I used to play World of Warcraft. A lot.
World of Warcraft (or WoW), for the uninitiated, is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Or, MMO for short. Basically you get on your computer and fight dragons and monsters with other nerds all over the world.
And it's awesome.
And you never, ever win. There's always something more to do in WoW and other MMOs. You can run a dungeon with your friends. You can run around doing quests until your fingers are numb. Hell, you can spend all night dancing on a table at the inn if that's what you're into.
If you're like me, the GAME aspect of WoW is nothing but an excuse for the FRIENDS aspect of the game. In other words, you log in at night because that's what your friends are doing. Even when you're playing alone -- soloing quests or collecting materials for crafting new, better gear and stuff -- it's all in the service of playing with your friends.
And as you do things with your friends, you and your friends want to do more, harder, bigger things together. In WoW, the dungeons and quests get progressively more difficult. One way to mitigate that is to level up -- to play enough that your character increases in power. Another way is to get better gear and equipment -- armor, weapons, potions, etc.
All of this takes time.
I'd always played video games. All my life. Seriously: there's still a Pong system in a drawer somewhere at my folks' house. I used to drive my brother nuts playing a single game of Asteroids on our Atari 2600 for two hours straight (the trick is to never, ever use your thrusters).
But a game like WoW is different. Play Asteroids for a hundred hours and you're still playing the same game. Your little ship doesn't get more powerful. When you run out of lives and start a new game, you're right back where you were the very first time you played.
That's not how a MMO works.
In an MMO you're constantly improving your character. Which constantly improves the things your character can do. Which constantly demands you spend more time improving your character. So you can constantly strive to do new, more, harder things . . . with your character.
This endless pursuit of incremental improvements in an MMO is affectionately referred to by players as "grinding".
You log in and grind reputation quests to earn a new cloak or sword. You collect herbs or ore from the ground to level up a profession. You run the same dungeon over and over and over, either for experience points (which enable you to level your character up), for reputation, or simply in the hope you'll find some awesome new gear after dispatching the dungeon's residents.
The grind is the million and one things you can do in-game which, individually don't do a whole lot, but as a whole enable you to make large improvements to your gameplay experience.
I spent a lot of time playing World of Warcraft. I made good friends I still speak to on a daily basis even today. That right there would be enough for me to count the time as "worthwhile".
But my time in Azeroth, the fictional world players visit in WoW, also made me a better writer.
When I really got into WoW, it became my default. If Jessy ran to the store and I had an hour to myself, I'd log in and get something done. It didn't occur to me to do something else. The habit of playing the game became ingrained. So not playing became the exception and not the rule.
This works for writing. Oh yes, this works for writing.
In fact, this is the core ideal behind Write Every Day. The idea that we, as writers, examine how we spend our time and try to change how we think of it. I'm not even talking about prioritizing here; this isn't "boy, I really should go to the gym" or "man, I need to make sure I take time to eat something good for lunch."
The idea is to make writing your default.
The rule and not the exception.
And to grind, grind, grind away at your story.
This is the magic of writing a long work. You simply cannot expect to finish a 100,000 word novel in a single sitting. You cannot. Well, I cannot. And as daunting as that empty page might be, that short stack of pages is, to me, ever more daunting.
I want to fill a blank page. It's what they're for, after all, isn't it? To be filled. But when I look at the middling stack of paper which represents the very beginnings of a new book, what I see is all the pages I have to pile on top of it. How far I still have to go. If I think of a book or story in those terms, it's absolutely crushing.
So I just think of today. Tonight. This scene. This paragraph. This single word.
By attacking a story one very small piece at a time -- by approaching each day's work as part of a greater whole -- we can remove its looming presence over our shoulder as we're trying to string words together. We can tell ourselves we don't have to get it all down -- all perfectly down -- right this moment.
We can grind away at the story.
And it's amazing when you get to the end and look back and see you've just spent months of effort to create something. I speak to a lot of people who say they've got a great idea for a novel or memoir, if only they had the time to write.
Folks: you do have the time to write.
It's all a question of creating the good habit of writing. Making it your default. The thing you go to when you've got an hour to yourself.
Don't sweat finishing; don't worry about how far the end always seems to be. If you write, and make writing the rule and not the exception, you'll get there. It might take months or even years -- it's always more important to be right than to be quick -- but you'll get there.
When I started playing World of Warcraft, I had no idea what I was getting into. So far as I knew, it was just another video game. Kill some dragons, get some gold, maybe pick up a cool sword along the way.
When I stopped playing World of Warcraft, it was because I needed to change my habits. Make WoW time into writing time. I'd taken month-long breaks to participate in National Novel Writing Month two years in a row. I'd gotten 50,000+ words written for two stories which then went on to languish on my hard drive when November ended and I went back to killing pretend dragons with my pretend sword (with my real friends, it should be noted).
So I quit. But I tried to approach the book I worked on, Beautiful Handcrafted Animals, with the same dedication -- as odd as it might seem -- as I approached my online gaming. Instead of logging in each night I locked myself away for two or three or four hours and wrote.
And man, it worked.
Animals took the better part of a year to finish. It was, in large part, an experiment for me. "Can I do this?"
Yes, I could. And now when I take a night off from writing -- no matter what the reason -- it feels like I'm taking the night off from something. Not like I'm shirking exactly, but like I'm missing out. It bugs me. I look for ways to tuck away in a corner with my laptop for even a half an hour. Just that, I tell myself, would be enough.
Because for me -- the same way logging in to play a video game with my friends was the default -- writing is the default. It's now the thing I do when I've got time to do something. I make room in my life for it and I make sure there is room in my life for it.