It seems that we hold very firm ideas about writers and writing in our heads. It’s a cultural stereotype. It involves a man (see stats on publishing women writers) who is white and who shuts himself away at regular times in the day to sharpen his pencils and write his 1000 words. Say John Steinbeck (see Journal of a Novel).
And alongside this stereotype people just want to write rules for writers and for writing. There are 43 million rules for writers and 78 million rules for writing thrown up by a Google search. It seems that many people know the right way to write and to be a writer. They can’t all be writers, but they have an influence over what writers believe.
Let’s challenge all of this, and remember there are as many ways of writing as there are writers.
Exclusive assumptions about writers
We wouldn’t need the specialist prizes and lists if it was as easy for women, people of colour and of other minorities to be published as it is for white men.
And if there were a proven way to set about writing, we wouldn’t need those weekly columns about My Writing Day. We wouldn’t be endlessly interested in Roald Dahl’s hut, or JK Rowling at work in a café, or Jane Austen’s tiny writing table with easy to cover writing arrangements. Or a room of our own.
Discipline and Routine
It is very common among beginner writers on courses to hear about the need for routine and for discipline. Writers, it is assumed, must be disciplined and must write every day, at the same time. In fact those two ideas – routine and discipline – have elided.
So I went looking for advice on routine and discipline among my how-to-write books. Guess what? I didn’t find any.
And I’m pleased because I hate the moral tone of this pseudo-guidance. Finger wagging. You are a weak person if you don’t meet your daily quota. You have failed if you did not write every morning this week. You should always have your day’s writing goal ready. This is the path to success and to moral worth.
Phooey. Here are some helpful ideas for writers from various sources about discipline and routine.
The Commitment to Write
Dorothea Brande wrote Becoming a Writer in the 1930s but it has not dated, except in its references to typewriters. She is very strong on the point that if you have made a commitment to writing, you should write. Even if it is difficult. Others refer to this as turning up at the page much as one turns up at the office. She says this:
Now this is very important, and can hardy be emphasized too strongly: you have decided to write at four o’clock, and at four o’clock write you must! No excuses can be given. … Your agreement is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. (77)
I admit this has moral overtones, mostly about what is due to yourself as a writer. Dorothea Brande recognised that it sometimes doesn’t feel like a good time to write, but her prescription is to write anyway:
However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write. (77)
Discipline can be a good thing
Judy Reeves in Writing Alone, Writing Together reminds us that discipline has good aspects. The word comes from the Latin for learning and teaching and is reflected in disciple – a follower. She also points out that we need some discipline as writers in order to achieve our goals, such as the completion of a 300-page novel. (She is an American.)
Her advice is similar.
Just keep working. (10)
She admits that we may need to borrow discipline from time to time (eg commit to a group or to a fellow writer) but only so far as to create the space so that ‘the wild, free mind is set loose to roam’.
Too much discipline/routine may impede creativity
We adopt routines and develop habits precisely so we don’t have to think about these actions: cleaning teeth, washing up, putting one’s keys in the same spot and so on. But writers need to think about what they are doing. We don’t want to go on writing in the same rut because if we do we will continue to produce what we have always written.
And it may not be enough to vary writing practices, such as where and when you write, the font you use, using a pen or a keyboard, and other basic variations. More radical suggestions include taking classes, going to new places and meeting different people, changing the approach to or order of writing (eg not writing a story from start to finish).
In the Writing Group
When we discussed in our group how hard some writers were finding it to get started, other members of the group pitched in by suggesting that it’s passion, not discipline, that fuels writing. Write because you want to.
And we were reminded again of the importance of turning up to the page, of just writing.
I wrote about the un-necessity for rule for writers on this blog about a year ago: Writers, why don’t you tear up those rules?
I think we can develop our own image of the self as writer and it can be as idiosyncratic as suits us. The same goes for how we set about writing, our ’routines’. I’m all for indiscipline myself!
And, thanks for asking, the novel is coming along quite well.
Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck. Published in 1969 by Penguin Classics.
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Published in 1934. I used the Putnam edition from 1980.
Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. Published by the New World Library in 2002.
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