Only jolter-headed, conceited idiots suppose that volumes are to be tossed off like pancakes, and that any writing can be done without the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy of which the writer is capable.
~ Charles Dickens
To be fair, this quote took a little remanufacturing on the part of yours truly. The original quote comes from The Letters of Charles Dickens. In the original, Dickens was writing to Wilkie Collins to congratulate Collins on “Basil”. Dickens was delighted to find that the author took great pains to be discriminating and yet to also deliver casual blows to the aforementioned “jolter-headed, conceited idiots”.
Personally, I loved the idea of Dickens railing about people believing that writing was as easy as tossing off pancakes. If you consider the sheer volume of work produced by the man, you have to wonder just how he managed it.
Of course, there is just one answer to that… he wrote.
It’s true that Dickens lived in an age without electronic diversions, but it was not without any diversions. Still, he managed to create volume after volume by following the formula:
UTMOST APPLICATION + GREATEST PATIENCE + STEADIEST ENERGY = WRITING (AND ANYTHING ELSE WORTH DOING RIGHT)
Of the three principles, the craft is the one I think most writers tend to gloss over when starting out. It sounds weird to say that of course. If you consider any other profession, it would be strange for one to simply dive in and have at it. Yet, this is how most writers get into the craft and like a surgeon who has no training the patients seldom see the light of day.
But the real application goes much further than training and practice. Writing is a lifelong pursuit of skill and knowledge. The writer must work within the medium but they most also read and learn from others practicing the craft as well, pick up new techniques, experiment, and seek opinion. Writers who fail to do this are as unlikely to get a letter of praise from Charles Dickens’ (he’s dead after all) as they are from the Charles Dickens’ of their day.
If patience is a virtue, then I’m afraid I’m going straight to Hell.
All writers have some method of beginning, some bit of inspiration that sparks the burning need to put words down and create something from the void. We write these beautiful, fevered phrases while hoping to catch all the vibrance of the vision before it fades. We scribble and scribble and scribble till our hands become raw and our minds race at speeds our words cannot hope to keep up with.
Then we get muddled.
We call this writing ourselves into a corner and it happens whether you cautiously plan your narrative or go straight at it free form. The writer with patience understands this happens. They wait and watch while the paint dries and then go back and fix things up. The rest of us (meaning everyone) just walk across the wet floor, leaving footprints everywhere and start over.
Write every day. The End.
Alright, that isn’t quite the end. It should be, but it’s not. You see, it isn’t enough just to say you need to write every day. Yes, “Steadiest Energy” implies that you must be consistent in the practice of the craft, but you must also apply sustained effort.
This means that you must develop the ability to do more than write the fevered words I mentioned in the last section. You must also learn to write all the other words that need to be said as well.
When I first wrote this little bit, it was just the opening quip:
Write every day. The End.
I was going to leave it at that because I thought it was clever. Then, as I was wrapping things up, I realized I skipped over the meaning of the phrase entirely. I wasn’t patient and I wasn’t adhering to the utmost application of the writing craft. I was coasting.
So, yes, you must write every day. However, you must apply a consistent effort across every bit of your practice. You must write and read and edit with equal vigor but also maintain a sense of calm about it.
It isn’t a race. It’s a practice.
Which of these three principles give you the most trouble? How do you deal with it?