At the time of this writing, we’re in week seven or week eight of self-isolation orders by executive order in California. It’s going OK. And, you probably won’t be surprised to hear this, but I’ve been leaning on my writing as a key way of staying sane and of establishing some sense of normalcy to my days. The writer Saeed Jones posted over on Twitter that trying to write during this time of national uncertainty is like “trying to drink hot coffee in the middle of a rollercoaster ride,” and that’s definitely true for a lot of people, but I found I wanted to try. Writing has been a real balm for me in other rocky situations; why not try it on a rollercoaster?
There are two reasons for this. First, I reviewed my planner for the months of January and February and realized that I didn’t do much writing at all for those two months. (I color-code my planner. “Writing time” is green highlighter. It’s really easy to notice its absence.) Second, the backlog of ideas I was carrying around in my brain, things I wanted to write about but somehow could never find the time for, was starting to feel dangerous, like it might blow up at any second and then I’d lose every single one of them. (And then I could easily imagine that the explosion would create a permanent fistula in the side of my head: All my ideas would then just promptly fall out of the hole, even as I was having them. No bueno.)
So I opened up an account on Medium, where the idea that you’re screaming into the void is a little less so, since editors there are constantly reading the content, looking for stories to “curate,” and I started working on the backlog of ideas. And I told myself that, since everything else was in upheaval and nothing could be depended on except that every day would be a dumpster fire of relatively epic proportions, I would hold myself to posting something every day for the next 30 days.
Now, listen. I am not a particularly diligent person. I have never, ever written every single day for longer than probably 60 days, and that’s counting purple prose in diaries of the high school (and, OK, young adult and adult) years. Life happens. You get home too late from an event; you had a rotten day and don’t want to revisit it; you just don’t feel like it, you got busy. It’s fine. And I think holding yourself to such a standard is sillypants. But I would be absolutely lying to you if I said I didn’t learn a few things during my 30 days of self-imposed butt-in-writing-chair-every-day lifestyle.
So here are some things I took away from my experiment that I’ll be using from now on:
1. Imagine a gatekeeper.
Like I said, Medium has editors on staff to comb through all the posts that come in – I understand it’s in the hundreds, if not thousands, per day – and decide whether or not they’re worth curating. When a story gets curated, Medium sends it out in its newsletters to people who have signed up to receive articles about whatever these editors believe your story is about. (A story I wrote about my obsession with one-pot meals ended up in “Food,” for instance, and a post about anglerfish ended up in “Outdoors.”) Knowing that this gatekeeper was out there loaned me more intention, somehow, and that resulted in tighter prose and better self-editing, as well as articles that organically felt like they might be of use to someone.
2. Too many ideas in your head is just as bad as no ideas.
As I’ve mentioned, I had a bunch of ideas burning a hole in my brainpan. The first was a timely two-part series on how deploying for a disaster-relief organization helped me to think about, and deal with, a worldwide pandemic and shelter-in-place. But the other stuff was more varied: an essay I’d pitched a couple of places and couldn’t get sold; some loose thoughts on why I love letters and Saguaro cacti (not related to each other); my bizarre obsession with one-pot meals. That last is an idea I’ve had knocking around my noggin for literal years; I don’t know why I never bothered to put anything down on paper about it. The thing is, once I started writing that stuff down, other ideas came in to take the expended idea’s place. It was like my brain had reached its Dunbar’s number. (That’s the number of social relationships you can hold in your head at any given time. Most sciencey people suggest it’s about 150, but I can tell you that for ideas, it’s something like 12, or maybe three. Heh.) Once I started actually doing something with those ideas, more ideas came to me, things I’d long forgotten about and never wrote down. My phobia of snails, for instance, or my obsession with miniatures.
3. You’re going to run out of ideas one day.
I ran out of them frequently, even over 30 days, even with the ones I already had jostling for attention. And I don’t even believe in writer’s block; I just think we make ourselves busy to the point where we can’t do what we actually need to do in order to move a story or an essay forward. My experience over the 30 days underscored that for me, right down to the coping mechanisms that have worked for my brain: Whenever I felt like I didn’t have anything to write about or didn’t know how to move forward, I tried one of a few things. I left my desk. It didn’t matter where I went to; I just left it. Or I thought about how someone else would describe what I was trying to write. Or I just powered through, writing goodness knows what, until I came to somewhat of an a-ha moment. Which reminds me:
4. The a-ha moment of a work may not be what you think it is.
I tried writing both fiction and nonfiction for this experiment, and for both forms I thought I had a pretty good idea of where I was going, until I didn’t anymore. This is not to say that you shouldn’t plan. You should. Just be ready to let that go whizzing by in your rearview mirror, or for your brain to take a left turn to Albuquerque. And then, when that happens, just go with it for a while, until you’re pretty sure you either like it or really hate it.
I still don’t think you have to write every single day in order to advance your writing craft, but I do think you learn a lot about the way your individual brain works if you try something like this. For you, it might look like writing something for a week straight or 21 days straight. The payoff is a better understanding of your own writing needs.
—Yi Shun Lai teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities. Her book Pin Ups is forthcoming from Homebound Press in September. Visit her at thegooddirt.org.