“Nulla dies sine linea,” said Horace. A pithy line from the poet who arguably invented pithy, and one with no small amount of practicality imbued in its chiastic concision. But, like all gnomisms, the wisdom is in what’s unsaid. Does it count if I only spend one day a week crafting fiction, and the other six churning out press releases? What happens to my neural pathways if I alternate between poetry and prose? Are we all taking the lyrics too literally? In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami draws a beautiful analogy between running and writing as activities which, if not repeated daily, will allow the clever beasts of our physical and mental muscles (which I imagine as resembling the beasts at the End of the World in Hard-Boiled Wonderland) to slack off and degenerate back to step zero. But is this sort of punitive regime essential to becoming a better writer?
I’m suspicious of anything that seems prescriptive. When instructed to complete reams of homework in Year 7 Maths, I took the view that I’d be fine if I just did the last five questions (the hardest ones) of any chapter. This cavalier approach served me well until I reached my final two years of high school, at which point I needed to complete entire chapters simply to understand the conceptual pedagogy at hand. While studying journalism, most of my cohort would speak in smug tones about the “connections” that they could leverage to realise their story ideas – typically high-powered executives or politicians who’d they’d gushed hello to at some networking event. These stories typically ended up imbued with less connectivity than a broken modem, so I took a different approach: cold-calling whoever I needed for story with witty emails and secretary-busting chutzpah. So I’m a big fan of short-cuts – but also acknowledge that many of my life-hacks themselves rely on significant amounts of repetitive effort.
I don’t write fiction every day, but I feel a sense of guilt at not doing so. I believe in the power of muscle memory for the brain, but I’m also – perhaps due to life circumstances – wary of over-exertion, and the heady tonic of “pushing the limits” that’s slurped down across my results-addicted social networks with disregard to its corrosive side-effects. So I write, and write often, but not with the monumental focus or endurance which Horace’s line hints at. I sleep more than I sketch, I get distracted by words other than mine, I stare out of windows more than I probably should. My writing style is more sprint than marathon – long periods of restless malaise punctuated by fiery bursts of productive obligation. Perhaps this means I will never be a Murakami, which will make me sad – but I have a ten-year head start, and I’m content just to make it to the finish line.