No, I don’t think so. What you’re describing are two different skill sets. A person who shuts themselves in a room every day to wrestle with a blank page is very often not a person who feels comfortable making loud noises in front of crowds. The people who can spin an anecdote to a room have a performance skill that is not inherently native to writers.
I know a few writers who are excellent raconteurs, but I also know a few writers who are excellent bakers. I even know an excellent writer who is an excellent raconteur who is married to an excellent writer who is an excellent baker. There are certain fields where you’re more likely to succeed if you’re both a raconteur and a writer, such as comedy, television, marketing, but there should be no expectation of overlap.
The distinction I was hoping to clarify in my post yesterday is not about performance, nor is it about professional pedigree. It’s about application.
I’m going to take this opportunity to expand on my thoughts, because I noted a few questions and objections that deserve to be addressed. “You” from here on in does not mean “you who asked this question”, but a generic “you”.
My “trouser theory”, as it was dubbed, does not suggest that there are only two positions, but that there are two prevailing positions; left leggers and right leggers. All manner of things might lurk in the gusset.
Left leggers are the “I can’t write every day” people, the “I like to cook” people. They write for fun, which means they can write or they can not write. We might call aspiring writers, hobby writers, amateur writers. We might even just call them “writers”. I think we should probably call them casual writers. “Casual” has the right sense here. “I can do it, or I can not do it”.
We should not demean those people. We should never demean people who do something because it’s fun. “Hobby” should not be a bad word. A hobby can be a lifeline. It can be the only thing keeping a person sane. The passion of the casual writer is not diminished by the term “casual”, as the term denotes their degree of application, not the depth of their feeling. This is the group, remember, that can’t write every day. That is the defining quality.
Right leggers are the “I must write every day” people, the “chefs”. They write because they feel a compulsion to write, which means they can’t not write. It’s tempting to call them professional writers, established writers, prolific writers, but all of those terms are wrong. It’s not about getting paid. It’s not about getting published. It’s not about the volume of your output. It’s about writing being such a fundamental core of your identity that it would break you not to write. So we call these people “writers”, and that complicates calling the other people “writers”.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll call this group “routine writers”, because for these people writing is as much a part of their daily routine as washing or feeding. Actually, these are the people who sometimes forget to wash or feed themselves because they’re writing. I don’t say that to romanticise it. There’s nothing romantic about being hungry and smelly.
In fact, romance is lost entirely with these terms. There’s no poetry in “casual writer” or “routine writer”, which is why everyone calls themselves “a writer”.
But if you ever ask a routine writer what it takes to be a writer, they’re going to assume you mean a writer like them, and they’re going to give you a “routine writer” answer; “Write every day”. And if you say “I can’t”, they’ll say, “you’re not a writer” and what they mean is, “you’re not the same kind of writer as me”. That’s not tough love. No consideration of toughness or love comes into it. They’re simply telling you that if you want to play the piano at Carnegie Hall, you need to practise the piano every day.
Is that elitist? Yes! Shouldn’t a person who practices at something every day be considered elite? Shouldn’t we give some credit to the person who is compelled to put the hours into being a chef, a concert pianist, a ballet dancer, a free-runner, a programmer, a photographer, a jazz saxophonist? Remember, this is the group that does write every day, because they must. That is their defining quality. We should recognise that distinction.
You don’t get to be in the group that writes every day if you don’t write every day. Nor are you excluded from it by the people in that group. You’re excluded from it if you don’t do it, even if you have a good reason why you don’t do it.
If an obstacle or a condition exists that stops you playing the piano every day, or practising ballet every day, and there is no way for you to overcome that obstacle, then you cannot be a concert pianist or a prima ballerina, and it’s not because all the concert pianists and prima ballerinas got together to exclude you, it’s because you were dealt a shitty hand in life. I’m sorry if that’s you.
Christopher Sebela cited the example of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a writer who continued to write after a stroke left him completely paralysed. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in prison. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in prison, in a labour camp, and from his hospital bed. The list of writers who lived with severe mental illness is too lengthy to enumerate, but it includes Tolstoy, Swift, Plath, Hemingway, Lovecraft, Wallace, Kerouac.
Maybe your circumstances are less forgiving than all those people, and you believe you’d be a routine writer if your life allowed it, but if you don’t write routinely, you can’t be that kind of writer.
I think it’s useful in this context to explain a little more about what writers are saying when they say “write every day”. It doesn’t mean that you have to be prolific. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to fall into a coma or take Christmas off.
I saw several names thrown out as examples of people who supposedly don’t write every day. Harper Lee has only published one novel in her lifetime, and is now too ill to write again. It’s been popularly supposed that she’s had writer’s block ever since, but that’s never been confirmed. We don’t know what she’s produced since To Kill A Mockingbird, we only know she hasn’t published again.
Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen were cited as writers who produce about one book every decade; Junot Diaz was mentioned as someone who said he only wanted to write four books in his lifetime. But all three of them say that they sit down to write first thing every day. Writing is not the process of producing words by volume. Junot Diaz is not a ticker-tape machine. Writing is a craft without raw materials. You don’t see the wood or the marble being delivered to the studio and a chair or a statue come out the other side. A writer who spends eight hours on a single sentence is still writing. (Slowly.)
We talk about “trying to write”, as if the act of trying, the effort of practice, is not itself writing, but it is. Sometimes the product of a day of writing is a blank page. Trying to write is writing.
But you can’t write for years with only a blank page to show for it. You can’t cycle through different projects and never put anything down. If you have not written, are not writing, and will not write, you cannot call yourself a writer on the grounds that you want to be one.
Is research part of writing? I think so, yes. Is plotting part of writing? Again, yes, if that’s part of your process. For a lot of writers, taking a shower is part of the writing process, if you come out of the bathroom with an idea that you didn’t go in with. But researching and plotting and brainstorming can also be forms of procrastination. If you’re doing those things and the page is still blank, you’re not getting any writing done, so you’re not writing. Yes, even if you shower every day.
"Write every day" doesn’t mean "write for eight hours every day", or "write seven days every week". A lot of routine writers keep weekends free, or say they do. A lot of routine writers write early in the morning and have the rest of the day free, or keep the day free and write late at night. I seem to recall Michael Chabon writes early and keeps his weekends free, the lucky sot. A lot of routine writers have other jobs, and can only write for half an hour on the commute to and from work, but they write every day anyway, because they can’t not.
And a lot of routine writers are diarists, journalists, bloggers, critics, historians, essayists, columnists, poets, songwriters. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “writer” means “narrative fiction writer”.
"Write every day" means "don’t make excuses". It means you should want to write every day and you should manage to do it most days. It means write, if you call yourself a writer.
But if you want to write casually, for fun, when you feel like it, and you want to call yourself a writer for that, that’s actually fine. Just understand that you are using the word differently to the people who do write every day, and you are going to find a disconnect when you talk to those people about writing.
And you can be a routine writer even if you’ve never been one before, if it’s in you to do it. All you have to do is embrace the compulsion, overcome the anxiety, and stop making excuses. No-one is keeping you out of that club except you.
Approximate translation: “Write every day”.