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“If you want to be a writer, be a reader.” This may be the most commonly-offered writing advice of all. And it’s good advice as far as it goes. But encouraging writers to read has always felt to me like encouraging teenage boys to eat three meals a day and maybe a couple of snacks. People who want to write tend to be people who are already reading. I think. Right?
So if you want to write and you don’t already read voraciously, you should probably start. But for me—and, I suspect, for many of you—the big question isn’t How do I read more? The bigger question is How do I stop reading and start writing? Or, to put it another way, How do I flip the switch from consuming to producing?
One challenge you face as a writer is the fact that you can justify almost anything as part of the writing process. Reading is an important part of the writing process. Staring out the window can be part of the writing process. So can going for a walk. Or taking a nap. But, as you may have noticed, each of these activities is also an excellent method of procrastination.
For a few years, I wrote in a home office that had a window communicating with the kitchen. As my wife was rounding up lunch for the kids or washing dishes or otherwise industriously tending to her business, she would often look through the window and see me staring off into space, in apparent idleness. This was not a recipe for marital bliss. But what was she going to say? Staring off into space is indeed a crucial part of the writing process. (On those occasions when I decided a midday nap was an important part of the writing process, I at least had the decency to nap in the corner of the office that my wife couldn’t see while she was washing dishes.)
If your goal as a writer is to justify your habits of idleness, I have good news: you can justify almost anything as “part of the writing process.” You call it staring out the window? I call it ideation. You call it napping? I call it hitting the reset button. You call it googling obsessively? I call it research. You call it checking Facebook several times an hour? I call it…actually, even I can’t come up with a justification for that one.
But if your goal as a writer is actually to write, you’ll find very little satisfaction in that kind of self-justification. You’ve got to flip the switch from consuming (and/or idling) to producing. That’s not always an easy thing to do. But I have a few thoughts on the subject.
First, acknowledge that all of those habits—reading, taking a walk napping, staring out the window, googling the date that dynamite was invented—can indeed be “part of the process.” And while you’re at it, acknowledge that there is plenty of mystery in the process, and it’s hard to know whether a given instance of, say, out-the-window-staring, is helpful or mere procrastination.
But now that you have acknowledged these mysteries, draw a clear distinction between “the process” and actually producing. Writing means getting words onto a page. If you aren’t doing that, you aren’t writing. It’s important that you have some time every day when you forget about everything else—including “the writing process”—and put words on a page. I find this very difficult, by the way. When I’m supposed to be writing, it’s hard to resist the temptation to read one more article for context, or do one more Google search to find out some important fact that seems very important at the moment. It’s part of the writing process, I say to myself. The correct response at this point (and I should admit that I don’t often give the correct response) is to say, Yes, that is indeed part of the writing process. When this allotted writing time is over, I may return to that part of the writing process. But the part of the writing process I’m working on right now is actually writing.
I should also mention something that I’ve mentioned more than once in the last couple of weeks: in order to stay present in the act of writing—in order to keep the pen moving—you have to give yourself permission to write badly.
To wrap up, I will pass along a method that I learned from my friend Doug McKelvey. (Doug is the author of Every Moment Holy, a book you must have…though they sell so fast that Rabbit Room Press is having a hard time keeping them in stock, so you may have to be patient). If you find yourself paralyzed by the self-imposed pressure to produce, try this: Turn off your Internet connection (I use a program called Self Control, which shuts off all Internet, email, etc. for a set amount of time). Silence your phone and put it out of reach. If you need coffee, fill up a large Yeti or something that will keep you from needing to get up for refills or warm-ups. Then sit down at your desk and say to yourself, “For the next hour I will not get out of this chair. I can write, or I can not write, it doesn’t matter. But I can’t do anything else.” If you write, great. If you don’t write, don’t beat yourself up about it. But you have to do it again the next day and the day after that. If you can stick with that commitment not to do anything besides writing during your writing time, I think you’ll find that you’d rather write than not write. You will have flipped the switch from consuming to producing.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.