Roxane Gay: “I work too much. Don’t make it an aspiration.”

A reporter asked Roxane Gay (author of Bad Feminist and Hunger) on Twitter to share productivity and/or time management tips. Being a sucker for such things, I was eager for her response. It wasn’t what I expected, but I loved it anyway.

Roxane Gay - I work too hard. Don't make it an aspiration.

How to be productive

I can get a bit weak-kneed around articles about identifying priorities, eating frogs, spending 80% of the time on 20% of the work, finding motivation, having a growth mindset, doing productivity experiments — all that stuff. My interest in these topics has mostly come from the responsibilities of my day job, but it’s become increasingly relevant to my writing life as well.

There’s something so addictive about tricks and hacks, right? The headlines are just so tempting. I know I’m procrastinating on the next chapter of my novel, but maybe this article will help me figure out how to get to work!

Or maybe not. Maybe what I really need to do is close the tab and get back to work.

I go through cycles of enthusiasm and burnout when it comes to reading about improving my productivity. The first part of the cycle is gobbling up as much as I can, the second part is realizing I’m reading the same thing over and over again, with very little I haven’t read before with every new headline I click, and the third part is realizing I haven’t really applied any of these things to my life in any meaningful way.

Then I take a break to read a mystery or do a crossword puzzle or get absorbed in a series on Netflix, something to relax and get my mind off the notion of being more productive. After all, slacking off can actually help your productivity. And soon enough I’m back at the beginning of the cycle.

A different perspective

I love Roxane Gay’s response because it makes a case against the prevailing enthusiasm for life hacks and time savers. She is where she is now because she works hard, not because she found some secret shortcut. If you read interviews with her about her success, she says the same things:

“You have to be in it for the long haul. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you thought, but cream rises to the top. It may not rise in the way you want, but it will get there.” (source)

“I just wrote every day all day. I would work on other things certainly, there were times when I needed to step away and clear my head and clear my heart a little, because of the intense nature of it, but I became fully immersed in the character and her circumstances.” (source)

“Finally, there came a time when I decided to ignore all the advice I had read and do the only thing I know how to do, which is write. I wrote what I felt like writing, when I felt like writing, how I felt like writing.” (source)

“Slowly but surely, I started to find my voice. And the more I found my voice, the more easily I was able to publish my work.” (source)

“I write like no one is going to read it so that I have the courage to put the difficult words on the page. It’s a very elaborate delusion.” (source)

It’s a consistent message, and one that feels directly aimed at me. There are no easy answers. The answers are effort, time, courage, immersion, focus.

“Don’t make it an aspiration.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that line. The problem is, that is my aspiration. Hard work. Sacrificing the things that don’t matter anyway. Finding my voice through consistent practice and focused determination.

Is there any other way? I’m not sure there is. Can someone write a list about that and give it a headline I can’t resist? Something like “10 Ways to Become an Amazing Writer Without Putting in the Work.” Actually, don’t worry about it. I’m sure it already exists.

Put in the work

For writers, it’s not about finding shortcuts or the easiest way to get from point A to point B. It’s about working hard. Putting in the hours. Learning from every sentence written and rewritten and every word deleted and rearranged. As Samuel Beckett wrote in “Worstward Ho”: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Life hacks won’t make you a better writer.