Moderation in all things

The more time passes, the less patience I have with the notion that “a real writer writes every day.”

Try subbing in some other words there and see how that sentence sounds. “A real teacher teaches every day.” “A real programmer programs every day.” “A real surgeon performs surgery every day.” These are all patently absurd. The teacher, the programmer, and the surgeon are all better at their jobs for not going to work every day. For taking some days off.

I wonder if what’s going on here is a weird collision between the romanticization of ~art~ and the #@$*%! “Protestant work ethic.” On the one hand you have this sense that writing, or any art, is a ~calling~. And if it doesn’t call to you every day, why, then, you’re not a real writer, are you? On the other hand you’ve got Max Weber frowning over your shoulder and questioning whether what you’re doing is Real Work — so you have to silence him by keeping your nose to the grindstone every day, without respite, because otherwise clearly you’re just a good-for-nothing layabout.

(I’d like to pause and appreciate the value of the tilde for indicating a kind of vaporous awe around a word. Italics just don’t convey the same effect, and neither do quotation marks.)

Writing is Real Work. It may be fun work (a thought that would probably horrify the Calvinists Weber had in mind), but it requires effort, concentration, hours of your life. Some days it’s easier than others. But it’s also weird work, in that sometimes the most vitally useful thing you can do is go for a walk or wash some dishes, because while you’re not looking, your brain sneaks off and figures stuff out. When people ask me how many hours I work each day or week, my response is to give them a baffled shrug, because there aren’t clean boundaries around it; I’m definitely working while I’m drafting a story or answering emails or going over page proofs, but I also may be working while I’m vacuuming the rug or brushing my teeth or reading a book. Which means that days in which I’m not at the keyboard may still in some fashion be work days — but thinking of them that way is pernicious. If an idea comes to me, awesome, but in the meanwhile I’m going to have a life.

Because contrary to what corporate America wants us all to believe, we can have lives outside our jobs, and we should. We will not just be better employees for the time off; we’ll be better people, too. And that’s just as true of writers as it is of anybody else.

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