My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sans Love of Writing

Should I Bother to Keep Writing?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Monday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox, but likely only if you ask a question. Long questions will be answered in two parts, and the second part will be whenever I damn well feel like it.] 

Return to Part 1 (in which I answered the first part of this question)

Jennifer asks:

Also, you've talked about talent, and about a love of writing, and that neither of these matter unless you combine them with a work ethic. Do you think it's possible to be seriously lacking in the first two but will yourself to do the work anyway? Or that if you're having a hard time willing yourself to work, that perhaps it's because you're completely lacking the first two things and maybe you shouldn't bother? Like maybe you're more in love with the idea of being a writer than actually writing, so maybe you should just stop deluding yourself and stop pretending that maybe someday you're going to finally write that novel. I mean, chances are, if you're not writing now, you're not going to be writing at some undetermined point in the future, right?

My reply: 

~in my best Matrix oracle voice~ Oh, what's really going to bake your noodle, Jennifer, is how close this question actually is to the one I answered yesterday–or at least the answers are almost identical.

First of all, let's torpedo this idea of "talent." In fact, let's order Mr. Worf to do a full photon torpedo spread. I've already grudgingly admitted that I know talent is a thing. Some people just have to work harder. (I'm one of them. I spend HOURS working on things, and I've seen people sit down and write stuff just as good–if not better–in twenty minutes.)

However, the number of people who love to read and love to write and try to write, but who have absolutely no talent for writing is infinitesimal compared to the number of people who have no talent for writing, and also have no interest in writing. Most people who want to be writers are already self-selected for the "talent" they're so damned worried about. All they need to do is get off their ass–or in this case ON it. Sure, every once in a while someone thinks writing is the path to glory that will be easier than sports legend or movie star, but I'm guessing that your question isn't really asking me if you're a poseur.

Now I'm going to jump to the last part first because I want to come to the heart of your question at the end. Would you have written your novel by now if you were ever going to write it? No. No no no no nononononono! A thousand times no. NO!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!


I hope you're getting the point here, Jennifer.

There are tons of writers who don't even begin their writing careers until they're in their sixties or seventies. Perhaps the best well known is Laura Ingalls Wilder who worked as a columnist, but didn't even start her fiction (the Little House series) until she was in her sixties. Mary Fontenot wrote her first book at 51 and then wrote thirty more just to make sure no one gave her any shit about it being a fluke. Kenneth Grahame waited until he had retired to write The Wind in the Willows. You might have heard of that one.  Now I don't know for sure, but I bet a lot of those people wanted to write before they became writers. I don't know exactly why they waited (family, work, motivation?), but if any of them had said "Fuck it. I will NEVER be a writer," the world of words would have been diminished.

Love of writing...that's a tough one. Not only is it almost impossible to be a writer without a love of writing, but it's also very foolish. This would be like playing video games as a hobby, dreaming of becoming a professional video game player some day, but NOT LIKING video games. It's absolute madness. We might as well wear our underwear on the outside and plant our young in the ground in the hopes of making baby trees. The effort that goes into something like writing a novel (even if it doesn't get published, but especially if it does) is absolutely insane. Compared to the payout for all but the most upper echelon writers and meteoric success stories, it is outrageous. If you clear a fraction of minimum wage with pay divided by hours, you are doing really well. So there is no reason to do it except for love alone.

In Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brande offers up some harsh advice when she talks about sitting down to do one half hour of writing at a time that floats around through the day. She says that if you can't even do this much, if your excuses win out against sitting down every time, then give up. She says that if this happens then your desire not to write is stronger than your desire to write, and you should stop torturing yourself. If that is the case, write when the muse moves you, and don't worry about all the times that it doesn't.

Thus if you simply always have an excuse for not writing, then yes, maybe you are fooling yourself that the glam life of a writer can be yours without doing the work. Maybe you like the idea of being a writer more than writing itself. Or maybe your muse is so capricious that it simply will never ever be tamed.

This was me, by the way. About ten years ago. Looking into the mirror and saying, "Who do you even think you are fooling?"

Don't worry Jennifer, I would never end it there. The fact that I'm still writing is just proof that questioning whether you might not be a writer is never the end. Quick! To the Hopemobile!

I can't tell you if you really love writing or not because I'm fresh out of mind reading soul beams. (I used my last one to find out if the Starbucks barista was just being aloof or had a particular problem with me ordering a large instead of "venti".)  Based on the first part of your question I suspect you do love writing, but you're having some blocks lately and it's got you questioning the whole thing. You have tricked yourself into NOT writing because you love it so much that you want to get it right on the first shot and what you really don't like is the thought that you might screw it up. That's the brain's "nuclear option" for trying to keep you from turning creative impulse into work; to convince you that you're not a "real artist" so why bother. In a way you have to admire it. It's like Donald Trump running a casino into the ground to get rid of the roaches in the kitchen.

This is where I bake your noodle, by the way. Buckle up.

The answer to both parts of your question is to give yourself permission to suck. Return to the well of writing without all the baggage about being perfect or if your book is going to sell or how much you ought to have written by now if you were a "real writer."

Forget all that bullshit. Just write. Write because it feels good to write.

Remember when you discovered reading? That moment when you realized that written words were honest to goodness magic. Using just paper and a little bit of ink you could transfer whole worlds and complex ideas to another across space and time. And then you realized that not only was it magic, but you could cast spells too. You could do the magic. And you picked up a pen or a pencil and the universe was infinite with possibility and wonder. Someone ten thousand years from now, maybe even on another world, might understand what you're thinking about better than a person across the room. You can send them any message you want about the unfathomable complexity and depth of the imaginative life that lives inside your head.

Or that moment where you looked at a sheaf of blank papers, empty with limitless possibility, and the promise of so much potential felt like it was lifting you out of your chair without ever moving. The paper was practically begging you to write on it.

Or that instant you siezed a pen or a pencil and thought, "I have something to say."

Or that moment when you were writing and you realized that you had just discovered something about yourself that you never knew.

Return to the font of that passion, the well of words where you discovered that magic is a real thing. It's still there. It's waiting for you behind all that performance anxiety and expectation and baggage. When you clear out all that junk and show up, it's going to say, "Where have you been, Jennifer. I have been waiting this whole time."


So that's fine and well in theory but how do you actually do it?

Just a little image to help this article not seem so long. Carry on.
Take it slow. Don't try to sit down and write a novel. Try to sit down and write for ten minutes. Make your starting goals comically, almost insultingly, small. (Increasing in increments is much easier than burning out.) Write anything you want for now. Write about your day or a book you read that you liked or dirty limericks. But don't write about anything that feels like an obligation. The next day–at the EXACT SAME TIME–sit down and see if you can go for fifteen minutes. If it's a stretch, stick there for a while. If that's easy, try twenty the next day. Don't pressure yourself to be good. Just enjoy the writing itself.

I think you'll find that after ROUGHLY two weeks (maybe a little longer or shorter depending) you will start to want to write again. The hour before you sit down, you'll find words jumping into your head as your brain kicks off the party before you. You will be DYING to sit down and write before the time it rolls around. (Don't start early!) You will start to miss writing when you're not doing it and feel at home only when you're watching your own thoughts spring to life on the page in front of you.

Keep this up for a couple of weeks, and try to push the time you can easily write. For some they will find that number is an hour. For other's it's twelve hours. (I clock in at about four unless I'm really in the zone, then it's about eight to ten). Don't keep writing after it becomes tedious, and don't write anything you don't feel like writing. Keep it whimsical for now. This is like dating. You can figure out whose job it's going to be to clean the litter boxes later.

Things like worrying about what to write and how many words or hours per day will get that novel written (or whatever), will never ever be as important as falling back in love with writing, and remembering all those reasons you fell in love in the first place.