Last Tuesday marked the hundredth issue of The Habit Weekly. This is the hundred-first Tuesday in a row that I’ve sent one of these letters out. This one is a thank-you note to you, the readers of The Habit Weekly. If you hadn’t been here to read these letters, I wouldn’t have written them.
When I started the Tuesday letter in January 2018, I was afraid I was biting off more than I could chew. I’ve been writing for a living, one way or another, since 2002; I have missed many, many deadlines in those seventeen years. To take on a weekly deadline that nobody was asking me to take seemed possibly crazy. Or, as they say in caper movies, perhaps it was so crazy that it just might work.
I have often heard people say, “I can’t NOT write.” I’m not one of those people. In fact, I’m an expert at not-writing. Not-writing is my main hobby. Writing is hard. I realize that it’s not as hard for me as it is for some people. But it’s hard enough. And sometimes painful. I need a good reason if I’m going to do it.
For much of my writing life, rather than saying “I can’t NOT write,” I was more likely to say “I write when the pain of not-writing gets to be greater than the pain of writing.” That is to say, I’ll write when I can no longer escape the self-reproach and the fear and the identity crises involved in being a writer who isn’t writing. I’m pretty equable by nature, so this approach to writing as mood-management doesn’t work so well for me. I can go long stretches without working up much in the way of self-reproach. Sure, there are mornings when I bolt out of bed at four in the morning in a panic of self-loathing. But after a few minutes at my desk I feel better, and I’m back to not-writing before the alarm clock even goes off for my original wake-up time. Of course, the worst thing about this approach is not that is often doesn’t work, but that it sometimes DOES work. Who wants a writing life that is fueled by self-loathing and fear and angry editors and disgruntled clients?
There have been plenty of times when I have written merely to pay the bills. Samuel Johnson said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” I have found my monthly mortgage payment to have a similarly mind-concentrating effect. But as with writing for mood-management, writing for money only motivates when one is short on money. Thankfully, I am usually short on money, so this motivation usually works. Nevertheless, for me at least, writing for money is ultimately draining rather than life-giving (though probably not as draining as, say, roofing. I realize that I have been fortunate to have been able to pay my bills by writing).
In writing for mood-management or writing for money, there is a mismatch between the work on the one hand and the motivations and rewards on the other. External motivators work for a while—until they don’t. I don’t think there is any way I could have hit a hundred weekly deadlines in a row just for money.
Writing The Habit Weekly has confirmed a truth that I already suspected: I can’t keep writing for mood-management or for money, but I can keep writing for people. Every week I know there are people who expect a letter from me. I know that you appreciate it (because most weeks I hear from some of you). I know that it has done you some good. Also, I know your names—or your email addresses at the least. In sending out this letter every Tuesday, I’m getting much closer to the natural motivations and rewards of writing: editors and paying clients are great, but what a writer really wants is readers.
So thank you for being readers of The Habit Weekly. Thank you for being here for me. I’m glad for the opportunity to be here for you. I take that privilege seriously. But now that I put it in terms of privilege (and seriousness), that sounds more burdensome than it feels. I write this letter every week because I want to. It gives me joy to know that a lot of you are going to read it, and some of you will benefit from it. And even on those Monday nights when it doesn’t feel like joy to crank out another letter for the next morning, I know that it will be. That’s one thing I’ve learned in the last hundred weeks.