When it comes to writing habits, I always throw myself headlong into the one that’s working, knowing that it will only work so long.
I find a habit (going to the same coffee shop for a set amount of time each week, getting the same drink and treat and writing until I work through them, people watching all along OR writing only at my kitchen table and only on paper OR writing right before bed, while actually lying in bed and then waking up and editing last night’s writing in the morning OR whatever) and I fall in love with it, but I know deep down, that our love is doomed. As much as I want to write, as much as I love writing when I’m doing it, I still, somehow, try to avoid writing. A new routine excites me; it gives me a sense of purpose; it keeps me focused. Until it doesn’t. And I’m people watching more than writing, or writing at the kitchen table, still, but also while eating, or writing before bed, but going to bed so late that I’m too tired to scribble out more than a few incoherent lines before falling fast asleep.
I once wrote a whole book-length manuscript by tricking myself into sitting down and shuffling cards before writing. That worked for a while, but soon I found myself playing a game of solitaire before writing. And that was fine, until I became intent on winning a game of solitaire before writing. At which point, a lot of solitaire was happening and not a lot of writing. See what I mean? I trick myself, but I can only stay tricked so long.
I do not know if other writers have this problem.
I am coming off a good nearly two-year run of waking at 6am to write. This habit seemed like one that might stick. It worked for me and I worked for it. I felt a sense of pride at typing away in the dark—the same pride I got from taking long early morning runs and then grabbing coffee from a coffee shop with the superior smug face of a person who has already finished their run while others wander sleepy-eyed into the day. There is a long history of poets waking early to write. The whole process has a monastic—nearly ascetic—appeal. For nearly two years I could count myself among the solemn and hard-working dawn patrol, the serious writers who put in the time.
I find myself now in the unfortunate space that comes between writing habits. The 6 am routine has stopped working but I have yet to settle on what’s next. This is the unavoidable mullet phase that happens when you grow out short hair.
When I think of writing as a relationship I understand the trouble: I neglect and take it for granted, like the others I love most. Always, I have felt, have known, that at any point I could sit down and write. The other annoyances of the day must come first—they must!—because if I neglect them and write first, write is all I will do.
That has become less and less true as my life becomes busier. Or perhaps more true? Either way, the writing has become less inevitable, more pushed off. This makes the impending uselessness of a once-workable writing habit a sad death. It is hard and uncomfortable for a relationship to change. To meet someone where they are with their new needs. To ensure clarity: I don’t suffer from any illusion—writing is the constant. I change. Writing is loyal and I am a scamp.
Because I know I am a scamp, I must question my own motives. I see the convenience in determining that the 6am thing is NOT WORKING ANYMORE because I desire to sleep in. I wonder, without any alternative to turn to, how can I justify the begging off that is stopping it?
But then, to whom am I justifying?
And here comes the crux of it—writer’s guilt. Constantly I feel wracked by writer’s guilt—the terrible feeling (knowing!) that I have not written enough, have not challenged myself enough, simply have not made enough. The guilt follows me everywhere like an overeager pet.
I have talked to many other writers about this guilt—the condition seems universal.
I know I am a writer because I have this guilt.
I know I am a teacher because I lesson plan, teach, grade, hold office hours and my name is on a door. Also, I get those paychecks. Even during a summer when I don’t teach classes, I still know I am a teacher, but writing is a much different vocation. Maybe because we don’t get financial feedback? Because we’re doing it for the good of it? Except when we’re not. Because it gets hard to call yourself an artist when you mostly grade papers and watch the Gilmore girls and make new soups.
At any point one is either writing or not writing. While writing one can identify as a writer. While not writing, we need this guilt to remember who we are and what we want. The guilt makes us writers or at least helps us remember to identify that way. Maybe I should go back to speaking only for myself.
However, the writing guilt can feel very unproductive. Can make it seem like my writing energy gets drained on all this not-writing. I need to know (now and always): what of all this will facilitate me making the best shit?
I’ve arrived again at a cataract where I spin and spin for a while before shooting myself out on a new tributary. In the meantime, during the spinning, here I am writing about writing, waiting for the actual writing to kick back in.