Can a Writer Write Too Much?

The most common advice given to new writers working across the spectrum of words is to write—and write, and write, and write. We’re told to journal, compose to-do lists, work outside of our chosen genres, enter writing competitions and mentor others. Out of all the reams and reams of pages produced in our pursuit of literary greatness, only a fraction of it takes a permanent place in our oeuvre,  and only a small part of that ever gets published.

Is  “write, write, write” ever bad advice?

Credit: AuditoryEden, deviantart.com

Credit: AuditoryEden, deviantart.com

I don’t know the definitive answer to this question, but looking back over my writing life, I can think of more than a few times where not writing would have done me a world of good. I’ve picked up literary tics from other writers, and butchered them, and reinforced them with the constant admonishment to “keep writing” until they became habits that took years to undo. There were times when I wrote out of the right frame of mind, when the drivel on the page clearly indicated that I could have been growing as a writer in other ways, perhaps with some self-reflection, a walk in the woods or a new experience to reengage me with the words flowing down my fingers.

When I was nine, I enrolled in the music program at East Dover Elementary. I picked the viola as my primary instrument because my best friend had taken my first choice, the flute, and there weren’t many instrument options left. Over the years I became more and more serious about music, and practiced more often, until I enrolled in conservatory in New York City. There, I met students who were music fanatics, light-years ahead of me and my meager two- or three-hour practice sessions. These kids practiced in the hallways between practice sessions. When the orchestra let out for lunch, they whipped out Luna bars, stayed in their chairs, and picked away at the music until everyone came back.

After a time, I started to do those things. I came to practice with Vitaminwater and protein bars, a nail file and aspirin. At peak, I was in the practice room eight hours a day, viola at my neck. I practiced so much I carved a callus into my collarbone, and a perpetual bruise under my jawline from holding my instrument.

Despite my injurious dedication, the music stayed static. It was like a record playing over and over. My fingers were quick on the instrument, but the mistakes stayed in place. By practicing and practicing with no time for reflection, I was grinding my bad habits into the grain, repeating them over and over. 

I’ve since left the music world behind, but I can tell you that when I pick up my viola now, which is only every once in a long while, the same poor bowstrokes reemerge every time I play Hindemith. The same hiccups on long chords come every time I open J. Christian Bach, and the same frustrations shine when I play any of the cello sonatas written by his father.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that writing as an art form and as a field for practice, as well as play, is any different. Perhaps instead of telling young writers to just write and write and write until they drop (the tack taken by several of my writing instructors and the instructors of my peers, as they tell it), the direction could be a little more nuanced. Maybe we should tell young writers (and ourselves, because we all strive to improve) that instead of rigorous, repeated writing practice, some of the time could be spent not writing reams and reams, but writing a little, and reflecting a lot. Then writing a little more, and learning from ourselves as we go.

 

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