It should be obvious that a quote about writing that has its origin in a comedy movie starring Billy Crystal (I can’t find its origin anywhere else) wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. Any more than the film’s title, Throw Momma from the Train (1987), was meant as helpful advice (though it depends on your family, I suppose). But if you trawl the web or even fish it from the banks, you’ll find plenty of writers’ blog posts, Pinterest paraphernalia and Facebook foolishness using this quote as, not only their raison d’être, but their title.
“A writer writes, always” was meant in the film as a joke and, in one sense, should be allowed to remain as such. It’s fairly obvious that no human, let alone one of those superhuman people called writers, can write always. In fact, for some writers, who appear to have contracted the illness hypergraphia (addiction to writing), it’s probably a good idea for them to get away from the desk and play some regular tennis.
The central idea to which this Throw Momma quote is pointing is that if you do lots of writing you will get better. It could be true. Your sentences, paragraphs, etc. (punctuation use?) might improve. But I guarantee that if a writer doesn’t read (always) as well, then said writer will be only good for throwing out of a train after a decade’s worth of writing always.
That said, I think there is something worthwhile to be constructed from this idea that a writer writes, always. If we take the quote as hyperbole, we can get Momma back in the train and baking biscuits for us.
A writer writes, always is similar in substance to St. Paul’s New Testament admonition that people should pray ceaselessly. Early saints tried hard to put his idea into practice. But after a few centuries, theologians and mystics started to get a handle on what he meant: pray ceaselessly meant not just speaking prayers aloud or in your head, but living in an attitude of prayer.
Back to Momma: a writer writes, always could be suggesting that a writer should live in an attitude of writing, even when that pen, keyboard or touchscreen is dormant. So a writer reads, lives, relates, catches the bus and cooks with an eye on writing.
But, I hear half of you say, that could lead to a divided self. A self that is always thinking, How am I writing as I catch this bus? How am I writing as I line up at Centrelink/do my day job/study for my undergrad degree? It’s a problem. A divided self means a writing half-self that labours painfully, always concerned that they are not being the writer they should be when they are writing always but not actually writing. When they are catching the bus. Or train.
I’d suggest that a writer writes, always should include a writer being able to stop writing and/or stop living in an attitude of writing for some part of always. Take the pressure off. Go for a swim. Play Angry Birds. Pray ceaselessly. Play golf badly. Waterski incessantly. You might find that in not writing always you have in fact lived for a bit and then, wow, your writer-writing-always self is ready to go again. And with a lot more to give.
You’ll be strong enough to write about the day you threw Momma from the train and caught her with your other hand.
Paul Mitchell is a past Going Down Swinging contributor and features in issues No. 19–No. 23, No. 28 and No. 30. Paul’s books are Dodging the Bull (short fiction), Awake Despite the Hour and Minorphysics (both poetry).