By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Luke Eldredge
One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to write every day. This advice is so common that it has largely been accepted as a given: To become a writer and to produce a work of writing, one must write every day. On the surface this makes complete sense. If writing is a craft, the only way to become better is to practice that craft. Like carving a sculpture from marble, the writer must chip, chip, chip away at the unrelenting white page. This recommendation feels so obvious that it produces an atmosphere of guilt for those who do not adhere to it. If I am not writing every day, I am not a legitimate writer.
The more I listen to writers, and especially poets, talk to one another, the more this advice becomes suspect. Rachel Zucker, author of ten books of poetry and prose, has repeatedly stated on her illuminating podcast, Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People), that she does not write every day. In fact, someone as prolific as she is will take years between poetic projects. Other poets on Zucker’s podcast, including Juliana Spahr and Victoria Chang, have confessed that they also do not write each day. The confession is usually accompanied by a comment to the effect of “I know daily writing works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.” It is a confession because the cultural atmosphere says that it should work for all serious writers.
A primary reason that writing daily may even be bad advice is that the brain, like a muscle, fatigues. Two scientifically proven ways the mind fatigues is through attention and through decision-making. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2011 looked at factors that impacted the likelihood of prisoners being released on parole. It was discovered that the largest influencing factor was the time of day that the prisoner’s case came before a judge. At the beginning of the day, the prisoner had an approximately 65 percent chance of receiving parole. As the day wore on, prisoners’ chances steadily declined and eventually dropped to nearly zero by the end of a ruling session. But the chances for a favorable ruling abruptly returned to 65 percent after a break. The judges were suffering from “decision fatigue.” As the day wore on, each judge gradually lost the ability to make decisions and therefore chose the path of least resistance—denying parole. This study revealed that the critical thinking required to make decisions taxes the resources of the mind, and those resources are not limitless. The study also revealed that taking breaks can replenish those finite resources.
Researchers at the University of Illinois published a study in the scientific journal Cognition in 2011 that studied people’s ability to focus on a task over a period of time. The study demonstrated that extended attention to a single task hinders the performance of that task, but diversions from the task dramatically improved performance. Spending time not working on the task was markedly beneficial to the success of that task. Like decision-making, the mind’s ability to pay attention to a single activity is limited, but taking breaks allows the mind to reset its attention.
Writing is critically dependent on our ability to make decisions and to pay attention to the task at hand. Because our ability to do so is a demonstrably limited resource, writing every day might create the environment in which those critical abilities are taxed to depletion. By taking breaks between writing, our ability to make decisions and to pay attention is replenished. By taking breaks between writing, our writing may improve. The time we spend not writing may be as beneficial to developing the craft of writing as the time we spend practicing it.