To Be a Real Writer: Privileged Writing Advice
By Monica Prince
A few weeks ago, Parrish Wilson, who hosts the Writing Vibes online writing group, posed an interesting question to the group, one that I’ve heard many an MFA ask a visiting writer: how often do you need to write in order to be a “real” writer?
I’ve been writing for almost two decades now. Most of my writer friends have also been writing for most of their lives. All the reasons we write are basically variations of the same one: it saves our lives.
However, when it comes to writing advice, I tend to hear the same thing, typically from white writers who have already published many a novel or poetry collection: you have to write every single day.
The specifics vary. Julia Cameron claims you have to write every morning, at least three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. She calls these her morning pages. Stephen King writes for like six hours a day, six days a week, promising us that if we can get six good pages done a day, we’ll have a polished novel in three months. There are challenges to force writers to write every day: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, where you write 50,000 words in 30 days; National Poetry (Writing) Month (NaPoWriMo) in April, where you write 30 poems in 30 days; writing coaching retreats geared toward “birthing” a book in a confined space for a lot of money in under a week.
And writing every day is good writing advice. We know good writing doesn’t come from inspiration but from practice. If you write every day, you’ll get better at writing—just as if you do scales on the piano or practice chords on a guitar or parallel park on a crowded one-way street every day, you’ll get better.
My rant today is not about the benefit of this advice. I did three poetry writing challenges last year (in April, July, and December) and I know my poetry got better. There’s nothing like the soaring feeling of accomplishment that accompanies drafting a poem. I know every time my partner completes a story, his relief fills the whole house. I know this advice is beneficial.
What I want to know is how does anyone with a job, a family, and a life write every single day?
The first and loudest response comes from Rilke: “Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and a witness to this impulse.” If you’re a real writer, your whole life will serve the writing. It doesn’t matter if you have a screaming child in the next room or a three-hour commute in the mornings. Your whole life has to live, breathe, and be writing.
As a Black woman writer, I find this to be very privileged advice. Note that all the people I’ve quoted thus far have been white artists—albeit good ones—who have the luxury of spouting such advice to every writer, believing it to be colorblind. However well intentioned, this advice doesn’t account for the struggle of writers of color.
The writing practices of writers of color don’t mirror those of white writers, or at least what the published ones say it should be. I attended a reading Ada Limón gave the first week of April at the University of Colorado Denver. When asked about her writing practice, she admitted that she doesn’t write every day. She calls the days (weeks, months) she doesn’t write her “gathering time”—space to seek out the needs of her work by doing literally anything else: gardening, dancing, taking road trips, calling friends, cooking. When the need to put pen to paper arises, she writes for long stretches, but very slowly. She mentioned this is the most comfortable way for her to write, because she’s a busy poet.
Junot Díaz, during one of his readings following the release of This Is How You Lose Her in 2012, noted that he writes slowly. I believe it’s because his work contains a lot of rage related to race, culture, and sexual politics, and sometimes, that rage doesn’t produce good writing. It takes time to trim gratuitous violence from a story about love. Toni Morrison herself mentioned that she is simply unable to write regularly “because I have always had a nine-to-five job.” When I read that, I literally jumped for joy.
I work five jobs. I have the luxury of not being married or having children, but I do have partners who require attention, in addition to my students who email at all hours and my friends who want to, you know, talk to me. I’m not a morning person like my mother, who could be the best writer simply because her routine includes thirty minutes of complete silence every morning before she runs three miles and drinks tea while watching the news. Though I’ve written plenty, the last time I wrote every single day without fail was middle school, when I wrote in my journal every day for two years straight, recounting my hormone-driven existence.
In graduate school, I attended a mostly white program with mostly white professors. The writing advice was unanimous from students to faculty: write every day. Of course, when you have a thesis to produce, that makes sense. But when you’re in the real world and royalty checks aren’t flooding in and no one has accepted your manuscript and Netflix hasn’t called you back—this advice, offered by the successful white writers of every single generation to date, is hollow and privileged.
I propose, instead, as a writer of color and as a poet (who measures in poems, not pages as prose writers do), that we stop insisting that good writing only comes from a daily writing practice, especially when speaking to the writers of color who are statistically published less often and chosen as editors even less so. Writers of color—and everyone at this point—walk around with rage in their DNA. The historical trauma, exacerbated by current events and personal experiences, often makes writing about anything—sunshine, lynching, love—difficult.
This is not to say that writers of color cannot commit to a daily writing practice. Rather, this is to say that expecting that to be the secret and solution to publishing inequality ignores the bigger problems in the publishing industry: the small number of publishing presses that prioritize writers of color, low enrollment of students of color in programs that give them access to publishing opportunities, fewer faculty of color to mentor said students, and lack of reinforcement in the real world where writers of color are lauded for their abilities divorced from their race or ethnicity.
Of course, things are changing. There are more books featuring writers of color published every year, as well as more presses focusing on them. More people of color are judging writing competitions and hosting master classes outside of VONA and Cave Canem. Every week, Submittable sends me something noting some publishing entity asking for the voices of women, people of color, undocumented peoples, the currently and formerly incarcerated, veterans, the LGBTQ* community, and the Native and Indigenous population. And in that sense, I doubt any editor cares if the writer wakes before dawn to crank out six pages before getting their kids to the bus stop.
When we tell young writers that the only way to get better at writing, to get their work published, and to become famous (the last two not being the point of writing, technically) is to write every day, to make their whole life about writing no matter the cost, it’s the same as telling them, “If you can’t do this thing, you can’t be a writer.”
As a teaching artist, I would never dare tell my writers that if they don’t write every day, they cannot call themselves writers. I wouldn’t say this to my young creative writing campers. And I certainly will not say it to myself.
Writers are made up of arrogance, fear, naivety, and sensitivity. We want to both change the world and never live in it again. Though a little commitment never hurt anyone’s art, a little ignorance can snuff out the flame of a budding writer.
We write because we must; whatever that looks like in practice is irrelevant.
Also, I found this on my Facebook timeline from YesYes Books last year:
“If you’re a white publisher or editor today, lazy and racist are the same thing. Do the damn work.” —KMA Sullivan
Monica Prince received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from Georgia College & State University in 2015, and her B.A. in English Creative Writing from Knox College in 2012. She has been a teaching artist in Georgia, Texas, and now Colorado since 2012. Her work has been featured in MadCap Review, The Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, The Sula Collective, and The Rain, Party & Disaster Society. Currently, she teaches English Composition at Metropolitan State University of Denver, tutors writing at Community College of Aurora, teaches creative writing as a teaching artist at Fairview High School in Boulder, CO through the Colorado Humanities, and writes and edits for Aquarius Press/Willow Books. Find her online.