You are the expert on yourself.
(This article first appeared in Write, the official magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada, Summer 2022 edition.)
One of my favourite things about being in author spaces is discovering how many ways there are to reach the end of a first draft. Some folks are pantsers, meaning they don’t plan at all and allow their minds to take off when they write. Others are plotters, crafting detailed outlines that guide them from beginning to end. I like to say I can be a prompter: I coax myself to write chapters by responding to a series of writing prompts. The diversity within the various writing methods is wonderful and fascinating to me, as is the diversity of the authors themselves.
This is why I find it so disheartening, and frankly annoying, when someone declares an absolutism like, “You must write every day” or “You must write at least 5,000 words a day” or “You must write for several hours each day.”
Often these statements are accompanied by a shaming attitude, which I presume is supposed to pass for motivational speaking.
As someone who is autistic, disabled, and who manages mental illness, I will never endorse this kind of thinking. Because making a “you must” rule about the writing process dismisses the lived experiences of writers who are disabled, neurodivergent, and/or who manage mental illnesses and/or chronic conditions. It also erases the reality of financial inaccessibility or financial insecurity. This often results in authors feeling like they are “less than” because they cannot achieve a certain pace or output.
Award-winning poet A. Gregory Frankson, editor of AfriCANthology: Perspectives of Black Canadian Poets, told me he hadn’t heard these “you must write” statements before. “Who said that pile of nonsense?” he asked. “Would they say that to the single mom juggling work, kids, and writing? Or to the writer of colour, deflated because no publisher will take their work seriously despite their obvious talent? Try to say that to me — a person who has trouble focussing for extended periods due to ADHD and has to grapple with the impact depression and anxiety have on my ability to write on any particular day, with no way to predict when difficulty may arise. Privilege has its privileges, it seems.”
“As someone with chronic pain and ADHD, I need to not only wait for moments when I am inspired to write, but also moments when I can sustain sitting long enough to write.”
Frankson not only brings up home-life and financial situations, but also how authors who are marginalized in publishing based on their race can go through periods where the motivation is just not there, and how a neurodivergent brain that is also dealing with mental illness cannot be coaxed to perform on demand.
Trent University professor Derek Newman-Stille is a nine-time winner of the Prix Aurora Award for their digital humanities website, Speculating Canada. “We talk a lot in disability studies about the idea of ‘Crip Time,’” they said. “Things don’t happen on the same timeline when disabled creators do their work. We have extra things to take into account, like the amount of spoons we have available or the ability to manage pain enough to write. As someone with chronic pain and ADHD, I need to not only wait for moments when I am inspired to write but also moments when I can sustain sitting long enough to write. Trying to tell us that we aren’t taking writing seriously if we don’t write a certain amount per day disregards fundamental disabled needs.”
It can be wholly frustrating when non-disabled, financially secure folks think there’s a one-size-fits-all path to success, completely ignoring those of us who manage spoons. I don’t mean kitchen cutlery, but the metaphor from Christine Miserandino’s essay “Spoon Theory,” where she uses spoons as measuring tools to describe the mental and physical energy it requires people with chronic illnesses to complete a task. So, getting up might be a spoon. Taking a shower might be three spoons. The idea is that we “Spoonies” have only so many spoons available to us in a day, and that number can vary from day to day. When the spoons are depleted, we can’t take on anything else.
And you know what? Spoonies are authors, and they are readers. We often spread the word when we encounter authors, editors, and even publishers who project narrow attitudes teeming with privilege. If I suspect someone wouldn’t respect my bodymind (a term used in disability spaces to indicate the mind and body are not separate) and the writing process that works for me, then I’m not really interested in exploring their body of work or submitting my fiction or nonfiction to them.
In 2019, Talia C. Johnson took a journey with me to co-edit Nothing Without Us, a multi-genre collection of short fiction whose authors and their protagonists are disabled, d/Deaf, neurodivergent, Spoonie, and/or who manage mental illness. We gave authors a four-month window to submit fiction of 1,000–3,500 words. It was important to provide as much notice as possible for authors to write their stories as it was for us autistic and disabled co-editors to read them. And when we put out the call for Nothing Without Us Too in 2021, we actually gave nine months advance notice and put out a teaser call before our submission window officially opened. We reduced the lower word-count limit to 500, because we understood many of us disabled and immunocompromised folks had been especially worn down from the stress of the pandemic. Offering this extra time and welcoming a lower word count were the least we could do.
“These attitudes are extremely ableist and pile on the guilt that many of us have had since childhood.”
Talia C. Johnson
Another subtext to the “you must write everyday” mentality is how it underscores ableist attitudes about underperforming. Talia C. Johnson is a board member of A4A Ontario, an independent, autistic-led self-advocacy group. She mentioned the harm done by propagating these excessive (and dare I say aggressive) standards. “For Autistics and other disabled people, these attitudes are extremely ableist and pile on the guilt that many of us have had since childhood when we aren’t able to meet mainstream expectations,” Johnson said. “The line they give us? ‘You’re just being lazy,’ or ‘You’re just not applying yourself.’ Meanwhile, we’re curled up in a ball from the overwhelm and overload. Then, when we do achieve something like this, we’re shut down because we dare to share a different viewpoint, perspective, and dare to name the male-bovine manure we encounter every day.”
It’s also important to mention that some of us have no desire whatsoever in achieving an everyday writing quota. Poet, author, artist, and playwright Bernadette Gabay Dyer says this plainly: “To be honest, I am not one of those writers who feels they must write every day. I certainly could not restrict myself to doing so. Such a commitment would eventually become like a ball and chain.”
However, it’s equally important for me to stress that authors who manage spoons are not a monolith. Some of us do write nearly every day. “I write regularly on weekdays,” says Cathy Smith, a prolific writer who uses “Khiatons,” which is Mohawk for “I write” or “I am a writer,” as her motto. “It’s a modest amount but it adds up. I usually take the weekends off from writing to do my marketing or editing. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to be a rapid-release writer, but I can be productive if I pace myself. I keep at it, even though most ‘able-bodied’ writers are told they must do more than I am doing, but I’d rather be the turtle who still keeps going than a rabbit that burns out.”
Speaking of burnout, my brain went “nope” in 2020. I deserted my work-in-progress to focus on my mental health. If anyone would have tried bullying me with “You must write every day,” I would have used all my spoons to launch them into the sun. Then in April 2021, I felt so done with the eugenics messaging directed at the Crip community during the pandemic, I needed to dive headfirst into a world-building project inspired by universal design and the social model of disability. Both these concepts illustrate a society where everyone’s bodymind is already considered and integrated, so accessibility and accommodation are the norm. I completed a first draft of my episodic series, Iris and the Crew Tear Through Space (Renaissance, 2023), using Camp NaNoWriMo as my motivation tool. It’s a twice-a-year, month-long writing challenge where the premise is to write every day while tracking your words through the website. It can be really fun. What I like about the Camp NaNoWriMo dashboard is that authors can choose their own word-count goal. After setting what I feel is a reasonable goal, I try to hit it by writing to a certain word count each day. However, I always have this caveat: I will stop if I am hurting myself, either physically or mentally. And even though I still don’t write every day during NaNoWriMo months, they’ve helped me complete first drafts of works that have been or will be published. Because that’s the thing — whether we write occasionally or more frequently, many of our stories do get finished.
In 2018, I came across a social media post of a partial quote from American author William H. Gass that I felt was pushed as universal wisdom:
“Compel yourself to write several hours every day no matter how bad you feel.”
It propelled me to write an article for the Spoonie Authors Network entitled, “You must write every day — my favourite BS notion.” In it, I suggest my own advice: “If you’re an author who manages a disability, write when you are able. Don’t feel you need to harm yourself in order to follow someone else’s standard.”
Because let’s face it, you know your own life situation best and are the expert on yourself.
So, with all that is going on with your reality, and remembering that celebrating the diversity of writing methods promotes accessibility and accommodation, I wish you great success with arranging the alphabet.
On your own terms.
Cait Gordon is an autistic, disabled, and queer Canadian writer of speculative fiction that celebrates diversity. She is the author of Life in the ’Cosm, The Stealth Lovers, and the forthcoming Iris and the Crew Tear Through Space (2023). Cait also founded the Spoonie Authors Network and joined Talia C. Johnson to co-edit the multi-genre disability fiction anthologies Nothing Without Us and Nothing Without Us Too.