I’ve said many times before that, in the end, writing is nothing but mind games.
You psych yourself into writing a story, even though you don’t think you’re good enough.
You push yourself to write, even though you think you don’t have time, or motivation, or creative energy.
You convince yourself that your okay story can be great if only you spend sufficient time editing and rewriting it.
You persuade yourself to put same manuscript in an envelope and mail it to a would-be publisher, or email it with cover letter, even though you know the odds are against you.
It’s an uphill battle from the very beginning. I used to teach the occasional writer’s workshop, and consistently my students ended up being seniors, usually women, who had a story, usually their autobiography, that they felt needed to be told. That’s all well and good, but too often, none of those promising stories ever made it onto paper, or the flickering screen. One time, frustrated with this trend, I told my students that there would be homework and they would be expected to actually write. What happened? Out of a class of twenty, one students actually did the required homework.
Why would someone take a writer’s workshop and then refuse to write? That’s easy. It’s easier to talk about being a writer, to fantasize about the writing lifestyle and identity, than to actually write. Writing is hard, hard work. It’s thankless work, for the most part. The only writers who stick with it are those who can’t live without writing. It’s in their blood. I am convinced in my own situation that if I never publish another story again, I will still keep writing. I can’t help it. It’s who I am.
But there’s also that addiction that writers have: they want people to read their stuff. I know in my case that I tend to want to read my half-baked stories to my wife while the keyboard is still warm. And most of you have seen my short stories and book chapters posted here. That’s a bad habit I am trying–unsuccessfully–to break myself of. The serious writer doesn’t show his or her work to anyone else until it is completely finished. Or that’s what I’ve been told.
Well, as usual, I’ve gone way, way off on a tangent. The reason I decided to write this blog is because what my friend Edward Cheever said in his recent blog. He’s suffering from the same malady I experience each school year. He’s writing for a local newspaper and finds that putting his energy into writing news stories sucks it out of him for working on his novel. I totally commiserate with him. A day job can take it out of you. For a long time, I firmly believed that I couldn’t write at all during the school year, since all my creative energy was going into the classroom.
But then along came National Novel Writing Month. I did it two years in a row, each year writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. And this was in November, right smack dab in the middle of the school year. What made it possible was giving myself permission to write crappy stuff. If you don’t self edit, writing comes a lot easier. It’s liberating.
That’s probably why I had such a hard time finishing the last five chapters of Elijah last month. I had been holding onto them since last August, afraid to work on them while I had school competing for my brain cells. And when school finished, suddenly I was out of excuses. And I was faced with writing five chapters–about 75 pages–that would adequately complete a five-year project. The emphasis, of course, being on the word adequately.
Suffice it to say, I finished the project–at least the rough draft. I still haven’t had to courage and read what I have written. Often our view of the story is set so high above our own abilities that it intimidates us to no end. And so we freeze up. In the case of Elijah, I knew that if I didn’t bull ahead and just write the blamed thing, it would never happen. And so I did, and now I have moved on.
I am ready to write again, I think. For a day or two, I suspected I wouldn’t have the courage to write anything of length again. And that’s not in the cards for me anytime soon. Instead, my plan is to take the half-dozen book ideas I have and try to write short stories from them. No pressure now. Writing a short story is not like finishing the last five chapters of a three-book set. I can do this.
And so my answer to you, Edward, is cut yourself some slack. If you want to write creative stuff, do it, but write something that is not so imposing. Maybe some poetry or short stories. Then if you want to continue the novel, do so, with the understanding that crappy writing is better than no writing at all.
As usual, most of what I am saying is directed at myself. As I tell my students, if you’re serious about writing, you never stop being a student.
Or dealing with mind games.