“Write every day.” It’s some of the most common writing advice. I was fourteen the first time someone told me that. She told me to wake up early every day before school and write before the outside world could influence me. She meant well. And while that advice may be good for some people, it is the exact opposite of what works for me. I’m a night owl who thrives late at night when everyone is asleep, and I can think without interference. I need the day to wash over me first. Whatever sticks is important.
Which is to say that all advice about process is bullshit. If you’re still figuring out your process, try different things until you find what works for you. If something works for you, do it. If it doesn’t work, forget it. But I did come here to give a little advice. You know what to do with it.
I have a “build it and they will come” philosophy regarding stories. You don’t have to write every day. Daniel José Older hasan excellent argument against the obligation here. In my case, writing every day is detrimental. It forces me to push out a story that may need more time to build. As Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” My forced stories never live.
Writing every day leads to burnout for me. Thinking about stories is just as important as the writing itself. Since rooting out bad advice and the culture of “write every day or you’re not a writer”, my writing has become more natural. I suffer less. I’m less inclined to complain about how hard writing is, though some stories are a headache no matter what. Drenching your creativity in shame is not the best way to get something out of it. Shame shuts down the creative pathways when you’re trying to open them. The time you spend beating yourself up about not writing enough can be better spent doing literally anything else.
If I run into a problem with a story, I triage. Did I start writing too soon? Am I starting in the wrong place or focusing on the wrong thing? Is there something I don’t understand about the characters and/or the story that’s necessary for the telling? Did the story inch into one of my blind spots without my noticing? Is there something I need to understand about myself? Am I too much in my own head? Do I need a break? Food? Water? Sleep? A walk? Then I get myself what I need. Even if that thing is a blockbuster starring The Rock. I know my brain is always working to solve the puzzle it created. Cutting myself some slack is sometimes the best way to trick my brain into giving me exactly what I need. I play the long game, and acknowledge that not everything is in my control. The story takes as long as it takes. And that’s okay.
If all else fails, I think back to what my Sarah Lawrence don Mary LaChapelle told me when I couldn’t figure out how to fix a project and no one seemed able to help me. She said, “Maybe you’re not ready to tell this story.” She was absolutely right. It was a relief to hear. I wasn’t ready. I quit writing for two years after that. Mostly because of burnout. When I started writing again, I finished that project.
How does this process differ from procrastination? I’m honest with myself about what I need. I know when I’m bullshitting myself. I’ve burned out before. A lot, actually. I’ll run myself into the ground if given the chance. Ultimately, I want to write. I see my job as not just writing but making a hospitable home for the stories that show up at my door. When I start to hear a story in my head—that urgent voice demanding to be heard—that’s when I start writing. It’s my job to be open and ready to listen.
Chelsea Stickle lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Her flash fiction appears in Jellyfish Review, Cleaver, Pithead Chapel, Okay Donkey, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes. Read more stories at chelseastickle.com/stories or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.