At the beginning of the 1984 movie, Romancing the Stone, we find romance author Joan Wilder, played by Kathleen Turner, finishing her new novel. As the heroine and hero ride off into the sunset, the camera turns to Joan behind her typewriter, with her face transfigured by the story. She’s been crying, and she gets up and walks around the house looking for something to blow her nose on. No Kleenex, no toilet tissue, no paper towels. All used up. At last she takes a note off the bulletin board and cheerfully blows her nose on it and throws it away.
Whether by personal knowledge, instinct, or research, Turner captures the rapturous emotion of a really good writing day.
A Good Writing Day
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had good writing days (my experience is that they are far from the majority). You know it when you have it. You’re in the zone, you’re in the scene, and the scene feels like an experience that would knock you on your backside if you were reading it in anyone else’s book.
What makes a good writing day?
One factor is surprise. Your characters seem to take over the reins of the story and rescue your outline (written or mental) from dreary sameness.
Another factor is emotion. The stakes are high, and the passions are thunderous.
A third factor is uniqueness. You know as you write this that you’ve never read this scene before. It feels like something new.
At the end of the writing session, you rise from your chair like Joan Wilder and look around the house for more Kleenex, because you’ve literally or figuratively cleaned out the box.
You stand like God looking at your creation and declaring it “Good.”
There’s nothing like a good writing day.
A Bad Writing Day
At the other end of the spectrum is the bad writing day. If you’re a serious writer — that is, a disciplined writer — you know this kind of writing day very well also.
Just getting to your writing apparatus (keyboard or notebook) feels like swimming upstream in molasses. Your internal critic is particularly vocal and eloquent on a bad writing day, telling you that you’re hopeless, your project is hopeless, that you might as well quit and do something you actually enjoy. When you do sit down to your chosen work, every word seems like it’s drawn from a morass of cliche and dead platitudes to lie like a dull brown slug on the page of your dreams.
What gets you through a bad writing day is the repeated affirmation, “I’ll fix it later.”
Making the Most of Good Days and Bad Days
What brings all this to mind is that I had a good writing day recently. I felt like Joan in Romancing the Stone. I don’t vouch that anybody else would think it’s good writing, but I felt it.
In times past, I would have severely cautioned myself not to get too caught up in celebrating my good writing day. After all, the book isn’t finished yet. I may read that scene later and find out it’s not all that. Someone else might read it and find it seriously deficient. In short, I was my own killjoy.
This time, I decided to enjoy it. Those days are few enough, at least for me, that I’m really not in danger of falling into the illusion that I have no more mountains to climb. Instead, I’ll be back into slogging mode on the very next scene, and the mountaintop experience will help me walk through it. It will give me hope for another day, another scene, and for the future of the book.
When the bad day comes back, I’ll promise myself to fix it later. I’ll trudge word by word through the scene. I’ll remember the good day and press on.
Just as the good day may not be good writing, the bad day may not be bad writing. Recently, I wrote a blog post for a client that started out with sand in the gears. I couldn’t think of anything. My ideas were bad. I had nothing to say. It was going to be terrible.
But I had a deadline and had made a promise. I gritted my teeth and started writing.
I closed my eyes and wrote (peeking only to make sure my fingers were on the right keys). And then something broke. I was seeing surprising metaphors for what I was saying. New ideas were slipping in unnoticed. They didn’t seem any good, but I wrote them anyway.
I wrote the first draft and came back the next day to fix it. I thought I needed to rewrite it from scratch, but surprisingly there was a substantial amount from the bad day worth keeping.
After I sent it to the site owner, she said she thought my writing was getting better and more professional all the time.
When I read it later, there were parts I didn’t remember writing. They weren’t bad. It was just a bad day.
Good Days and Bad Days
My practice is to write 1,000 words per day. (Your mileage may vary.) There will be good days and bad days (too many of the latter, too few of the former). There will be good words and bad words.
The good writing days are worth celebrating and remembering. The bad writing days may not be bad writing.
But no matter what, I’ll fix it later.