I’ve been a writer nearly all my life. When I was younger, and way more earnest, and probably more prone to listening to everyone else who came before me, I used to say things to myself—and others!—like, “Ass in chair,” and “Write every day.”
I don’t do that anymore. Which is also to say I don’t write every day now—or I’m not working on my next magnum opus every day of my life. I don’t believe you have to be feeding the literary beast every single day in order to be a prolific, successful writer.
But, as is the case with all things #liferules, I have recently found cause to believe that it is very good practice to do something creative every day. And I did it by taking a 16-day break from writing to focus on another artform.
We accompanied my parents on a cruise to Iceland and Norway recently. I’ve been dabbling in watercolors for the past few years and I was looking forward to seeing a whole new landscape and trying experience it through my new art.
Plus, it’s fun. Once or twice a week or so, I’ll pull out my supplies and make myself a little painting, usually involving animals wearing clothing. (I don’t know. Don’t ask. Probably something to do with my unhealthy obsession with Wind in the Willows. Moley + Ratty FOREVER.)
So when I plan for trips, I take all my watercolor stuff with me. My desired MO is as such:
- See pretty thing once or twice or five times a day.
- Lay down pencil sketch.
- Take picture of pretty thing.
- Complete drawing/watercolor many hours later, or maybe never at all.
What has happened in years and trips past, predictably, is that these drawings never, ever get done. I have nice notebooks filled with pencil sketches and sad-trombone noises.
But this time! This time I managed it. Over our 16 days away, I completed 22 individual drawings and colored them in. And this experience taught me something:
You don’t have to sit down to do something every day. But if you do, you get better at it.
This is probably old news to you. But for me, it was a huge lightbulb moment, because I have never, ever thought about the sitting-down-to-write-every-day thing as a matter of getting better. I have always thought of it as a matter of diligence.
The getting better was of secondary importance.
But with watercolor, it’s easy to feel the difference with each consecutive drawing I make. I could sense myself getting more confident when it came down to the initial sketch; knowing which colors to mix to get the right tone; trying and failing and then eventually achieving the right texture for everything from flowers to lattés to turf houses to blue glaciers.
With writing, though—with writing, I’ve forgotten how to feel those incremental improvements. I think this is because writing has been my career and my passion for over twenty-five years. I have been a published writer since I was 18.
I got cocky.
But looking at a creative endeavor with a beginner’s eyes allowed me to remember what it means to get better. That, when you’ve fought your way through an essay to a conclusion you didn’t see coming, or created a character with a tic that really defines her, you are improving.
In Mandy C. Wallace’s new book Landing Your First Publication, she quotes Ray Bradbury: “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” Wallace, who collects writerly quotes, says that the real hidden gem in this quote is the strategy behind it. She uses the quote to encourage writers to not only write a short story a week, but to submit them, as well.
Wallace’s choice to see Bradbury’s words as strategy over inspiration provides us an opportunity to put those short stories to the test. Her book’s prescriptive plan for sending these stories out is the equivalent of my seeing my watercolors fill my notebook; watching the pages wrinkle with absorbed water, so that when I close my notebook again, it never quite sits closed all the way.
With visual art, it is easy to see when you are improving. With the written arts, less so. My wrinkled notebook is what you want with your writing practice: You want your creative life to be bulging at the seams, too, so that you can always see improvement, and room for it.
If you’re writing and submitting, á la Bradbury & Wallace, then you’re going to be getting feedback, even if it takes the stark form of acceptances and rejections.
I think I’d argue that it’s worthwhile for us to assume beginner’s brain when it comes to our feelings about our craft, too: how does it make us feel to look at it? What feeling do I get when I write this sentence or create this character? What does that sense of elation I’m feeling upon completion of this essay comprise?
In order to do this, though, you have to make something that produces these feelings. That means writing frequently.
Wallace’s book comes with a giant passel of prompts, as well as some tools designed to make submitting less onerous. And there’s another book of prompts that my dad bought me about two years ago sitting right next to Wallace’s book on my desk. I’ve only completed a few of the prompts in the older book, mostly because I’ve been of the opinion that writers should be able to find inspiration wherever they go, and that I shouldn’t have to rely on a pre-made book of prompts to do so.
The difference is, the prompts in the book come from without. Like the inspiration for the drawings I make when I’m out and about, or even just imagining a lizard wearing a helmet, I got the idea from somewhere else. And that’s okay.
Letting someone else help you is probably the best part of beginner’s brain, after all.
Yi Shun Lai (say “yeeshun” for her first name) is the author of Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu (Shade Mountain Press, 2016). She is a writer and editor living in Southern California. She is the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review. She was, for a time, the youngest-ever writer for the legendary J. Peterman catalog. And that was before Seinfeld discovered it.