Adaptability

If you read enough how-to manuals, you’ll get the impression that there are certain inalienable rules to writing. The big one, touted by almost every writing book out there, is this:

Write every day.

There are variations: Write for a specified period of time every day. Write a certain number of words every day. Get up an hour early to write every day. Cut out other activities to write every day.

Underneath this rule — sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes implicit — is that if you cannot write every day, you are not cut out for this. You don’t truly want to be a writer. You aren’t motivated enough. You’ll never make it as a pro. You’re lazy. You aren’t cut out for this.

For a long time, I bought into this, mostly because it was so ubiquitous. I even turned it into a New Year’s resolution: I wrote 6 days a week for a year. Was it glorious? Yes. Did I learn about how the narrative thread strengthens when it’s revisited so frequently? Certainly. Was I only able to do that because I was in my early 20s, lived alone, and resided in a small town with no social life? Absolutely.

Two years ago, when my confusing mishmash of physical and mental issues resolved into a medical diagnosis, my first sensation was relief. I finally knew what was going on. And I wasn’t lazy! No one, not even a professional self-flagellator like myself, could get too upset with someone unable to keep up when dealing with decreased blood flow to the brain, for example.

But then came the onslaught of medical visits, tests, realizations, and acknowledgement of partial disability. The understanding arrived that I could not continue to work at a breakneck pace — that it would reduce my quality of life and lead to earlier decompensation as I grew older.

I had to slow down. I had to stop being so hard on myself.

I could no longer write every day.

I do hope to, eventually, when writing can be the focus of my time. But now I have a full-time day job, two unpredictable syndromes throwing out symptoms at random, and a punishing maze of appointments with doctors and therapists. At the end of most days, I just need to treat my pain, snuggle a cat, and spend a couple of hours with my incredible family before gratefully rolling into bed. Waking up an hour earlier, giving up doctors’ appointments, or ignoring my symptoms to grab the brass ring of 60 minutes a day or 1000 words every 24 hours is impossible right now.

I began to panic. Did this mean that I had to give up, or at least put my writing career on hold until I got my life under control?

Then I figured it out: “write every day” is advice for regular people. (I mean “regular people” here in terms of the mindset and capabilities of the average Joe.) The idea that if you cannot write every day, you may not be cut out to be a professional writer might actually have some merit in some situations. If, as a regular person, you don’t choose writing over a sitcom every night, you might not have the obsessive insanity necessary to carry you through all the indignities and outrageous turns of fortune that being a professional writer will throw at you.

I realized that just as everything else in my life had needed to be adjusted in accordance to my health condition, so did my writing. Just as I cannot run errands every day, or exercise every day, or drive long distances every day, I cannot write every day.

And that’s okay, because “write every day” is not advice aimed at someone like me. I’ve demonstrated that I’m one of those people who can’t not write (my partner says I look constipated when I don’t, and become more pleasant to be around when I do). A decade of publication history shows that while it might be difficult for me to get out there as much as I’d like to while struggling with my health and my day job, I’m motivated enough to make it happen when I’m able.

For me, it’s not “write every day.” It’s “plot while driving in the car,” and “write while waiting at the doctor’s office,” and most importantly, “strike while the iron is hot.” Nothing in my life can really abide by rigid scheduling right now, and so the writing is also unscheduled. I thought about wanting to write this blog post and had the energy and time to do it right at that moment, so here I am.

Adaptability is a dirty word to me more days than not, mostly because I’m having to do tend to it so damn much right now, but it’s also my salvation. I suspect it might be that to a lot of others. And it’s not just for this kind of situation. I’m writing this blog from a brand-new MacBook Air, which I purchased after spending over a year trying to get various iPads to work for me as mobile writing machines. I finally realized that I just really, really needed the psychological security of backing up works in progress on USB. The anxiety of not feeling “safe” in my saves was crippling my process. A simple problem with a simple (albeit expensive) solution — as long as I was willing to let go of those thoughts that I “should” have been able to deal.

It’s sometimes hard to see where adaptation is necessary. It’s especially hard for me to see where adaptation is necessary versus where desiring novelty or blaming something external for internal writer’s problems is at work. It’s harder still, sometimes, to know I need an adaptation but not know what adaptation will work. As a writer, though, identifying conflicts and problem-solving is kind of my life’s work. Eventually, everything will become clear.

After all this, I’ve decided to change the “write every day” rule for myself. My new rule works for me, helps distance my creative self from the crippling guilt or fear that other forces in my life might “ruin” my ability to be a writer, and helps to encourage me to churn out words. By that measure, I’ve decided it’s a pretty good rule:

Write.

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