Breaking The Chain

By Jennie Jarvis

Years ago, comedian and writer Jerry Seinfeld delivered some of the best advice on writing I’ve ever heard – Don’t break the chain. This essentially means that it’s a good idea for a writer to take a wall calendar (perhaps one of the hundred that I receive each month from charity organizations that want me to give them money despite the fact that they are wasting money by printing calendars and mailing them to people) and hanging it up on the wall. Each day, the writer should mark an X on that day once they have spent a bit of time writing. If the writer is good and makes X after X on his/her calendar, then a beautiful chain is created. Seinfeld believed that it was important to never break that chain. In other words, he believed that a writer needs to write every single day.

My friend and colleague Allen Gorney is notoriously good at not breaking the chain. Despite his hellacious work hours (sometimes as many as 75 a week!), he is still always able to spare at least ten minutes a day for his writing. Whether he spends this time creating the note cards that he will use to build his narrative, drafting character bibles or actually writing or rewriting pages, he makes writing a daily commitment.

And I’m not going to lie – I hate the bastard for it.

Writers like that make me feel lazy because my chain gets broken every month. If I’m lucky, I can usually get a solid week of routinely writing each day before the chain of X’s vanishes. Then, when I look up at my wall calendar, all I see is a bunch of white spaces under a photo of a dog asking for me to feed him with my ten cents a day. If it’s a really bad month, then it’s usually a photo of a cat. I hate cats.

It’s hard to know that my writing doesn’t happen on a daily basis. It makes me feel guilty. My characters cry out to me at night as I try to fall asleep, demanding to know why I didn’t give them a page to live on that day. My characters, in search of an author, taunt me into nightmares.

The truth of the matter is that my job requires that I use a lot of brainpower reading and evaluating the work of other writers. Where are their plot points? How “on the nose” is their dialogue? How well are they portraying their theme? Do their B and C plots sufficiently support their A plots? Are their descriptions legible? Do they have any mastery of the English language at all? Since I spend so many of my brain cells trying to make the writing of other writers’ work, when it comes time for my own creations, my brain feels tired.  My creative well has been tapped dry.

So I have two choices: 1) quit my current position and find a job that uses less of my higher brain functions so that I have more creative juice for my own work or 2) find another way for my stories to come to life. Since I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for the world, I choose door number two.

What this means is that, when I do get time at my keyboard, I write with passion. When I know that I have the mental capacity to write, I grab the opportunity by the reins and churn out anywhere from ten to thirty pages in one sitting. To some writers, this is unheard of. To my friend Allen, it’s sheer ridiculousness. But I know that I have to take advantage of the time and brain power when I have it, otherwise my stories will stay locked in my head, screaming in my ear as I try to count sheep.

This isn’t to say that I don’t take advantage of my time away from the keyboard. I write in my head as often as I can, even if I’m not mentally able to get the words out onto the page. The characters dance in my noggin, lumps of not completely formed dough, throwing out a line of dialogue here or a plot point there. While sitting in traffic, a character may suddenly reveal to me their motivation behind some action. Or my narrator may suddenly show me around a plot turn that I hadn’t yet explored. Even if I can’t get to actually putting words on a page, my mind is always working, always writing.

And the best part of this is that, because I have spent so much time mapping out my narrative in my head before actually committing anything to words, my stories often come out well structured and much more defined than I could have hoped for. This doesn’t mean that I don’t need to rewrite, but my first drafts often read more like fourth or fifth drafts, and that makes my more sporadic writing periods feel much more productive.

How I create may not be the way that Jerry Seinfeld or Allen Gorney likes to write, but it works for me.  And like movie watching and sex, writing requires that we understand our personal preferences and learn to thrive within those parameters.

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