Writing is an act of pure discipline. No one demands I transfer thoughts (hopefully significant) to paper or computer screen. No one leans over my shoulder or paces around the table encouraging me or yelling at me to get it done.
Due to the metamorphosis of thought into written language, the solitary process of writing requires an enormous amount of discipline. We’re taking the already difficult attempt at communication, and then striving to construct a complex piece of literature. As writers, our task lies in this evolution of communication. Some people might say, “I write for myself.” While this is a great starting point (and the only one I know of), the completed work should ideally be accessible to some sort of target audience.
I’ve strayed from discussing my point about discipline, but I think my purpose behind writing should be revealed in order to provide a reason for developing fierce, and I mean fierce, discipline. I recently finished Stephen King’s memoir about his life as a writer (thanks, Meg Mary, for lending me the book). King states that to be a true writer, you must take that shit serious - you can’t tinker with it here and think about it there. In his early years, every day after work he closed the door of the laundry room in his doublewide and wrote for four hours. Door shut, alone in a room, balancing a typewriter on his lap, he worked while his wife (who has always supported him and is a published author in her own right) watched the children - he existed in a sphere of solitude and self-discipline (I don’t intend to sound sexist, for the women writers the husband can sit his ass in the other room watching the children and leave you to your work as well).
During my first semester fiction workshop with Professor Furman, we read a book about Emerson on writing, and an Emerson quote stuck with me: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent." To me, Emerson is stating that writing is an all or nothing endeavor, so to be a serious writer you can’t half-ass it.
I can be extremely undisciplined by nature, so striving for rigorous self-control can be a brick wall sometimes, but once I get that first sentence down, the brick wall begins to fade, thoughts connect, and I make sure to ride that momentum to at least 500 words. Which to me is not near enough (and I don’t write 500 words a day, but when I can, I sure as hell do). I think King remarked that he writes 2,000 words a day.
I’m not saying we all have to be as prolific as Stephen King, but what we do is not what “normal” people do, therefore, we must be abnormal in our work ethic. In order to become writers, I believe we must go beyond other peoples’ capabilities in terms of perseverance and work ethic.
A few notable authors’ writing habits:
Maya Angelou - 10–12 pages of material a day, which she edits down to three or four pages in the evening.
Graham Greene - counted each word, and would stop for the day at 500, even if he were in the middle of a sentence.
James Joyce – “In the pantheon of great writers of the last century, Joyce looms large. And while more prolific writers set themselves a word or page limit, Joyce prided himself in taking his time with each sentence. A famous story has a friend asking Joyce in the street if he’d had a good day writing. Yes, Joyce replied happily. How much had he written? Three sentences, Joyce told him” (writetodone.com). (Personally, I’d suggest writing more, we can’t all be James f-ing Joyce, nor should we be.)
Jack London - between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day.
Joyce Carol Oates – “I try to begin work as early as possible, 8:30 a.m., perhaps, and I try to work until past noon or 1 p.m. I try again to write in the evening. Much of my writing is ‘remembering’—I imagine scenes, entire chapters while running or walking—I am very dependent upon this meditative quiet time.”
Currently, Ben Hill Parham is an MFA - Fiction student and GTA of English composition in the FAU creative writing program. He grew up in LaGrange, GA drinking beer around big fires.