• December 19, 2014

I Don't Write Enough Because ...

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Writing is lonely and boring.

I can write only in the morning, and I have to teach in the morning.

I can write only in the evening, and I'm too exhausted after a day of teaching.

I haven't done enough research yet.

I haven't analyzed all of my data.

By the time I'm finished collecting and analyzing data, I'm not interested in writing up the results.

I'm a terrible writer.

I'm afraid to show anyone what I've written.

I can't move on to the next sentence until the one I'm working on is perfect, and the one I'm working on is rarely perfect.

I can't finish a draft.

I hate doing revisions.

I'm interested in too many things.

I'm no longer interested in my topic.

My students drain me of time and energy.

My kids drain me of time and energy.

I want to spend more time with my spouse/partner/kids/students.

I can't write at home, because there are too many distractions.

I can't write in my office, because there are too many distractions.

I don't have the right kind of writing space.

The chair hurts my butt.

I can write only in airports.

I type too slowly.

It's overwhelming to think about writing a book/journal article/paper, and I give up before I even start.

I have too many ideas and can't commit to any of them.

My ideas aren't good enough.

There are other things I need to write that have pressing deadlines (grant applications, reports, letters of recommendation), and they take up all of the time I have for writing.

I freeze when faced with a blank page.

The lawn has to be mowed.

I need to go for a run.

I have too much grading to do.

I can't write during the school year.

I was going to write in the summer, but somehow classes started again.

I have a day job—teaching.

I have no unscheduled time.

I have too many e-mails to answer.

I need to know what all of my Facebook friends are doing.

Writing is lonely and boring.

It's always easier to come up with explanations of why we can't write than it is to actually write. My personal explanation: I can write only while sitting at a particular table in a particular coffee shop, when there's a certain kind of music on that reminds me of my misspent youth, and it can't be too crowded but it also can't be too empty, and the decaf has to be the exact right temperature, and the barista has to be wearing his sailor-striped shirt, and I have to have gotten at least seven hours of sleep (not nine, because then I'll have a sleep hangover), and I have to be wearing my jeans with the holes at the knee.

OK—that would be my rationalization if I allowed the nutty little voice in my head to run the show. As a longtime runner who has finished marathons and ultramarathons, I've had to learn to smack down the nutty little voice in my head that supposedly speaks for my body. If I listened to that voice, I'd lie around and read novels all day rather than go for a run.

I've had to use the same force to quash that voice when it tries to enumerate all the reasons I can't write. I do have some neurotic habits that I cling to more than others (I prefer to write in the morning; I prefer to write at a coffee shop), but I know that I can write in the evening at home if I have to. Sometimes I have to.

Frequently I talk with academics who feel they don't write enough. Even people with a tenure blade dangling over their cervical vertebrae don't usually have to reach far to find justifications for not getting stuff done. I don't want to use the word "excuses," because they are often valid and real problems, and I don't want to minimize how hard it is to have something to say and find the right way to say it.

Friends of mine who are in the creative-writing field (such a strange misnomer; what writing, I ask, is not creative?) mostly don't have a hard time finding the discipline to get the writing done. It's the most important thing we do—even those of us who have day jobs as professors—because it often goes to the deepest issues of identity. It's not only what we do but who we are. If we are not writing, we are nothing. For many academics, however, writing is what comes after the real and engaging work. It's like having to wash the dishes after preparing an elaborate meal.

What can scholars learn from other kinds of writers to help them put words on the page?

Make it routine. Ensure that writing is a scheduled part of your day. Figure out when you can fit it in—though it may mean giving up a shower or making baked Alaska—and protect that time.

Give yourself interim deadlines. The idea of having to write a whole book can overwhelm. What if you have to write only a chapter? I'd never run a marathon if I thought I had to run 26.2 miles. Instead I run one mile at a time. You can do anything for eight or nine minutes.

Have a goal. Maybe it's 500 words a day. Maybe it's two hours in the chair. Decide and commit. Perhaps you will have to get up on Sunday mornings at 5 and work until you hear the kids screaming. Sleep, like showers and baked Alaska, is overrated.

Don't buy into your own neuroses. If you think you can write only in the morning, prove yourself wrong by writing at midnight.

Use competition as a motivator. Which of your frenemies do you want to beat?

Get a complete draft done, even if it's terrible. I love tinkering, refining, rethinking, and cutting. Having something to edit is my reward for churning out a crappy first draft.

Stop when you know exactly what will come next. That can make it easier to start again, even if it means quitting mid- (see, I know exactly where to pick up).

Enlist help. Make a writing date. Join a writing group. Writing is lonely and boring. But it can help to have support. Or accountability.

Finally, say out loud your own particular and peculiar reasons for not being able to write enough. You probably won't need someone else to tell you there are ways to work around them. Your excuses—I mean, reasons—may even begin to sound a little nutty.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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