Writing Every Day: The 100 Day Challenge

100dayWriting every day? Forget it. That’s what best-selling male writers do while their wives do everything else. Or so I thought until the 100 Day Challenge.

The Challenge started at the end of GrubStreet’s spring Muse and the Marketplace Conference. Keynote speaker, Walter Mosley, advocated writing every day, claiming that it allowed writers to access their unconscious and sink more deeply into their work. Following the speech, fellow Grubbie, non-fiction writer and memoirist, Molly Howes, threw out a challenge: write for 100 days in a row (on the same project or projects) for a minimum of 20 minutes.

In a moment of post-Muse exhilaration I signed on despite never having believed in the possibility of daily writing. After all I didn’t have a wife to take care of all the things that didn’t get done while I was wrote. For years I’d scrounged for writing time between kids, ailing parents and part-time jobs.

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Post-Muse enthusiasm carried me through the first week of the challenge. Then came the weekend and I made myself get up early to write. My kids are teenagers now and they sleep late so morning writing turned out to be no problem. As I sat on my couch, laptop in hand, it occurred to me that I could have done this even when my kids were little. My husband and I had traded off mornings. I’d always used my mornings off to sleep, but I could have used them to write. Or I could have negotiated a half-hour during the day despite the weekend chaos. My husband and I had done that all the time with things like exercise and errands. I just hadn’t done it with writing.

The next few weeks all hell broke lose. A sick kid and multiple trips to the ER with my mom hijacked most of my writing time. Before the Challenge, I wouldn’t have even tried to write. But now I pulled out my laptop in waiting rooms, in the car and even in the ER while Mom was in x-ray. When I couldn’t squeeze in daytime writing, I wrote for 20 minutes in bed at night. I often wrote poorly and I didn’t always write a lot, but I wrote something.

Feeling cocky, I cruised until day 49. Ironically, my first lapse happened on a Saturday at home when I could have grabbed 30 minutes to write any time. But I was getting ready for a college trip with my daughter, nine college visits in nine days. The logistics were daunting as was the list of things to take care of before leaving. I thought I would write before bed, but at 1am I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

What did that teach me? If you haven’t planned a specific writing time, then write before you do anything else. I knew that. I really did. But it’s obviously a lesson that needs to be learned over and over again.

I wrote through the college trip by getting up early and writing in more waiting rooms. The next month on a hiking trip to Scotland to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday, I got up a half-hour earlier to write before we set out.

I was still on this Scottish trip when the next lapses happened. The second part of the trip we stayed in one place, which meant I had more flexibility to write. Day 89 started with me feeling tired and discouraged from bad writing the day before. Scenes were unraveling and I didn’t know what to do with them. I got up early to write but instead of making instant coffee and working in my little hotel room, I wasted all my time searching for a café to write in, which I did not find on this tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides. Somehow no café equaled no writing.

Day 90, I brought my instant coffee outside and sat on a bench to write but it started to rain and I gave up.

Day 91, I planned to write on the plane back to Boston. All through the long flight I planned to write . . . except I didn’t. I didn’t want to. I was deep into a good book, and what the hell; I’d already screwed up the last two days.

Day 92, a dangerous precedent had been set. Three days in a row without writing. I was jetlagged and sorely tempted to make it four. But I set aside 20 minutes to just open my laptop and read where I’d stopped. That took the edge off and I ended up writing for an hour.

Day 100 arrived on August 10.

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Today is day 135 and I’m still writing every day. There are some days I’d really rather not, but by now it’s a habit. Plus I gave myself a draft deadline. I’m finishing this draft by October 31st . . . if it kills me.

What have I gotten out of the Challenge? I’ve written a lot more pages than I would have if I wasn’t writing every day. I also feel more like a writer than ever before, since by definition a writer is someone who writes. Lastly, I think Mosley’s connection between daily writing and the unconscious is real. When I’m struggling with a problem in my book, almost without exception an idea will arrive out of nowhere before I sit down to write the next day.

I firmly believe if I can do the 100 Day Challenge anyone can. Are you ready?

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7 comments

  1. Lisa Birk

    GREAT piece, Carol! I didn’t take Moseley’s 100-day challenge as I knew this past summer would be chock-full of houseguests and class work. Boy, do I regret that. Thanks for revealing how you got it done. I’m inspired! I’ve been doing a modified version for 4 weeks now: write on week days, think on weekends. It’s made a world of difference.

  2. Michael Nolan

    Good personal essay, Carol. So many of your experiences hit home with me. I’ve been typing a few inspirational words into an online file every day before I write. It’s where mantra meets pep talk. Here’s just a few quiet words in a sample entry from a few days ago: Organized, hopeful, forward-thinking.

    It works!

  3. Bonnie Waltch

    Thank you, Carol, that was so inspiring! Now that I’m deep into Novel Incubator and have my second 50-page revision due next month, I’m going to try this. I tend to write in big chunks for days at a time, then take 1 or 2 days off to catch up on life, but I think, as you discovered, it is better to get into a daily habit.

  4. Rob Wilstein

    Great post, Carol. I try to write every day, mostly because when I don’t it’s so hard to get back into the head of the story, more rereading, more time.
    Thanks.

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