You Can’t Be A Writer By Writing All The Time
The thing with writing is that a lot of it doesn’t involve putting words onto paper — or screen — but just plain old getting out there and living, with eyes and ears wide open. It is what makes it a dream job, as well as a job which consumes you.
This weekend, I took two days off.
It would never have happened if I hadn’t been forced to slow down by the flu. My brain was like a huge piece of fluff and I couldn’t have coherent conversations, let alone trick my brain into thinking and writing. And so after scribbling down a few paragraphs of babble, I gave up, and had two days off. I had long conversations with my boyfriend, I went to a new part of town with a market and concert held by charities, I drank too much beer with a friend and had long discussions about love and sex and our messed-up world. I spent a lot of time in bed, too, catching up on some reading, doing macramé, and watching some arty French films that I never usually feel up for.
On Monday morning, something amazing happened. My articles wrote themselves. It was like they had been bubbling in my brain throughout the two days, and when I finally got around to writing them down, they slid off my fingers with ease. I don’t know about you guys, but I usually find writing more like trying to get water out of a stone. It is a long, painful process. So when it feels like the words already lined up by the door, with their shoes and their coats on, ready to walk outside docilely, I was pleasantly taken aback.
It came as a useful reminder to me about the importance of breaks in general, whatever your line of work. Working every hour of the day isn’t productive, it just leads to a lower quality of work and, more importantly, to your heart and soul growing weary. It has been calculated that people coming to work when they aren’t fit for it actually cost companies a lot in terms of productivity — more than people pulling sickies.
A year-long telephone survey of 29,000 working adults dubbed the “American Productivity Audit” calculated the cost of presenteeism in the U.S. to be more than $150 billion a year. Most studies confirm that presenteeism is far more costly than illness-related absenteeism or disability. Two Journal of the American Medical Association studies found that on-the-job productivity lost resulting from depression and pain was roughly three times greater than the absence-related productivity loss attributed to these conditions.
The reason people continue to come is, of course, not because they really want to be at work feeling like crap, but because the culture around work still tells us that more is better, when it isn’t. Not for workers, not for society.
It is important to bear this in mind as a freelancer because the person ultimately suffering from you not taking breaks is you — twice over — as the person having to work when they need rest and the person who suffers from the lack of productivity. The problem is the burden of guilt which any freelancer has to deal with. Working for yourself does require a lot of discipline. It is hard not to go to far, and to set healthy limits.
One way of doing this is to realise what working actually looks like.
Ask the world of Stock Photos, and being a writer consists in being dressed to go to a night club, but instead, you got caught in the 1960s so you decided to write out your life story on an antiquated writer, while smoking/floating in zero gravity.
In real life, there are no type writers, and the actual writing part is only the tip of the iceberg
Writing requires living. For your words to have meaning, you need to have seen things in the world, met people. You cannot write in a vacuum.
Don’t feel guilty if one day, or several, you are too busy to write. Whatever you have been doing, however, you have been living, is, in its own way, part of the creative process.
The important thing, isn’t to crank out a thousand words a day, or even a single sentence, but to consciously live as a writer. To observe and question everything you encounter, so that you can store it in your brain and use it later on. This is what you learn as a journalist: that when you are reporting, everything around you can be part of a story. There is no downtime. And that is a wonderful thing, because the world is brighter and more flavoursome when you are paying attention.
Which brings us to the old dilemma: either you have time to write, or you have stuff to write about.
Anyone that has ever kept a journal has felt this frustration. When your life is boring, you write pages and pages. And then there is an empty space when the most important things happen.
That is another reason that consciously being a writer at all times is important — so that you can learn to live and write at the same time. Take notes while you live things — nothing long. Just a few words will be enough for you to remember. And we have smartphones now, so it really does just take a second to Swype out a few words — a cryptic message to future you, that no one else could understand.
Maximise the boring times. There are lots of them, however exciting your life is. There are buses and trains and times hanging around waiting for your less than punctual friends to show up. Right now, I’m writing from a long queue at a visa centre, as I plan for my trip to Mongolia next month. I am skyping away from an uncomfortable metal chair, in a vibrant waiting room, to the rhythm of a constant beep and a metallic voice calling out each ticket number in turn.
If you are not good at working in public places, find a way to get better. Practice. Earplugs. Writing a random stream of consciousness rather than actually constructed paragraphs. That way you can use idle moments swyping rather than scrolling.
Just remember, to become a writer, you don’t have to write every day, you do need to live every day.