Reflections on 30 Years of a Writing Routine

Every budding writer knows the rule: if you want to become a better writer, you have to stick to a routine. Writing is a craft, which means it is both a skill and an art, and it involves many fine technical points that can be mastered only with repeated practice. It’s simple, really: the more you write, the better you get at it. That’s true of just about anything.

As I lay in bed this morning, thinking about how weird it is that today is my 45th birthday, I remembered that I started keeping a writing routine when I was about 15 years old. In those days, it involved a certain level of unhealthy compulsion. I drove myself without mercy, partly because I believed that was the only way to improve, and partly because that’s the kind of person I am. I wrote short stories, tried to start novels, and read everything I could get my hands on. I dreamed of becoming a writer.

What did that mean to me then? I think it meant finally getting the acclaim I felt I deserved, and the means to live in the style to which I would have liked to have become accustomed. I was convinced that the thoughts in my head were entirely unique in the history of the world, and that once people became exposed to them, they would recognize my genius and shower me with accolades.

You’ll notice that storytelling wasn’t mentioned. In those days, I had no idea what storytelling was. I think I remember believing that it didn’t matter what a story was about. It only mattered how well you told it. Style, I was convinced, was supreme. If you had asked that version of me what his writing was about, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you.

It wasn’t for another ten years or so that I would finally understand how stories themselves were what moved people, and the style they were written in were just the method of delivery. Once I understood that, I would finally begin to find an audience. I feel now about style that it should almost be an afterthought, a side effect of which the reader should not even be aware. My writing has become simpler over time. I’ve learned to eschew fancy turns of phrase and wording that deliberately calls attention to itself. This is what happens when you practice, practice, practice–you start looking for ways to do things with as little waste as possible.

What else have I accomplished in these thirty years? A number of books, a great deal of attention, some nice money–in short, all the things I had hoped for, and nearly all of it now years in the past. I haven’t had a major book deal in ten years. I’m perfectly fine with that. As I begin my forty-fifth year, I can see how I began my career at the very end of a dying empire, though none of us knew it at the time. It is simply not possible for a writer of middling repute to make a living at it any more. One needs to write a blockbuster, and not just one, either–there needs to be a steady stream of them. This, for me, is impossible. I’m not even interested in trying.

For some months now, I haven’t written a word. I’ve been engaged in other pursuits that have to do with filling urgent needs. I have a wife, two daughters, a mortgage, debts. I also have a job. It’s a job I quite enjoy, and it has nothing to do with the routine I’ve practiced for the past thirty years. It has to do with skills I’ve taught myself, skills that relate to the new world of computers and the internet, and I’m rather proud of the fact that I can compete in an industry that didn’t even exist when I was first planning my career. I feel that I am growing. I didn’t feel that way when I was doing nothing but writing for a living. This was probably because I believed I had nothing more to learn. What a fatal mistake! The day we stop learning is the day we begin to die.

I’ve also done something I denied myself all the years I scribbled away on my own: I’ve rejoined the human race. I’ve learned to stop isolating myself. 15-year-old me believed that the ideal writer was someone who could exist completely cut off from the world, unaware of it and unconcerned with its goings-on. 45-year-old me sees now how ideally the writer should exist in the world in such a way that he is not even aware of himself.

I don’t miss writing. I have a book in mind, and when I have time, I’ll write it. It may or may not see the light of day. I don’t care about that. I don’t need the attention any more–in fact, I’ve come to abhor it. It may or may not make me any money, but I don’t care about that, either–I have other means of supporting my family now, means that have nothing to do with the precarious and probably moribund publishing industry. After thirty years of practice, I’m not worried about a lengthy stretch away from the keyboard. I think that would probably be a good idea, in fact. I need to unlearn a number of things that I learned during the years I was a professional novelist, which were years that would have pleased my 15-year-old self immensely but which my 45-year-old self regards now with a strange mix of self-loathing and pity. I’ve come to realize than few, if any, of the thoughts that ever flitted through my head were unique in any way. It’s true that my stories are my own, and my style is something I’m proud of, but I also see that it’s really just one more style amongst tens of thousands, and that the merit placed on it by the masses bears no relation to its true value.

More than ever, I’ve come to believe in simple things. Keeping a writing routine for the sake of making me a better writer is practically a worthless task for me now. Keeping it to make me a better person is the only reason why I will return to it, someday. Whatever your practice is, this is the only reason to do it. That’s what I believe now.

I wonder what I’ll believe when another thirty years has gone by?

2 thoughts on “Reflections on 30 Years of a Writing Routine”

Comments are closed.