Exercising that writing muscle.
Few sentences fill me with greater and more disproportionate rage than the one which goes “Writing’s a muscle, don’tchaknow. You have to exercise it every single day, or you’ll dry up and disappear. Use it or lose it!”
This advice is usually offered in a bright, trilling Pollyanna voice, or else in a tone of the greatest sobriety- a devotee passing on the third secret of Fatima.
The fallacy of the daily exercising of the writing muscle is what I call a gatekeeper device. It’s a trick pure and simple to put people off starting, and I believe that it’s the worst piece of advice an aspiring part-time writer could be given.
“You simply must write something, even a hundred words………..You must write three foolscap pages of stream of consciousness before you dress in the morning……..You must develop writer’s butt………You must pay your dues at the gym of writing.”
Well, forgive me for standing on a large number of very famous toes here, but life’s not like that. When your mother-in-law is dying at one end of the country, and your father’s being buried at the other end and the four children all have chicken pox somewhere around Athlone, then a hundred words a day may be wholly unrealistic. It might take six weeks to put a hundred words on paper. It might take six months.
I try to counter this piece of well-meaning advice politely with something along the lines of “I don’t tend to exercise my skin’s erector pili muscles yet my hair follicles still stand on end when I’m frightened and I get goose bumps when I’m cold.” I may leave my audience confused but it’s less offensive than shouting “Don’t give me that fucking, second-hand, specious claptrap that you picked off the Writer’s Digest website!”
If the average housewife, solicitor, doctor, brick-layer were to adopt the belief that writing can only be achievable for those with time on their hands, the world will lose out on a lot of good work.
None of this applies to those few souls who joyfully inscribe “Writer” on their passport applications and census forms. A full-time job is roughly forty hours per week. If writing pays your mortgage, you should be at your desk daily. Does writing pay your mortgage?
“I haven’t got the time” is the constant wail, “I can’t join the gym, I can’t lose weight, I can’t keep up with my friends, I haven’t got the time”. Don’t add “I can’t write” to that list- you can and you will, if you want.
I write everywhere. Most of my writing is done while driving. I cover huge distances on a monthly basis, trying to fulfil my life’s duties and I don’t even commute. Turn off Radio One; the Budget’s months away. Turn off Lyric FM, take your earphones off, learn to ignore the children and write away. If the kids persistent in acting like wild animals on car-trips, spoiling your authorial musings, simply turn around and go home a few times, cancel the cinema and the swimming-pool, that’ll learn them. By the time I get to the computer, which may be weekly, sometimes even less often, the story just vomits onto the page, a thousand words an hour.
Remember Ms Daniels, the hairy, lesbian history teacher, droning on and on? “Read all the questions before you start the exam.” It’s true. Give your subconscious half a chance and it will write the story for you while you wash the dishes, do a background search on your husband’s new lover, set up that IV drip. You don’t have to sit down to write, the creative process never stops, it only craves that half chance. Don’t deprive it- it’s not a lot to ask.
Here’s my advice:
If you want to write, you can, no matter how little time you have.
Organise your life better, why not develop and refine your story while using an exercise bike?
Stop watching TV, choose three series to record and watch them consciously, with awareness. Don’t sit in front of America’s Next Top Model, you know it’s rotting your brain.
Write when you can, without guilt. The dishes will get washed tomorrow, or else you’ll have to eat out of your cupped palms. The kids will still be sleeping in their single beds upstairs long into their twenties, give them a bit of benign neglect now, let them learn to appreciate you.
Write in the knowledge that sometimes it’s going to be crap.
Never let anyone tell you how to live your life. Especially not me.