Stephanie Harper is the author of Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside (Propertius Press, 2020), as well as the poetry collection Sermon Series (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Her narrative nonfiction work can be found in a number of publications, including HelloGiggles, HuffPost, Living Lutheran, Grok Nation, Aleteia, Healthline, The Daily Dot, Folks Magazine and more. She often writes about chronic illness and spirituality.
If you’ve spent any time in writing circles, you’ve probably heard some version of the “write every day” adage. The intent of this advice is sensible. After all, the only way to really hone your craft as a writer (or in any creative pursuit) is to continue doing it. To quote another popular cliché: practice makes perfect.
In a perfect world, I would practice my writing all day, every day, churning out work at a rate of prolificacy that would make the Stephen Kings or Joyce Carol Oates of the world blush. But this is not a perfect world and I am far from a perfect writer. This is real life.
Let me give you a snapshot of my real life. I have been plagued with increasingly complex chronic illness for close to a decade. For the last seven years, that has included a constant, unremitting headache I woke up with one morning and haven’t been without for a single second since. I spend a lot of time resting, because any physical or mental exertion wears me out. I nap daily. If I don’t take these breaks, if I don’t get the rest I need, if I overdo it too often, I can be down and out for a week or longer.
All of this is to say that my writing life has suffered. Where I used to write in floods, churning out pages and pages each day, now I write in trickles. I also maintain a part-time job (all I can manage with my increasingly severe symptoms) that requires creative work, and this work often takes precedence. Finding time — and perhaps more importantly, energy — to write for me, to work on my stuff, isn’t always easy.
More than anything, this makes me feel like an imposter. When I go days at a time without working on my next book, without writing a single thing, how can I call myself a writer? Add in all the feelings of being in a pandemic, and I know I’m not writing anywhere near as often or as successfully as I would like to be. It’s easy to feel disappointed in myself, my situation, all of it. It’s easy to get into cycles of frustration which only increases my lack of motivation.
And yet, the writing still comes. I publish articles and essays, often about my health — which has been it’s own sort of catharsis. I published my debut fiction novel in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, and threw myself into launching and marketing the book. I have worked a great deal on my current project, a sort of health memoir in essays, and it isn’t out of the question that I could have a final draft by the end of 2021. I have found what works for me — and while it might not be conventional, it is working.
For all of us who just can’t make a commitment to a daily writing habit, here are a few alternatives that I have found helpful at various times in my writing life:
- Set a weekly word count or page goal. This is especially helpful for writers who are working on a novel, memoir, or some other long-term project. What’s nice about a weekly word goal is that you can still feel that sense of accomplishment, but you can fit the writing of those words into whatever pockets of time work for you.
- Speaking of pockets of time, be intentional about scheduling time to write. It doesn’t have to be every day, of course, but look at your calendar for the week and block out specific chunks for writing. Use those chunks as your allotted time for the week. Then, any additional time is an added bonus. And, if something comes up that prevents you from using that scheduled time, as something often does, just reschedule it. Don’t be hard on yourself. But know that there is always a time in your calendar to look forward to writing.
- Produce one great piece of writing a week. This could be one article or essay or short story. This could be 500 or 1,000 words of a manuscript that you’re just really proud of. You get to decide what constitutes a great piece of writing for the week, which also means you have to be intentional about considering your own work and finding something to love about it.
- Don’t discount the importance of thinking about writing. Even if you can’t sit down and put pen to paper (or fingertips to computer keys) on the daily, you are probably thinking about what you are working on, planning, plotting, or revising in your mind. This is all a really important part of the writing process. Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself of this. Buy a fancy notebook where you jot down all your best ideas. Keep a running bullet list on individual projects on your phone or in an email thread so it’s easy to update whenever inspiration strikes. If you are the type whose best ideas come when you can’t sleep, keep a notepad by your bed. However you do it, making a routine of writing out your thoughts will make you feel productive, even on those days when the writing just doesn’t happen.
- Celebrate your successes. Whether it’s once a week, a month, or an annual retrospective, make sure you look at all the work you’ve done. List out everything you’ve published, keep track of your total word count, number of drafts, whatever you can look out and see just how much you actually accomplished. It’s always more than you think it is.