Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Write Every Day, and other lies

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I read from Infidelity for the first time at Word on the Street at the end of September this year. After I was done, I sat down at the signing table, and a girl—about eleven or twelve years old—came up to me and asked if she could interview me about “being a writer” for a class assignment. She was nervous yet professional, with a small spiral bound notebook in which she scrawled my answers furiously.

After we had gone through a few of her questions, my practiced responses coming easily, she asked, “What do you do when you can’t write? When you’re blocked?”

It was a timely question. When I was invited to be the Writer in Residence for Open Book Toronto I was both excited and terrified at the idea. The sheer volume of the posts required—about four a week—seemed insurmountable to me. Other writers who have done it sent ominous messages, commented that it was a lot of work, and knowingly, winkingly wished me luck. The frequency of the task seemed like a marathon of endurance, and if I’m honest, the polar opposite to the way I usually approach things. This situation calls for daily writing, and I’ve been quite vocal about never being one for the “write every day” rule. For me that rule means adopting an overused, standardized idea that anyone who wants to publish their work should get up at the crack of dawn and get the words on the page before their day packed with other obligations begins.

Of course, this is not to say I haven’t known writers who write every day and do it damn well. Robert J Wiersema has this superhuman ability to get up in the hours of the day when club goers are likely just going home to bed, dutifully getting a few thousand useable words down while they’re still sauntering home in their stilettos. He lives in a time zone three hours earlier than mine, but I can guarantee he’s already written most of a chapter of fiction before I’ve even put my pants on. Poet and friend Dani Couture writes well-crafted poems on her morning commute to work, and then sits down at the kitchen table at the office to edit them over lunch. I’ve known writers to shoehorn a quality word count in before they have to corral their children to get them to school, in between food prep and serving dinner to their families, while taking a smoke break from their retail jobs. Lectures during my MFA in creative non-fiction have been driving home the practice of finding time daily to get something—anything—concrete down before the day is done.

Me? I’m more of a binge writer. Maybe it’s my love of sleeping in or of episodic television, but I simply can’t bring myself to get down to the task daily. Instead I clear out all of my responsibilities on a day or two a week (read, the weekend) and lock myself in a dark room and work without break. Dishes pile up and laundry doesn’t get done. I tend to become a bit feral, and my partner knows better than to even try to have a coherent conversation with me. It’s not pretty, but it works, and it’s taken a while to shake that creeping guilt imposed by the rule writers, those who say in order to be “real” I should be making writing a part of my daily schedule.

So what did I say to the girl at Word on the Street when she asked what I do when I can’t write? “I don’t.” She laughed uncomfortably at this, so I continued. “When you can’t write you should do something else that you want to do. Take care of yourself. Take your mind off it. Have a nap. Read. Whatever you like. If you do, and you want it, it will come.”

Reality is, people who have the compulsion to write will find a way to do it no matter what their personal circumstance or style of working. Writing is like having a lover you can’t bear to be separated from, and literature teaches us that lovers always find a way no matter what forces (like a day job, familial demands, or a total inability to wake up before 8 AM) are keeping them apart. Imposing arbitrary rules of what kind of writing practice is genuine is sheer ridiculousness. What works for Wiersema doesn’t work for everyone, but everyone who loves writing will find their way.

Strict rules about writing presuppose that we all have the same situations, experiences, goals, and ways of funding ourselves. Someone who has a trust fund or a healthy inheritance is going to approach writing differently than someone who has shift work or a desk job. Someone who is single, living alone in a bachelor apartment is going to approach writing differently than someone with three kids they need to get to soccer practice. The brilliant Iain Reid has written more wisely on this tyranny of rule-making than I ever could in his National Post piece Made To Be Broken in which he says, “(C)ountless lists methodizing how to write frustrate me. I find them vapidly dejecting. My complaint isn’t that the rules are always absurd or illogical. Some of the contemporary writers I admire most have made their own. The trouble is they aren’t rules and their value shrinks as soon as they are marked as such.”

“Write Everyday might be the worst piece of phony advice a writer can give/get,” he continues. “Whenever I hear/read it being offered, which is often, I feel a deep, hydraulic pitch in my stomach and want to lie down in a dark room and watch basketball.” Swap basketball for baseball, and I’m firmly in Reid’s camp.

I don’t believe in writing every day, but the truth is, I don’t have to. I just have to get the work done whatever way I can, in whatever way I want to. I like to think I saved that girl at Word on the Street some trouble by suggesting that instead of fixing the problem that legend says is wrong, she start things off by making her own rules.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Stacey May Fowles

Stacey May Fowles is a writer and magazine professional living in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to The National Post books section and currently works at The Walrus. Her latest novel is Infidelity, out this fall with ECW Press.

Go to Stacey May Fowles’s Author Page