Thursday, October 29, 2009

Keep Keeping On: A Matter of Discipline

Last week, in his discussion entitled “Keeping the Momentum Going,” Rick wrote of the challenges of writing—namely finding the energy and time to keep going. He suggested writing in short bursts, a philosophy that flies directly in the face of what I was told as an undergrad at SUNY Fredonia: “You need large chunks of time to write novels,” said writing professor David Lunde.

I told someone recently that most writers I know simply desire publishing success in order to have more time. Fame and fortune yields financial success, and, as it has been famously (or infamously) stated, Money equals freedom. To writers, freedom equals writing time. College funds, lower mortgage payments, even new golf clubs would be nice. But, more than anything, what writers all desire is the opportunity to wake up and spend the day in their bathrobes and write. Just write. To the contrary, though, most of us write as a sideline. And in this economy, you damn well better give your day job more than its due.

So how does a working writer satisfy publishers who are looking for a novel-a-year production pace? As I have said previously, I’m a morning person, writing usually 4 to 5:30 or 6 a.m. I can edit up to 10 pages or write three or four in that span. On the other hand, in last week’s blog, Rick suggested writing in five-to-10-minute spurts. I was stunned when I read it. It doesn’t seem like much, but upon closer examination, Rick also said he can get “a paragraph or two” written during those bursts. That’s a hell of a pace, when you think about it. If a paragraph is 50 or even 100 words, he’s writing up to 300 words in roughly 30 minutes.

Most writers, at least at one point in their careers, have struggled to find time and energy to pursue their craft. For instance, in 1951, Elmore Leonard was writing crime and western novels—whenever he could. “Getting out of bed at five o’clock,” explains Jean Henry Mead in her July 31, 2009, “Mysterious People” blog, “he [Leonard] wrote two pages of fiction before going to work ‘with the rule that I couldn’t put the water on for coffee until I’d started writing. I’ve been a disciplined writer ever since.’ While working for the ad agency, he supplemented his early morning writing by placing a pad of paper in his desk drawer. With the drawer partially open, he wrote fiction on the job.”

Similarly, Richard Russo once explained why he bounced around the academic circuit. He said he never changed jobs for a raise, always for more writing time. Eventually, he landed a teaching post that demanded a mere three courses a year. Clever guy that he is, Russo taught all three in one semester and then flip-flopped semesters the next year, so he’d have 12 consecutive months off during which he could focus on his Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction.

In this seemingly never-ending pursuit of more writing time, there exists the need for perspective. There is nothing any of us can do about the sluggish economy’s impact on the fiction market—fewer readers are buying books (lucky libraries!), thus fewer editors are acquiring new fiction. Therefore, as obsessed as we all are about our writing, one can’t forget that it really is only writing. And it comes second to attending our kids’ soccer games, coaching our kids’ Timbit minor hockey teams, and to our day jobs. The average writer is still not breaking par financially, so in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you drink enough coffee to make the predawn hours work, or whether you write in bursts—you do it because you love it, and one way or another you write your book.


Rick Blechta said...

That's not to say that I don't crave those day-long sessions as I'm writing for 10 minutes and dreading the moment I have to stop and get back to the pay-your-mortgage type of work.

You've hit the nail right on the head, John. Sigh...

Sidebar: Did I notice a Canadianism creeping in? Timbits? (For those who don't know — nearly anyone who isn't Canadian — Timbits are doughnut holes sold at Tim Horton's.) The product tie-in here is that Tim was the great hockey player with the Toronto Make Believes back in the '60s. He had some extra money and started a coffee and doughnut chain. The rest is history. We all know how John feels about hockey. When we meet, I'll bring the Timbits!

Dana King said...

Thanks for your concluding sentiment. Few things irritate me more than the following discussion, which I've had with friends several times.

Friend: (Laments at length about the publishing business, and how he can't make any money.

Me: Quit, if it makes you so unhappy.

Friend: I can't quit. Writing is my soul, my reason for existence. My characters speak to me. I could no more stop writing than I could stop breathing. (Maybe a bit of exaggeration, but just a bit.)

Me: Make up your mind. You either want to make money, or you can't help but write. No one owes you the right to do both.

You concluding paragraph was far more eloquent, and less abrasive.

Rick Blechta said...

Dana, what you say is the absolute truth. As in any of the arts, no one owes the artist anything. The choice is yours: to create or not to create. We sometimes complain far too much.

That being said, it does get frustrating to see others making money at what we love while we struggle financially. And don't bring 'artistic merit' into the discussion. Merit is in the eyes of the person observing the art.

Thanks for contributing.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Nice post- and true. If you want to write you find time. Everything else is out of your control :)

Cheers, Nance

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Ohh. Not putting the coffee on in the morning would definitely spark some writing from me. Don't know how GOOD it would be, though... :)

Mystery Writing is Murder