no one sees you working. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how you get there. When a reader come to your story, she doesn’t care how much time you spent picking at your cuticles instead of slamming away at the keyboard. She doesn’t care if it was night or morning when it was crafted. She doesn’t care if it took you one year or if it took you ten.
[Alise Hamilton is a writer and bookseller (Andover Books, Andover, MA), and she’s not kidding around.]