Write Every Day

Once upon a time, I worked at a law firm in Boston, in the financial district.

I went into the law firm in the morning, and I came out in the morning, usually about 2 a.m. When I came out, I got into a car that drove me home. Law firms of that size pay for a car to drive you home, if you’re there past a certain hour. I was often there past that hour. And they pay for dinner as well, if you’re there at dinner time, which I almost always was. So I drafted documents, and ate take-out, and didn’t get enough sleep.

I was in terrible shape.

That was when I started taking dance classes. And since I’m me, I started taking dance classes at the Boston Ballet School. I had taken ballet as a child, but I had not danced for years, so it took me several months to learn the steps and positions again. And it took me that long to get back into the shape I needed to be in, to dance.

One of the interesting but also intimidating things about the Boston Ballet School is that you’re among the professional dancers. They pass you on the stairs, but also they sometimes take the beginning or intermediate classes, particularly after they’ve been injured and need something easier to do. Because they, of course, dance every day.

I danced for several years after that, both while I was a lawyer and after I started graduate school, and I’ve never been in such good shape in my life. Ballet reshaped my body, made me stand and move differently. You can see it if you look at the pictures of me in my Resolutions post. If you look at the first picture, you’ll see that I have ballet hands.

I have not taken dance classes for a while. It’s difficult to, living here in Lexington. Commuting, teaching, and writing the dissertation take all my time. There’s no time left over for dance. But I try to stay in shape by exercising the way a dancer would (you know, pilades, yoga, that sort of thing).

You’re wondering what all this has to do with writing, and here it is: I have to do it every day.

I realized this particularly over the last semester, which was one of the most difficult periods of my life. Among other things, I stopped trying to stay in shape. When you’ve been exercising as long as I have, you don’t immediately turn into mush. It takes a while. But I haven’t been feeling well. So recently, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to start exercising again, specifically so that, once my dissertation is over, I can go back to taking dance classes. I miss dance, the discipline of it, feeling as though I’m pushing myself to my physical limit.

But again, I have to do it every day. Oh, I suppose I don’t have to. But when I don’t, even for a day, I feel the weakness in my core, or my shoulders. I feel that I’m not as strong or flexible as I was the day before. When I do it every day, I feel tight, together, as though I can move effectively and efficiently. Flexibility is particularly important. You lose that overnight. Every morning I wake and start to stretch, start to gain flexibility again. And if you do that every day, it’s easier the next day, and the next.

(Last night was particularly bad. I haven’t had a nightmare for a while, several weeks, but I had one again last night. At first I couldn’t get to sleep at all. I lay awake for what felt like hours. But when I finally did get to sleep, I dreamed that my lover was being pursued by the police. He had run into the forest, up into the hills. Then finally they caught up with him and shot him. I was not there, I only heard about it. And then I dreamed the terrible feeling of having lost someone you love, the permanent absence of it. The blankness of knowing that person was gone and would never come again, not on this earth. Mike Allen once wrote that he enjoyed his nightmares and would turn them into stories. Not me. My nightmares are horrible. And – this was my point – I woke stiff all over, barely able to turn my neck.)

I think writing is like that. The brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised every day, and whichever part of it writes, that needs to be exercised in particular.

What did I write today? I wrote part of the first chapter of my dissertation. Well, really I revised it, because it had been written some time ago, but I’m trying to revise both the first and second chapters to make my argument clear. And then I wrote this blog post.

I think both of those count as writing, and later today I will need to work on my Folkroots column, which will count as writing too.

Writing every day, whatever I’m writing, makes me stronger and more flexible as a writer. If I didn’t write for one day, I think I would feel it. I think parts of my brain would feel – well, mushy.

I will end with two photographs. This is a picture of me exercising my writing muscles:

And this is a book I saw in the YA section of Barnes and Noble. I include it for your amusement!

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9 Responses to Write Every Day

  1. Will says:

    I’m always surprised to discover how important momentum is in writing. A story can go off track for me after only a few days not working on it. The good news is that there seems to be a critical mass at which it kind of builds on itself, but if I leave something for much longer than a week, it takes a LOT of work to get it back.

    So amen to writing every day!

  2. Writing every day is totally key. I have found it is much better for me to adopt a program of writing 200 words absolutely every day, and measure progress only by consistency, than attend to word count, shooting for 2000-word days (which for me is a lot… just saw Paolo status-messaging-on-facebook [this needs a new internet verb, btw] about a 6000-word day, grr). “Better” both in terms of long-term total cumulative word count, and in terms of sanity. Every day not writing, writing gets harder. Every couple of days not writing presents the opportunity for a long stretch of derailment.

    The metaphor of a dice roll occurred to me while I was writing that paragraph, and now I want to GM a role playing campaign in which one of the characters is a writer and the way that we model writing is that every day of writing, you have a chance to roll a critical hit and get into a groove, which produces bonuses to INT and POW (or WIS if you insist on playing those pesky TSR games) as well as experience points; and every day not writing you have to roll a saving throw against writers’ block, with concomitant minuses to POW, CHA, and CON. Or perhaps just a Call of Cthulhu campaign in which all of the bonuses and minuses are to SAN (in fact the character in question could be HPL!)

    Then as GM I would constantly pester the character mid-adventure with “by the way, you haven’t written yet today” and they’d be like, to the rest of the party, “uh, guys, do you mind if I go off and write?” “What the hell? Did you see that thing go down the tunnel? We have to find out what –” “But maybe you guys could do that while I just grab an hour at this desk here? Oh, I mean, I could search for secret doors…okay?”

  3. Ben, I don’t understand some of what you wrote, but that totally made me laugh! πŸ™‚

  4. I thought you were a tabletop RPG nerd in high school too? Or do I have that wrong? πŸ™‚ If you are not up on your Chaosium games, Call of Cthulhu is set, obviously, in a Lovecraftian milieu… but I’ve never seen anyone actually play Lovecraft himself as a character. The game features people going crazy constantly — thus Sanity is a character-sheet attribute. But anyway! I digress! πŸ™‚

  5. I played D&D, but that was a while ago. Sanity as a character attribute: my D&D crowd would have had a field day with that one! πŸ™‚

  6. Sofia Samatar says:

    Annie Dillard said if you take too long a break from writing, you’re like a lion tamer who’s neglected her lion. It’s hard to go back into the cage. You walk in holding up a chair and yelling “Simba!”

    As a fiction writer who’s also trying to get a PhD, I wonder about the different types of writing I’m doing. Are they really going to work together? Does working on my dissertation count?

  7. Yes, writing on your dissertation totally counts! It’s a different type of writing; I bet it literally uses different parts of your brain, or at least it feels as though it does. But it’s like cross-training. If you make yourself stronger and more flexible in general, you’re going to be ready for all sorts of different athletic activities. I honestly think I even learned from writing legal contracts: they taught me a habit of precision.

    I LOVE what Annie Dillard said! That’s wonderful. I never want to neglect my lion.

  8. Sofia Samatar says:

    Good to hear… I’ll do my best to believe it!

    The Dillard quote is from The Writing Life, the best book I’ve ever read on writing (admittedly I’ve only read 3).

  9. I’ve read some Dillard, but not that one. I’ll look for it . . .

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