Am I Still a Real Writer If I Don’t Feel Compelled to Write?

The Blunt Instrument on the importance of not writing

The Blunt Instrument is a semi-regular advice column for writers. If you need tough advice for a writing problem, send your question to blunt@electricliterature.com.

Dear Blunt Instrument,

There are some (a lot?) of writers who say shit like, “I have to write, I couldn’t not write, writing saves my life” etc. etc. (like cough my ex before last whom I’ll apparently never get over). So the reason I don’t think I’m a real writer, even though I’ve been published and some writers/people I respect have told me I can write well is because I don’t feel like I have to write.

I’ve been blocked for years and avoid writing almost every day. I can only manage haikus or song parodies because they’re so short and constrained that my hatred for my words and ideas doesn’t have time to kick in. So I feel like I’m probably not a writer, compared to my stupid ex who writes everyday and has been working on a book for years, along with getting engaged. FML.

So I guess my question is, am I not a real writer if I don’t feel like I have to write?

—Am I Real

Photo by darkday

Dear AIR,

First of all, I don’t see writers versus real writers as a useful distinction unless writers includes fictional characters who write and “authors” who let ghost writers do all the work. That’s not you, so if you write sometimes and not never, you’re a “real writer.”

Now let’s unpack this assumption a little. It seems closely related to what a friend of mine calls “the ass-in-the-chair canard,” or the idea that you need to write every day if you want to be a real writer. I hate this idea — it’s both privileged (it’s a lot easier to write every day if you’re healthy, if you don’t have to work a full-time job, if you can afford to do stuff like have an office, pay for childcare, have a housekeeper, etc.) and gatekeeper-y (a way of keeping those less lucky people out of the game). It’s also a version of that uniquely American condition I think of as Productivity Madness (more is always better! Suffer! Produce!).

If you write sometimes and not never, you’re a “real writer.”

This version — the “I can’t not write” canard — is slightly different, but as a way of shaming writers who aren’t as prolific as you, I find it similarly unsavory. Probably people who feel like they “have” to write don’t actually have a compulsive disorder; probably they mean they really like writing, or they find it really helpful in some way, or that it’s a learned routine. When you do something all the time, not doing it starts to feel wrong. (If you feel like you have to eat breakfast right when you wake up, guess what — you feel starving in the morning because that’s when you usually eat, and your body has learned to prepare for the onslaught of food by lowering your blood sugar. You can unlearn that.)

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In reality, writing — art-making in general — feels different for everyone. Some writers write a book a year like clockwork, others take a decade. Dorothy Parker said “I hate writing but love having written.” Woody Allen seems to keep making movies purely out of habit. As for me, I love writing! But I don’t love writing if I do it every day. To borrow a metaphor from sex, I have a long refractory period; writing releases built up tension, but it’s not very enjoyable if I don’t allow time for the tension to build.

Rather than holding yourself to an arbitrary standard, what would be useful is figuring out a process or set of habits that works well for you. Being “blocked for years” and “avoiding writing almost every day” doesn’t sound super healthy, even if it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer; it sounds like you’d like to be writing more than you are.

I would try to figure out what is keeping you from writing. Is it mostly competitive jealousy? Or just not feeling confident that your writing is good? What was different about your life when you were writing more? Did writing used to make you happy — either while you were doing it or at least afterwards? I assume it must have, on some level, or you wouldn’t be asking this question. Can you re-create those circumstances? Can you isolate the parts of writing that you find meaningful, and do them more? You don’t have to do it every day, but as noted above: you have to do it sometimes, not never.

Now, since the ass-in-chair routine is well established elsewhere, I’d like to devote a little space to the benefits of not writing every day.

1. Not writing gives you time to read. When I have too many writing deadlines I honestly feel annoyed that I don’t have more time to read. Reading is the greatest! It’s also maybe the easiest way to become a better writer.

People who have time to write and read every day are lucky jerks. If you’re not a lucky jerk, reallocate some of the time when you feel like you should be writing to reading instead. Go to the library a lot and surround yourself with books. Abandon books that don’t interest you. Read books that do interest you with a notebook and pencil and those little sticky tabs nearby. Also, light a candle, pour yourself a beverage, get into it! I like to treat reading as a luxury, and being an engaged reader always makes me want to write.

2. Not writing gives you time to have experiences. I can’t stand that thing where people are talking about something interesting in the world on social media or whatever, and some scold pops in to say, “This is a distraction/waste of time, get back to work.” As though anyone can literally work all the time and never stop to talk to humans or engage in politics and expect to make good art out of that.

You actually have to spend some of your life living and doing normal life stuff or you can’t be a good writer. Life gives you stuff to write about, plus perspective and insight and context. Too much ass-in-the-chair time and you’re not getting exposed to the actual world.

You actually have to spend some of your life living and doing normal life stuff or you can’t be a good writer. Life gives you stuff to write about.

3. Not writing gives you time to think. Even when you know exactly what you want to write about, even when you’re deep into a draft or second draft or whatever, you still need time out of the chair to think. You can think while you write, yes, but writing comes so much more easily if you’ve done some of the thinking work beforehand.

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There are tons and tons of studies that show the brain is really good at solving problems (even creative problems!) when you give it plenty of time and space to do its thing. The amazing thing is that a lot of the work gets done unconsciously! What could be easier?! When you give yourself permission to think, you can have good ideas without even trying. They’re canards too, but the take-a-shower and go-for-a-walk canards really work in my experience; they offer just enough of a distraction that your unconscious mind, which knows a lot, can get to work without your conscious mind always trying to steal the show.

Supposedly Charlie Parker, according to the art critic Jerry Saltz, once said, “If you don’t play the saxophone for a year, you get a year better.” I love this idea so much. It jibes with my experience of learning as discrete, more than continuous. Instead of steadily getting better on a curve, it feels more like we suddenly level up. It’s like all this potential learning gets stored up, and then a change of circumstances or an artistic breakthrough turns all that potential into real energy.

I say all this to say, when you’re a real writer, not writing is writing.

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