Zero Days

Over the last year, I’ve spent a decent amount of time devouring any sort of media pertaining to the Pacific Crest Trail. This 2600+ mile trail meanders up from Mexico, through California and Oregon, then on up my home state of Washington to the Canadian border. As far as impossible dream lists go, hiking the entirety of the PCT is squarely at the top. In order to get it done before snows make you relive all the Middle School stories about the Donner Party, you’ve got to hit something over 14 miles a day. Every day. For six months. Even through the mountains.

Sometimes, though, your body needs a rest; sometimes you’ve just walked as far as you can walk until your mental state gets back in gear with the body. On those occasions, you take a “zero day”, or log zero miles on your overall journey.

My goal right now is to not take any zero days in my writing. Since the start of April, I’ve stuck to a strict 2000 word a day mandate, taking it as holy law is if handed down from on high. No zero days. Like hiking the PCT, writing is something that isn’t purely physical or mental. You can’t get by purely on one or the other. At some point in the journey, the honeymoon period wears off and you’re left with the stark truth: “Oh, crap, I have to do this again and again, day after day and I really don’t feel like it”.

That’s when things switch from being fueled by enthusiasm and optimism and gets replaced with habit and practice. Everyone runs into that at some point. The newness of going to the gym wears off and you realize you’re spending an hour a day toiling in physical labor for some inexplicable reason. Or you start to think that whatever habit you’re trying to cultivate isn’t nearly as great as whatever came before.

Once, not long ago, I hated the popular idea that you should force yourself to write even when you weren’t feeling it. I loathed it. If I didn’t feel like writing, the idea of forcing myself to sit in that chair and hammer out words felt horrific. Doing an activity like writing because you’re supposed to, rather than because you love it, seems like a recipe for crap to me. If I’m not in love with what I’m doing and I’m forcing myself to do it, I figured what I was going to write would come out angry.

Well, turns out I was right.

That doesn’t change anything, though. If my work comes out full of resentment because I was forcing myself to write, well, I can fix that in editing. At least I have something written. It’s too easy to let mood dictate when I should write, and it’s easy to get into a negative feedback loop and simply not write for weeks, sometimes months, because I didn’t feel like it. No more. Doesn’t matter what I feel like, how my day is going. I sit down and hammer out 2000 words. They might be horrific words. They might be an offense to any decent folk that appreciates a book. But they’re my words, and they can be cleaned up later. Nothing is ever set in stone.

Hiking the PCT, sometimes you need to take a zero day, just to keep your body from falling apart under you. Now, if I’m feeling the need to scrawl a big old zero on my daily word count, I switch to something else — something that’s still productive and furthering my craft. Edit something. Outline something. As long as I’m doing something as an author, I’m making progress. So far, I’ve hit 45 days of 2000 words a day, minus about 6 days I took to editing a finished piece. For awhile I was editing and writing, but I found it consumed too much brain power — something at a premium these days — and that it was too hard to switch gears. So, I’ll write my 2000 words a day until I finish something, then switch to editing. Maybe I’ll pop to another project as a cleanser, but somehow, I’m always working forward.

No more zero days.

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