“I don’t care when you do it, so long as you do it. Every day.” Walter Mosley
You’ll find at least ten beautiful journals across the bookshelves in my apartment. I’d say one of them is almost full, three or four are about half full, and the rest are empty. I received some of them as gifts from thoughtful people who assumed that I was a person who loved to write. I must have been fooling them all because I’ve never been a person who aches to write. I kept some of these journals when I was younger but always in fits and starts… going strong for 3 months or so and then an abrupt stop, or a petering out across the 4th month only to return again in a new book to commemorate a new start. So I signed myself to see myself as someone who has come to appreciate much more reading someone’s ideas, characters, and made up worlds than stringing the words and ideas together myself.
About 10 years ago, I heard Luis Moll, an educational researcher, speak to a group of young scholars about the daily grind to success in academia. He described to us the path to tenure that a younger colleague was forging: He woke up at 4 am each morning to give himself time in his quiet household to write for an hour or two before the rest of his family woke up. That was the only time when he could find an abundance of uninterrupted time.
My eyes practically popped out of my head when I heard this method of masochism. I lost hold of the parts of me that enjoyed writing when I was in graduate school, where your currency is a paper written in an authoritative, “expert” voice that is not your own. At first, I was excited to put my ideas on paper and was hopeful that my professors would be excited to read them, but it felt like, more often than not, I missed the mark. Comments in the margin sounded like, “did you really address the issue?” or “how does the idea you raise on page 1 relate to the one you raise on page 3?” I wasn’t keeping any kind of journal and any joy that I had for writing felt like it was becoming more and more elusive. So the idea to wake up in the middle of the night to write sounded miserable and ridiculous to me.
But I’d heard other authors, not just researchers, swore by the same routine of finding a daily time to write each day. They didn’t just carve out days to write here and there. Rather, they cultivated their writing muscles every 24 hours. Hearing this process, writing books or articles or whatever didn’t seem like some magical process anymore. Rather, it felt like an attainable endeavor. But however attainable it was, it still felt like too much of a laborious commitment. I already committed to a lot each day—some form of exercise, flossing, washing dishes, and making my bed (besides working all week!)—that I wasn’t going to add another thing that felt like a chore. So I wasn’t writing. I was reading and teaching and thinking and talking.
That mostly felt fine, but there was still a part of me that also felt like I had ideas that could be worth sharing with even more people.
A few years ago, I went to listen to StaceyAnn Chin interview Walter Mosley in a cozy room upstairs at the Strand Bookstore in Union Square. Walter Mosley is the kind of writer that we can learn a lot from. I love his flawed but noble characters, the simple construction of some of his sentences that wrecked my heart when I least expected them to. He started his career in his late 30s and has been prolific ever since with close to 50 books across his career. Around the time when I saw him, I’d had ideas for writing a book based on the work from my dissertation, but I struggled a lot with committing to it. I wanted it to be big and good but the words weren’t coming to the page in big and good ways. So I found that frustrating, and I avoided the project. After the talk, I joined the line to get the book signed. I asked him about his writing own process and he responded. “You’ve got to write every day. I do an hour, in the morning.” His response was as cool as his Easy Rawlins character. I asked him more about this, if the morning was the best time for a writer. He told me, “I don’t care when you do it, so long as you do it. Every day.” Though I’d read a lot about the power of daily writing, my interaction with Mosley was the first time that I’d met someone who actually carried it out.
“I could do this,” I said to myself. I just needed to commit the time to write every day. I started strong for a little while, but then I petered out. One hour seemed too long. Too hard. So I resigned myself to quitting daily writing, and only wrote when I had to. If the practice hadn’t stuck after so many valiant-turned-limp-hearted tries, I figured that it wasn’t meant to be. It just wasn’t in my bones.
Two years later, I’ve come back around to Mosley’s idea, like an itch that needed scratching. I have ideas that I want to share and the pages won’t write themselves. But now I have a 9-month old, a full-time, all-consuming job, and I still aim to floss, make my bed, and exercise every day. So this is probably the worst possible time to engage in a daily writing practice.
But… maybe, it’s the best time.
When I lamented to my dear friend Sherry about my desire to make progress in my writing, she suggested starting out with just 15 minutes a day. It sounded reasonable in theory, but after coming home from work, playing with and putting baby to sleep, eating dinner and cleaning up, where would 15 minutes come from? Diana, another friend who also writes, suggested just 5 minutes a day. I recalled another friend Pia who coached me in beginning to meditate and she scoffed at programs suggesting one start with 10 minutes. “Remember, it’s a practice. So you’ll fail some days, but you just keep trying. Just start at one minute each day, and grow it from there.” So I said to myself, “I can do 5 minutes. Every day.”
It’s not the tenacious professor’s early morning activity, and it’s not even Walter Mosley’s hour at any time during the day. But it’s my 5 minutes and I’ve been doing it my way all summer long. There are times when I don’t want to write, when I feel like I have nothing to say or when I’d rather be taking a nap or reading. And there are days when I don’t make it, but I don’t get hung up on it. And most of the time I do make it, and those 5 minutes grow into 30, just like it’s doing right now.
Working in small chunks that may potentially have big impact has made me think more about the teaching of writing. As an educator, I have believed in the power of writing as a process, just like I believe in the power of daily reading as the most potent activity in which one can engage to become a better teacher of reading. I’ve practiced the latter for much of my career but not much the former. Doing the work that I want young people to do has made me better at teaching into it. I understand more about how I engage with reading in ways that I can communicate to young people. I become more empathic to the minute and grand challenges they may face, and I remember that progress is not linear and longitudinal but sometimes slow and haphazard. Of all the things that I can attribute to any success I’ve had with being a teacher of reading, it’s my own engagement with the practice. But I simply haven’t done the same with writing. So now I’m trying to do that.
I’ll let you know how it goes.