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

Friday, April 17, 2020

What To Do When You Can't Do (Personal Update––And Folksy Wisdom)

I know for a fact that part of the reason I'm a professional creative writer is that I work too much. In fact, I think if working creative writers could be said to have one trait in common (other than reading a lot), it is that they work hard––they write A LOT. 

However, before you think I'm about to foist some "let's be productive in quarantine" bullshit on you, I'm actually more likely today to make my "turn-this-stream-of-consciousness-personal-update" into the same advice that oracles have been giving since they became a literary device.

But it's true. The drive and dedication it takes to cross the Rubicon to most definitions of working writer is not weekend warrior effort (by its nature). I'd love to tell you all that my quest to find a healthy work life balance will eventually be a story where I ride off into the sunset, a slow ballad of having learned a tough but valuable lesson playing as the credits come up.

Nope. That's not going to happen. Well, the credits might, but I'm not going to get that ending.

The best I'm going to get is "knows the warning signs of drifting too far into the 'red zone,' and is a little gentler on himself when shit goes sideways."

I get asked a lot about how to build a career as a working creative writer. And after I am done explaining that the money I make could really only be considered a "career" in the most generous sense of the word, I usually find myself describing seven-day work weeks and twelve-to-fourteen-hour days when all is added up. (My weekends are four to six hours––they aren't really OFF.) It's rewarding. I love it. I'd do as much of it as I possibly could even if I weren't getting paid. But it's work.

Two things that have helped me to get where I am today (and I fully admit that right now I'm Texas-sharpshooting the two things I want to talk about––I don't want to ignore the facts of my privilege and the passing privilege I've lived most of my life with as well as just a fucking metric buttload of luck). Thing one is an absurd work ethic from a long line of workaholics (it was just my family culture growing up) and thing two is a piercing self-honesty about excusing myself from a day's work.

Oh it absolutely goes too far in the other direction––I have worried about doing some writing when I was still dealing with symptoms of the flu. And while I was a pretty normal kid about saying I was sick when I just didn't want to go to school I have to tell you that my mom did NOT make it easy. She was like the Auguste Dupin of illness.  (Hopefully I can tell this story without mortifying her too much––I'll tell the really embarrassing stories when she's died, thereby increasing her incentive to outlive me.) Except Auguste Dupin wouldn't be accurate. Maybe Inspector LeStrade would be more accurate. She was always skeptical to the point where she sent me to school when I was legitimately sick at least once a year. I would have 101 fever or be nauseated (one time I even had the chicken pox), and she would tell me to get up and stop faking it. She saw through my cunning ruse. When you're a kid, you get pissed off, but a lot of times you internalize the lessons despite yourself. I learned that only the worst, most unbearable of illnesses were worth staying home, and there was never, ever, EVER such a thing as needing a day off. (Unless maybe you wanted to lick the doorknobs at your sick friends' house.) All the swords are double-edged when it comes to formative experiences.

So here's to mom...I guess.

The thing is, I couldn't be a working creative writer without that work ethic and self-ass-kicking power fully uploaded into my software matrix. (So here's to mom, definitely.)

My patrons are INCREDIBLY generous and kind when I am going through shit. They're usually the ones reminding me to slow the fuck down, and that it's okay to miss a post or two. But when I'm chugging along at my normal clip, most OTHER writers wonder how I manage to get so much done. I've had Hamilton quoted at me more than a few times. ("Look....I do kind of need it to survive, and aren't we ALL running out of time, really?") When you create, content and quantity is king. Not everybody gets to be Fitzgerald and pop off the ONE good novel and call it a day.

So here's where it gets a little free-form, and I'm trying to use a lot of mortar to keep this post in some kind of shape.

It's been an amazingly tough couple of weeks.

[So now we stop to tell the story of the amazingly tough couple of weeks:

It started when I fell ill from what seemed like it was certainly Covid-19. And when you're running 103 fever without antipyretics and coughing up a lung, you really want someone to make you soup and "Poor baby" you.

But I live alone.

And trust me that I would have stepped up my dating game to have someone who might Sh.I.P with me, if I'd known a global pandemic was coming.

It also means that my nanny job got suspended for the duration. One of my clients had cancer (and radiation and chemotherapy) on her lungs a few years back, and she's got to be extra careful. (Which means I have to be very careful.) Basically, I only see them. And while I have been recovering, I haven't seen anyone. Like, at all.

Trust me, I can introvert with the best of them. I have been antisocial for weeks without skipping a beat. But deprive me of ALL human touch (and I don't have a pet here because I still sometimes watch other people's, and things go sideways pretty fast. Yesterday I couldn't even deal with posting my usual fire hose of funny memes.

I have been getting the shakes, losing my ability to focus, not sleeping well. I only have to make it until Monday, but.....]

It's been very hard to write.

I come down from the bedroom following all my own advice. I've showered. I've shaved. I'm dressed. I'm ready to work. I even have my socks and shoes on. I sit down. I stare at the screen. It's not that I can't write at ALL, for a lifetime of discipline has given me a word flow when and where I want it. The problem is that I can't make my brain focus on topics I want it to focus on. I'm all over the map.

Eventually I can gut out a few paragraphs. But not before I've written sixteen other things on Facebook and probably started a short story somewhere. And I want to be clear about this––my ability to sit down and just write is a long, hard-fought result of years and years of learning to focus and daily discipline.

Ironically, I know that once I go back to work, I will then be BUSY again, but at least I won't be suffering from physical side effects of skin hunger.

Many writers I know perceive themselves to be on an escalator. In polyamory, sometimes we talk about the "relationship escalator." Most monogamous folks kind of see their romantic relationships as "going somewhere."  Usually an increase in importance. With the apex being white picket fences, two point five kids and having a joint Disney Plus account. While polyamorous folks have no shortage of unhealthy relationships, many of us are more content to have a romantic relationship that is good right where it is––possibly indefinitely. It doesn't have to GO anywhere because there's no end game.

There's an analogy I see among writers. They always want to be more. Often they have very poorly articulated goals, and may even spend very little time reading and writing, but they want to be more of a writer than they are now. (More readers. More success. More fame.)  And I just want to make sure everyone knows you don't have to ride that escalator, ESPECIALLY NOT RIGHT NOW. It would really be okay for you to decide that you are exactly as much of a writer as you want to be right now.

There's nothing WRONG with wanting money, fame, fans if that's what you want to get out of writing. (But I hope you love writing for its own sake because there are a lot easier ways to get any and all of those other things.) It's just sometimes we get so inured with a state of always yearning for more that sometimes we don't realize how much damage our low grade pressure on ourselves is doing when it's time for "survival mode."

This isn't a "be productive during quarantine" post. It fact, it isn't even a "make your long-lasting life choices" during quarantine post. Some of us working writers don't have much of a choice about trying to be a little bit productive. We have to get back to work. There are deadlines, and even in a crowdfunded situation like mine, I notice I start to lose patrons if I haven't brought my A-game in a month. So we face the crucible and there are some long and frustrating days. But this would be a particularly bad time to fall into that trap of always feeling like you need to be more of a writer.

This is a good time to do art only as much as it fulfils you and brings you joy and happiness. There are a lot of factors kicking all our asses at this moment in history. We don't really need to add a log of anxiety and expectation to the bonfire. If we want to taskmaster ourselves later, it'll still be there in a couple of months. It would be okay to say, "This brings me pleasure on weekends and I love the feedback from the boards, but I don't need to spend ten years trying to make a career, and I CERTAINLY don't need to let my unrealized expectations be a source of stress while everything is so fucked up." Really.

Also, just to be clear, if you find this period extraordinarily productive and are experiencing your own personal Renaissance not despite Covid-19, but because of it, you are not a freak or a monster or anything. You just have different coping mechanisms.

Lastly, the reason the advice to write every day is so ubiquitous is because writing is a skill and creativity is analogous to a muscle. Either can atrophy with disuse. It's the same reason musicians practice an instrument almost daily or artists constantly doodle. But remember that you don't have to make everything so hard. The goal here is to stay sharp. Your work in progress will still be there when you're done with all the particularly horrible anxieties and feelings about a global pandemic. In the meantime, you can spruce up an email. Write a thoughtful idea on Facebook instead of just shitposting. Write something that will NEVER be published.

Unfortunately I had to wander too circuitously through the garden of these points to wrap this up with a NEAT bow, but I can probably try to do it with three:

  • It's not just you. I can't sit down and write a listicle right now to save my life, and this is my fucking job. ("Oh look. Another stream-of-consciousness post. Thanks brain!") A lot of creatives are having a hard time. (And a few aren't.) Despite the memes of writers before and after Sh.I.P. where it's an identical picture, this isn't a vacation up at the cottage; it's a global pandemic. We're ALL of us jealous of Stephen King talking about getting a lot of work done. (JFC that guy writes a book in six months when he's positively lollygagging. What the hell is "getting a lot of work done?" I mean, is he going to publish three It-sized novels this year? Um....anyway....) If you're having a hard time, you're in good company––even my professional ass. It doesn't make you not a writer or not "real" or something.
  • Life is hard enough right now. You don't have to make it harder with some expectation based on your vague and nebulous goal to always be progressing as a writer. 
  • Don't make it so hard on yourself. You can't pour from an empty cliché. Take care of yourself, and that might mean setting aside your usual workload and just writing a little something so that your mad skillz don't backslide.
Listen to what you want during a time like this. Listen to who you are. Be good to yourself because the world sure as fuck isn't going to. Manage your expectations and don't sign up for any existential angst that you don't need to be carrying around. Later on if you want to be tough on yourself, everything will still be there.

For now, know thyself. 


  1. You're a pretty wise person Chris. I hope you feel better soon.

  2. I used to say "contact starved". Now I will say "skin hunger" even thought it may sound dubious and result in even more skin hunger down the line.

  3. "I won't be suffering from physical side effects of skin hunger." wow. Says a lot, Chris. Hang in there, your real posts resonate with me, and even if you aren't always totally kind to yourself, you remind me to try to be kinder to me.