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[Remember, keep sending in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. 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. I have a LOT of backlogged questions right now because my life is a dumpster fire, but I will try to eventually get to all of them.]
I'm starting morning writing - which this morning turned into "on the commute" writing, but it did happen!
One thing I'm finding difficult is the feeling that if I'm writing, it should be on something that I'm working on. That I'm wasting valuable writing time... but writing on an actual story runs into all of the other issues (blocked, lack of confidence, plot problems overshadowing all, etc.)
Any advice on how to convince that part of myself that it is worthwhile writing things that will never see the light of day?
On-the-commute writing totally counts! Half the problem with people fighting so fucking hard against the advice to write every day is that they think it has to look like some eighties Grape Nuts commercial where the writer faces a still dawn from a palatial cabin resting within a silvan glade at the edge of virgin pine forest. A gentle banjo joins a piano. You know when you've got it good, writer.
Except no one's life is that serene. Even that woman in the commercial. She dipped her banana in Grape Nuts, stood out at the edge of the lake, and that's when the dilophosaurus attacked. If you can dive into the bathroom with your laptop, hold the door closed with your outstretched legs, write for a harried half hour, while screaming to every kid or spouse who bangs on the door: "Go away! Mommy's working on the great American novel," that totally counts too.
Let's talk about your question though because there are definitely two answers. The first is that it's totally awesome for you to work on something you don't consider to be an "actual story." I'm not sure why there exists the predilection among writers that everything they do must be a part of something that will eventually be published. It's sort of a unique sense among the various artistic disciplines of the non-disposability of their every effort. But really it's okay for you to work on something you don't expect to be published. In fact, probably most of it won't. I should show you some day my stack of unpublished scribbles; I could probably wallpaper a small office building. It's everything from me just playing around to things I thought were good and no one wanted.
And then there's Bunnyrats. The less said about that the better. I tucked that one deep into the "Groupies-who-like-threesomes ONLY" drawer.
Musicians practice for untold gagillions of hours. Performers rehearse unceasingly. Painters have reams of sketches that end up in scrapbooks (if they save them at all). Sculptors' studios are filled with mountains of work they aren't trying to sell. Only writers seem fettered to this idea that they need to be working on something that will bloom to audience-awing fruition one day.
This is sort of a problem. A two-fold problem really. I mean it's not just breeding a bunch of pretentious writers who are still trying to shoehorn their poetry from high school into their current zombie love story (although that certainly does happen). But it also leads to a lot of writer's block because everything a writer does feels like it has the ultimate stakes–eventually being seen by the whole world. That's a lot of pressure.
Unfortunately this is reverse polarity artistry. Anti-art if you will. Being so terrified of mistakes that you refuse to take chances is what writing electric toothbrush manuals is about, not art. Some of the best creativity happens when artists are fucking around, mess up, and love the mistake. If a writer is busy not taking chances because they feel the microscope is already there (or worse that they've got to get their half angel half demon goth BDSM sex fiend vampire character from high school into their story) their art will feel stifled and highly derivative.
So when you're not just writing for fun sometimes, not only is the shit coming out worse, but some of the best shit never happens. And you definitely want the good shit. Cause the good shit is...um....the good shit.
So absolutely let loose. Write whatever you want. Write character sketches, vignettes, and stories you will never in a billion years allow to see the light of day. Try to write a story from a point of view of a minor character. Mix two characters from two different stories to see what they do. Have all your characters playing Pokemon Go in a tournament. And know that even if not one syllable of that work ends up in front of a set of eyeballs not your own, you will have learned and developed as a writer as well as continued to cultivate the discipline of daily writing. It's like a piano player practicing. Not everything is a recital, and trying your hand at a little improv for fun is, at the very worst, only going to teach you a couple of things that don't work.
There's a second dimension to your question though, Cathy, and I don't want to leave it hanging. This idea that writing on an "actual" story runs into anxieties. Yes, it is good for a writer to futz around with writing in a way that has no professional ambitions. Just like any musician jams or any painter doodles or any actor does the lines from a movie when they're driving to work. It's good to just do your craft because you love doing your craft. But I also want to tell you....these anxieties aren't going anywhere. Publish seven, eight books–even a couple of best sellers, and you're still going to be worried about plot problems and having confidence issues. I promise. It's just part of putting yourself out there and it doesn't matter if it's your first story or your thousandth.
So let loose with some creative play, but know that one day you and these demons have a date for some serious ass kicking.