Following publication of a review of my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries in my hometown newspaper, a high school classmate and fellow member of the two-mile relay team e-mailed me. He spent several paragraphs catching me up on all that had happened to him since we lost contact after high school. I had graduated a year earlier, we both attended different colleges, I moved out of state to begin my family and career whereas he stayed home and began a career in a different field, and the two of us just lost contact with each other. But there was always that tie of memories of times on the track team.
David Hansard, standing on the left in the accompanying photo, was the second leg of the two-mile relay; I was the third. Johnny Hamel, kneeling, was our anchor. (Our lead-off man, Dale Wayland, was not present when this photo was taken.) Johnny was an unlikely anchor because he was the shortest of the four of us, but his legs could churn like those of the Roadrunner cartoon character. When he got the baton, he was off like a flash–so we nicknamed him “Flash” Hamel. Our team broke many school records together. But I’m digressing into nostalgia.
David concluded his e-mail by saying that, with my having five grandchildren, he didn’t understand how I could find time to write. I replied that part of it is that all of those grandkids live out of state, so I can’t blame them for preventing my writing. But then I explained the real reason: I force myself to find or make the time and to put forth the effort necessary.
Like a lot of people, I’m lazy by nature. When I sit down at my computer to write, I can find myriad excuses not to write and innumerable other things to do instead. But I must discipline myself to do the writing that I was called to do. And I have to do it every day and every time I sit down to write.
In that weakness I don’t think I’m much different from most other writers. It’s what we do. Writers write. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when other things press and compete for our time. Even when what results from our efforts is so much gibberish and garbage. It all boils down to self-discipline. If the discipline is there, eventually something good is bound to emerge from the pile of trash that we’ve been turning out.
Some writers have a word count toward which they discipline themselves to push. Other writers have a certain amount of time they force themselves to put in. Most of them have a general time period during which they do their writing because that’s when they’ve found that they work best. For some of them, it’s early morning; for others, it’s late a night.
I don’t have a specific word count or time goal. But I’m a morning person, so if I get anything written, it’s going to happen between the time I get up around 4:45 a.m. and lunch–anytime between 11:30 and 1:00, depending on how “into it” I am and how hungry I’ve become. After lunch, I get the sleepies, and I can’t get anything onto paper (or screen), so that’s when I edit or research or do something physical, like mowing the yard. Evenings are for family. But I never really know when the good writing will happen, so I must force myself to be ready all the time.
My eyes and ears and thoughts must be attuned to writing-related things all the time, even when I’m mowing the yard. Some of the best ideas (i.e., those that eventually became articles) have come to me when I’m on the treadmill or in the shower or lying in bed when I can’t sleep at 1:00 a.m. (As I age, I’m having more of those middle-of-the-night idea-gathering times, so my article production should be showing marked improvement!) Or they come as I’m driving to the post office or the office supply store. Whenever they come, I have to get them moving toward tangible, written expressions.
E. L. Doctorow said, “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
Now all of the things he mentioned as not being writing are necessary for writing to occur, but they are not writing. Those activities are the easy part; the hard part is actually writing. And, as Peter Hamill said, “Writing is the hardest work in the world not involving heavy lifting.”
In the coming days, I hope to share some examples of great writers who have succeeded at their calling to write in spite of weaknesses, hindrances, and problems. Whenever I get discouraged with my own writing, I consider some of those people and tell myself, They did it in spite of their problems; what’s your excuse?! There’s nothing like a good verbal kick in the seat of the pants to motivate one to resume writing–even when faced with problems and excuses.