“How many people die with their best work still inside them?”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sadder question.
That’s the opening of James Clear’s piece for The Huffington Post called “The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers (And How They Can Help You Succeed).”
I landed on that post because I always find myself in myriad writing conundrums, and I have a deep fear they will prevent me from ever getting that “best work” out.
There, I said it.
Grab a cup of tea or a pint of beer, people, we might be here awhile.
I started writing with an intent to publish in the early 1990s, when I was instantly smitten with my first journalism class. I felt so fearless then… Since that class I have written a lot. Some of it crap, some of it good, some of it – if I may say so myself – pretty great.
But when people ask what I do, I list a lot of other things before saying, “Oh, and I write.” I say it like that because I often feel like a fraud. There are days – weeks, even months – during which I do nothing but nag myself about not writing. I do countless other creative things during those times (I actually said to myself recently, “Now why in the world didn’t I become a carpenter?”), but writing just somehow doesn’t seem to happen.
Eventually, I always get back to it, and it’s usually because I read something that inspires me. I’m always reading something, but rarely does it have this thrilling effect. It’s amazing when I start feeling like a writer again, and I start creating. There’s nothing like it. I just never know how long it’s going to last.
I don’t know if this is normal. I don’t know if taking such long breaks is an acceptable part of the writing process, or it’s a necessary part of my personal process. I do know that the energy I spend feeling guilty about not writing would be better served being channeled into the actual writing, even if it’s subpar. Right?
I’ve heard countless successful writers talk about consistently reaching a set word count per day, or writing every day at a specific time, without fail. “When you can’t create, you can work,” Henry Miller once said. Those writers are able to treat writing as a job when they aren’t feeling the passion, and that, I realize, is what makes the difference between an okay writer and a great one. Or even just a published author and an unpublished one, greatness aside. Practice.
I have always struggled to keep – er, create – a writing schedule. I come up with countless reasons to justify procrastinating. It was easier not to do this with news writing because the central ideas of the articles weren’t my own; I interpreted them, sprinkled them with quotes, explained them (to give a simplistic explanation of news writing). It is a much more intimate thing to create something out of nothing, or out of one’s own life.
And here’s my other current issue, which is just as much of an obstacle: I feel an intense urge to drink and smoke while I write. Sounds so cliché. But it’s truly so much so that if I were actually doing it, I wouldn’t have hands to type. It’s baffling.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I didn’t sit at my desk with a snifter of whiskey and a Marlboro dangling out of my mouth. (I was born in the wrong decade for that. Drat!) But I still churned out my articles daily. So that must be part of it, I guess – that I was cranking out assignments instead of writing anything personal. What I’m working on these days is completely different and self-involved in a way news stories absolutely cannot be.
But these (self-destructive?) urges – I even get them just knowing I’m going to start writing. So what’s happening here? Is it escapism? Is it self-sabotage? Is it avoidance? Is it fear of failure, or of success? Is it worry?
Is it a need to loosen inhibitions so I can write from a place of more intense emotion?
My guess is it’s probably all those things and more.
In his book The Heart of Addiction, psychiatrist Lance Dodes says addicts use their drugs of choice – or food or sex or shopping – when they are feeling helpless and overwhelmed by their emotions, and they need to do something to regain a sense of control. He writes that no matter what the addictive act is, it’s irrelevant, really – that it’s the first thought of acting on an addiction that exposes the root of the problem.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve come to a conclusion, though unfortunately not a solution… I’ve realized I am, after all these years, a jumble of nerves when I sit down to write. And I find it downright bizarre.
How do I turn my nervous disposition into a catalyst for, or a complement to, my writing, instead of an obstacle?
Although this is geared toward academic writing, it provided me with a little insight. First, University of Richmond writing fellow Lauren Cone writes that “some level of anxiety associated with writing is often a sign that you care about doing well.” Okay, well, that’s good news for me.
The most helpful tidbit was this: “Resist the urge to edit as you go along. This interrupts any thought flow you have, and it often wastes time in the long run. Focus on getting out your ideas first. You can stop and review later.”
I have trouble with wanting every single sentence to be perfect in a manuscript. It eats at me until I get it just right. I can’t move on to the next paragraph, and it can take me ages to move forward. It’s funny in a way; I don’t consider myself a perfectionist in any other way… and I certainly wouldn’t ever expect to be a perfect writer. There’s no such thing.
To get back to James Clear, he quotes The Kite Runner author Khaled Housseni: “You have to write whether you feel like it or not.”
So, in a very roundabout way, that brings us to my Optimistic 7-Point Plan. AKA the Git ‘Er Done Plan. AKA the Poop or Get Off the Pot Plan. *
- Get back to the basics. Reread the books about writing that inspired you initially to go into the field. (On Writing Well by William Zinsser, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.)
- Before writing, meditate or take a walk. Clear your mind of negative thoughts about your writing. This is extremely important. This Meditation for Working with Difficulties is an example of a good meditation podcast for getting me into a better headspace.
- Write at least five days a week, for at least an hour a day.
- Revise whenever you want, but revising cannot be a substitute for writing.
- Seek out literature that doesn’t just entertain. I love reading all kinds of books, but I should be reading more of the best of the genre in which I’m working. There’s simply no substitute for learning how to write than to read good writing. (I should do another post on how to find out good sources for good literature…)
- Write in a quiet space, and minimize distractions. (In my case, try not to write while preparing dinner. Disastrous consequences for both goals there!) This includes turning off the phone and not checking facebook during writing hours. It’s sad, but it must be said.
- Join a writers’ critique group. Actually, I’ve done this, I just haven’t gone to any get-togethers. Participating will not only give me feedback from objective writers; it will impose deadlines.
* I reserve the right to revise this 7-point plan whenever I see fit. Kidding! That’s a little humor for those of you who got through this whole post.
This is a fun read from The Atlantic: ‘Also, the Drink Helps’: Famous Writers’ Daily Writing Routines
P.S. The photo featured is from the amazing free site www.pexels.com.