Page-A-Day (Or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Writing Again”)

January 17, 2017

Talent is nothing but a prolonged period of attention  and a shortened period of mental assimilation.  (Constantin Stanislavski)

So one of the hardest things for me as an emerging writer was – you guessed it- getting started.

I had a notion in my head (a silly notion of the worst kind, that is to say, another author I admired told me this and for some reason I assumed that because I wanted to write, it applied inherently to me) that writers, real writers, worked by some sort of mechanism and alchemy, a specific set of circumstance that included ridiculous things like sitting down and knowing what I was going to write, having a preconceived concept of what I would write about, outlining my novel/poetry collection/series of linked short stories/comic strip about a straight-talking grandma  before actually writing any of it.

In my mind, real writers never stared out the window, reheating endless cups of coffee in the microwave, chowing down on homemade nachos and getting unsightly globs of salsa all over their journals/notecards/laptop screens. Real writers had plans, by golly, indeed their brains spilled over with plots and schemes and half-poems– and I was going to be a real writer, so the first thing I needed to get started was an inspiring, clear idea.

This played in nicely with my natural tendency to procrastinate, something that I understand is an epidemic among those of us who call ourselves writers. While I was waiting for my inspiring, clear idea to reveal itself, I was busy: I needed a fresh pot of coffee; I’ll just glance through three articles on Buzzfeed and that’s it, only three; perhaps a walk would help; wait–who tagged me on Instagram?; I’ll just go organize the kicks in my closet by ROYGBIV instead of staring at this blank screen; perhaps I should call my bestie and run this idea by him; this hair- I must run a comb through it!; oh, look at the time- anybody else for some nachos?

As you can imagine, I didn’t get very far.

I also had this idea that my writing set-up had to be perfect: if I was in a coffee shop it must be a quiet one with no darling children to admire or screaming ones to glare at; I could not sit in the library back by the window because it was where the staff congregated to gossip; at home, it was impossible for me to concentrate unless my desk was clear, my email inbox empty, the door shut, the light pleasant, a candle lit and a hot cup of coffee just to the right of the keyboard where I composed… nothing, and the inspiring clear idea of what to write eluded me still.

All I was doing was driving myself and everyone around me half-addled, preoccupying myself with nonsense. I sure wasn’t writing.

It was in the midst of this “how do I do this? How do I get started” histrionic nonsense that I attended a literary panel of editor/writers. One of the questions the moderator asked was about how these superhuman – writers AND editors– balanced the work of life and the life of their work. What advice did they have for young writers?

“Write a page a day,” one guy said. “IT’s really pretty simple, if you think about it. If you do that, in a year you’ll have 365 pages more than you did when you started.”

So I went home that night, and tried it. Just a page. I don’t’ remember what I wrote, or what it was about—but I do remember how I felt. It was fun. It was exciting. I didn’t have to plan anything. Nothing I wrote had to be good, or strong, or funny, or make sense, or stick to any of those droll craft requirements (yeah plot, yeah character, yeah voice, blah blah rhythm, blah blah blah dialogue etcetera bye bye): At last I was free. I could just write.

I got so excited about Page-A-Day that I started a writing group with some friends. We had some ground rules: it was OK to skip one day, but never two in a row, and no more than two days per week. None of us had time to meet in person weekly, but we got together once a month at a restaurant, took a tally of who wrote how much, then chipped in to buy dinner for that month’s Page Champion! (Whoever generated the most new writing). Having a group of people to hold me accountable was a fun challenge, and let’s face it- I’m motivated predominantly by food so the prize for the Page Champion! kept my nose to the grindstone.

I initially planned to stick to my Page-A-Day plan for one year. But from this page-a-day process, two book-length projects emerged. Then, I started working on another short story collection, and I thought- heck, Page-A-Day is working, and I’ll keep at it. A couple years later, the Page-A-Day practice generated the first rough draft of a novel, and – you guessed it- another short story collection. Now, I must confess—during Page-A-Day I also wrote a lot of drivel. There were days I typed one line over and over again or walked away from the desk overwhelmed with frustration. I wrote a bunch of stuff that I threw out and had no use for whatsoever. So it’s not like everything you write during this exercise is going to be print-ready.

But that’s the point in exercise: it primes your body for performance. Builds muscle, strength, endurance, discipline—things all writers can use more of. When I started, I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was heading- – I was just along for the ride. I found that the more I stuck to Page-A-Day, the happier I was with my writing, and what was occasionally a chore at first became something I looked forward to again: writing for the sake of writing, a joyous exercise in creativity that was both inspiring and empowering.

However you want to set this up for yourself- whether it’s a solitary exercise, something you’ll work on with a mentor, or a wager with a group of writing buddies- you have nothing to lose by trying it. After all- in a year you’ll have around 250 pages, and a sense of accomplishment and certainty because you are writing. And real writers write.

Now: go get started.

Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you! (Constantin Stanislavski)

Jamie Lyn Smith

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