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

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Mailbox: Help! I'm Addicted to Writing

Am I writing too much?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  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.  And remember that I actually LOVE answering questions that aren't just about me or the "Creepy Guy" article.] 

Kristen writes:

My sister told me to read stuff on your blog, and you seem like a good person to ask this of. You say to be good we should write every day, but I do write every day and way too much of it! I'm addicted to my stories, and feel like I'm neglecting important things I need to do -- like being a full time mother to four children, one of whom needs to start going poop in the toilet, rather than her undies, but I'm stuck at my computer afraid to leave the keyboard because the idea in my head is rolling really well, and I might forget this awesome statement one of my characters is going to make at the end of two paragraphs away, and I can't stop till I get to that part! Does that make sense or am I just very crazy??? My older kids watch a show called, "My Strange Addiction" and I think I am going to end up on that show! I am just so scared of ending up like my mother who constantly said she wanted to write a novel, (constantly!) and never wrote more than a few dirty letter to my dad, which we unfortunately found after they died!  Ugh! 

So, what should I do? Is it that important to get the idea from my head to the paper right away before I forget, or can I safely fix dinner and take the kids for a walk, yet still finish my story someday? Seriously, I'm typing this at 2:30 am, and I have a sore throat, and my sister doesn't even think I'm a good writer, and I think I'm the only one who will ever enjoy reading what I wrote, but at least I do enjoy reading it, so....

Is it okay to write things just because I enjoy the story without regard to whether anyone else ever will? Can I make implausible things happen because that's what I want to happen, even if other people might say, "Come on... that wouldn't really happen!" And, should I have ended the last sentence with a question mark? 

Oh, well, I guess I need to find a writer's conference so I can preach to the choir and sing for the preacher.

Thanks and any input is invaluable, as I've only been writing for nine months now, and eight months of that was a fan-fiction!  Now, I'm doing my own story, with my own characters, plot, etc., and so I'm really a BABY at this stuff.

My reply:

Gee whiz. Don't give me anything too easy Kristen.

Okay it looks like there are basically four main questions (plus a grammar quickie), and I'll try to take them one at a time.  But before I get into any of them, turn on my rapier like wit, and maybe even make a snarky comment or two (I'm known to do that), first I want to make sure that you know something.  

These feelings you're having are as old as art.

Since the day Ugg and Oog took flower-juice-stained mud (or whatever it was they used for pigment) to the side of their provincial cave, artists have asked these questions. Am I crazy to do this? Am I doing this too much? Will the inspiration go away if I stop? Should I be doing something more pragmatic? How will I get better? And of course... I need to find other people who love this so I don't feel so alone. Read the non-fiction thoughts of any writer, and you will find the echoes of all these questions.

What you probably don't know, is that the Lascaux cave paintings were done by someone whose sibling was giving them crap for not putting food on the table. "Ogg, why you no get real job...like hunter?"

So, Kirsten, you're in good company.

The first question you seem to have is if writing every day is too much with your four kids. The problem is, I can't really answer that question for you. Priorities are like that. We all have to decide for ourselves what's important, and I can't tell you what your priorities are. If you would rather troll gaming conventions for Warhammer 40k players to have orgies with than have a thirty-twople root canal without Novocain, I can't tell you that decision is wrong. It's up to you.

I'm guessing that, given how badly the refund policy sucks for kids (even worse than video games) that you're probably not going to try to put them back. That said, if your kid is screaming because her diaper is hanging down to her knees with the past eight bowel movements and the dried turds are her only toys and loving friends, I could probably take an educated guess that you need to spend less time writing. Short of that though, only you really know. Are the bills paid? Are the kids basically okay? Would this time you spend writing be "time spent watching TV" to most people? Then you're probably okay. 

Here's what I can tell you. 

1) Writing every day is important for the writer who really wants to improve and vital for the writer who wants to make word-smithing a career, but it doesn't have to be long hours every day, especially for the former. Lots of writers have achieved success even though they could only carve out thirty minutes to an hour, and did their longish sessions on the weekends. This may cause many starting writers to have paroxysms of knee jerk "Nuh uh!" reactions, but writers who don't write daily are notoriously poor at answering the question, "So how is your writing career going?"

2) The writers we love don't always make the best choices in these situations. Any really famous writer you can think of past or present has probably made some choices that most of us would not admire. (And we don't even have to include the "decisions" that were essentially succumbing to chronic illness.) Most famous writers' fame has had a cost to their personal lives. They left their spouses to raise the kids or just left their families (or never had one). They sequestered themselves away for such long hours that their families were basically estranged. Trying to be a good father depressed them and they ended up an alcoholic. If you watch the cavalcade of horror in writers' (and other artists') alcoholism, depression (and mania), obsessive compulsive issues, drug abuse, antisocial behavior, and other mental illnesses, you quickly come to realize how often writing isn't exactly a healthy hobby or even just a livelihood for many of these people.  

It's just their drug of choice. 

And they're so fucking good at it because their relationship to it isn't healthy. Society may be the richer for the beauty their obsession has placed into the world, but their personal lives pay a heavy price. That's why I am constantly saying that it really is okay for writers to strike a more pragmatic balance with their lives and writing than many of their heroes like Stephen King (ten pages per day) or J.K. Rowling (8-14 hours per day). They may have to make peace with the fact that they'll never be that rich or famous, but there's something to be said for having a family, friends, and occasionally getting to play through a game like Bioshock Infinite.

So, all kidding aside, when I read your bit about "Strange Addictions," I wondered if you weren't onto something. Do be careful when you're deciding what your priorities are. The last thing you want is to be in an alley with track marks on your fingers offering to write people a poem about themselves for five minutes on their MacAir.  

You're having a different problem than most writers have when it comes to creativity. Most look at their faucet and can't figure out how to turn it on. They sit and stare at a blank screen or sheet of paper for an hour or two and then go post the Hemingway quote about opening up a vein onto their Tumblr site and write (at length) about how they can't write and all the problems that are causing them not to be able to write.  

New writers often have trouble with irony as well.  

For you, it's like the faucet is always on and gushing and you're more like the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

You may not realize it, but you and these other people are actually having the same basic problem. Your muse/creativity/whateveryouwannacallit is in control. Now, if I had to choose, I'd pick your particular presentation, but you are both of you letting your creativity call the shots. The answer for each of you is the same.  You need to sit down at the same time every day, and turn creativity into a habit that you control. For you, with your gush, you have to learn that when you want it, it will be there. You write for the length of time you can based on your priorities (above) and then you walk away. 

Your muse won't like this. Not even a little.  It will kick. It will scream. It will hate you. (It's a two year old.  ....or a Tea Party Congressperson ~rimshot~) It will threaten to turn off all your creativity forever. You may even have some dry days.  It doesn't want to do anything that feels like work. But in the end, if you keep sitting down every day at the same time, you will discover that you start to feel that gush of creativity right when you get to work.  Once it's habit, you'll find that (most of the time) from the moment you sit down until you leave, you are in control of the flow of words. I highly recommend this book about process if you want more detail on how to do this and why it works.

You ask if you are going to forget the awesome idea you have about how to end a scene if you walk away. Maybe. The more specific and detailed the idea is, the more likely that you will forget it between sessions. But what you have to have faith in is that you will come up with other awesome ideas, and that somewhere in your unconscious, the original is still rattling around.  Some writers get up after their writing time is over even if they're in the middle of a sentence such is their confidence that the next day will bring equally good ideas.  Now, I don't know if I could do that, but if I'm hours to the end of a section, I just let go.  Often my writing is better for it the next day because I had time to think things through and have some even better ideas.

You only really need to race to write down the truly genius ideas. 

Some writers are constantly scribbling down ideas into note pads, but the more experienced writers don't do that as much.  There's a reason the cliche for pretentious writers is a guy saying "Oh I should write that down!" Experienced writers know that it'll bubble to the surface if it's natural, and it would be forcing it into the writing otherwise.  So they don't tend to worry about thoughts getting away unless they get an absolute doozy and then it's like a scrambled frenzy to find a napkin and some lipstick--not...uh...that I've ever done that.  (I use my iPhone recorder function these days.) 

Good ideas will always be there.  Most people have several. It is the work to realize good ideas that is actually art. It's only the uberific, great, phenomenal, Oh. My. God. ideas that you ever really need to worry about not forgetting.

Do me a favor Kirsten: don't ask your sister if you're a good writer; ask her if you're better than you were a year ago. You might find the answer surprises you. It takes decades of reading and years of writing to really be good--a reality that most starting writers simply are not willing to face, as they would rather be unsung geniuses.  

They get sort of Raiders of the Lost Arc face melty when you mention that the talent their fifth grade teacher assured them they had has to be coupled with a buttload of work to really matter.

Writing, like any art, has a large technical skill component, and that skill will get better with use. Period.  There's no way of getting around that, no matter what people who don't want to write every day tell you.  You may not have gotten in your 10,000 hours in this last year, but if you're writing as much as you say you are, you've probably knocked out a chunk.  Many arts have a very steep learning curve, but writing isn't one of them.  It's easy to see when you've been writing a lot because you get better at it. (It's not like sculpture where after a year your misshapen head becomes a slightly less misshapen head.) There is almost no art in which effort yields noticeable fruit so quickly. Which is good news for people willing to work and irritating as fuck to those who want to believe they have some special talent.

Keep writing. You'll get better. Keep reading, so you know what good writing (and bad writing) looks like. You'll get better.

If you don't believe me, go back to some of my earlier entries on this site. (One of the reasons I keep all the old entries--even the crap ones--is so that people can see what is involved.) That shit is pretty rough. And at that point I had been writing at least an hour a day for TEN YEARS. The improvement I've had over the last year and a half is from writing two or three hours a day (usually more). 

You ask me if it's okay to write just because you enjoy the story and without regard to the fact that no one else ever will...

Kirsten, that's the only reason to write creatively. 

Now if you want to go back and revise with further drafts, taking into consideration your audience, and involve yourself in some of the business end of writing, that's your choice (though it will bring a lot more work to your enjoyment and may mess up your worth it/not worth it ratio), but none of that is going to be worth it if you didn't enjoy the writing for its own sake.  There is absolutely no reasonable expectation of money or fame or blistering hawt groupie threesomes in writing (had to work it in at least once), so if you don't love it for its own sake, there's no end that will ever justify the means enough. The writing has to be its own end.

When people try to get rich or famous from writing when they don't actually love the work of writing (and it is work) for its own sake, they end up aging two hundred years in a few seconds while some blonde shrieks at them, and the Great Muse (clad for some reason in Knight's Templar armor) says, "They chose.......poorly."

So if you want to write fan fic or genre or whatever, do it, and sod all who try to tell you otherwise. And if you want to write for money, you STILL have to write what you love because it's going to be fuck all miserable if you don't. Besides, these people giving you advice.... do you think maybe if they knew how to get rich and famous, they might be, oh I don't know, rich and/or famous? Maybe? Because when you listen to rich and famous writers, you get a whole different kind of advice.

As for your grammar question, I'm a terrible person to ask, but I'll try.  The main thing for a writer to keep in mind about those really funky rules of punctuation is not to be asking what is technically correct. (As if language is as immutable as physics. It's not.)  The main thing to ask yourself when you get into a weird patch like that is, "Is what I have written clear?" I think yours was; I'm pretty sure it's okay.  If your copy editor wanted to change it to "Can I make implausible things happen because that's what I want to happen, even if other people might say, 'Come on... that wouldn't really happen!'?" then you go with that.  But let them worry about that crap.  I believe what I wrote above is technically correct but actually muddles meaning. Someone who would read your sentence smoothly with no confusion would have to go back and think through what's going on in mine.  There is a point when the grammar wanks (though they're usually quite correct) need to be left to wank on in peace.  

Pedants gonna peed.

P.S.- Go to conferences only if you want to go to conferences.  Don't feel like you have to.  Some writers are social creatures who would rather have their social activities be writing-centric. That's fine. (Me, I contemplate putting motion sensor auto-cannons next to the front door when we've had more than a couple of dinner guests in a given week.)  You won't find "attend writing conferences" in a single advice book written by a writer whose name you recognize, and the only one making money for sure on those events is the bartender, so go if that's your thing.  Writing conferences are the same way--they are really good for the wallets and careers of people who put on writing conferences (and maybe their panel speakers). No writer has ever looked back and insisted their career hinged on a conference. So go if they sound fun for their own sake only.


  1. This was my questions, so thanks for answering! Since I wrote it, I've changed my focus to making my current novel, not the fan-fic, be as realistic as possible in the genre of historical romance, and boy does that put a damper on my creative fire. Now, I'm reading books for research -- and they are SO interesting, but I'm writing less. I really want to get back to writing, but I have allowed fear to creep in. Fear of writing something that someone will read it and say it couldn't have happened, or the groups I am writing about wouldn't have actually done that. One of the groups is a Native American tribe, and I am particularly worried about offending them. However, not every facet of their lives was researched, so I have to make up some stuff! Now, I have to overcome this new fear in order to get excited about writing again. Next novel will be set in future! Geez!

  2. Hello, my name is Kelly and I'm addicted to writing.

    I'm also a little OCD, so I research possibly more than most of my family and friends think is sane. Whatever. I learn a lot, and I love it. Interestingly, in my current story, the main character is Native American and I had the same fear you do, Kirsten... that I'd get something wrong and people would be offended. Then I discovered that there's a lot of contradictory information out there, most of it written by non-Natives, and if you treat the people and their culture with respect, no one's going to come lynch you (or so say my Native American friends). Of course, my stories are set in either the future or alternate versions of our world (science fiction/fantasy geek here), so I might have a little more leeway for creative license.

    Forget those people who might read what you're writing! Just write for you because you love it. Those editor types are the ones who know whether or not you've made a huge faux pas. (Geez, I hope they do!) You just write. Go kick that fear in the teeth!

    Now I need to go off and research Navajo wedding ceremonies...

    Good luck, Kirsten!

  3. Wow I wish I had this problem. Most days I have to make myself do it, 1-5 pages.