A long time ago, when I was a nerd in high school, I hung out with a bunch of other nerds in high school and we played role playing games. You know the bit Mike Myers did on his 2001 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, with one eye crossed and speaking in a lisp as he rattles on about his D&D character Lothar and magic spells and hit points and multisided dice? That was us. My parents, being parents of their generation, sometimes expressed concern over the role-playing, worried I’d get “too caught up” in it the way their scary news reports and misguided exposes told them I might, so I had to explain to them that role playing was a means of developing creative skills, that I wanted to be a writer and developing and running characters in a game wasn’t much different from developing and writing characters in fiction. And indeed several of those friends were also writers.
I mention all this because one of my old friends from high school sent me an e-mail the other day to share some writing he’s working on. We’re still at it, we old nerds, making up characters and setting them off on adventures, and my friend–with whom I’d fallen out of touch for a while so we’re now catching up online–wanted to share some recent work. But he also mentioned he was stuck, refered to the myth of writer’s block, and wondered if I had any tips for hurdling it. I said I’d reply via e-mail, but here I am instead, carried away as usual and turning the response into a blog post.
They say you’re supposed to set yourself a writing habit and stick to it, like brushing your teeth or going to work each day. Hemingway famously would leave off at the peak of his writing flow, often midsentence, so he had an energetic and necessary place to begin again the next day. Bill Roorbach says he likes to write the same few hours in the day, each day, every day, like a meditation regime, and he tends to keep things fresh by alternating his work: long-form fiction or memoirs on the weekdays, and short fiction or essays on the weekends. My friend Tom Franklin credits the birth of his daughter for his fiction habits–he said the only time he was ever able to get any work done was when his daughter Claire laid down for naps, and because that time was limited he had to write like mad and really make it count. Said she was the best thing that ever happened to his writing and he never would have finished his first novel without her.
Of course, some people have day jobs, but they say the routine is important anyway. Most academics I know set aside separate office hours, some for students and some for writing. most of us also disappear for a month or more during the summers, sequestering ourselves in some dark corner of the house or cloistering like monks into writers retreats to frantically pound out what we had been wanting to work on all year. A friend of mine in grad school used to work tech support for Microsoft, and for a while she’d stay up till four am writing thousands and thousands of words, then at work that same morning she’d just doze through the day waiting on calls and sometimes dozed through the calls, too. Elmore Leonard reportedly wrote his first five books longhand on legal pads he kept in his desk drawer at work–he’d write his advertising copy on his desk and, wrong-handed and blind, he’d simultaneously scribble out his fiction inside the drawer, then stay up nights transcribing it to his typewriter. You gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.
But I used to discount the writing-routine rule and still do to some extent. I think every writer is different, really, and for some the routine doesn’t work. I’ve always been bad about discipline so having one set schedule hasn’t really cut it for me; I keep needing to mix things up. It’s getting different lately, as I’m realizing that most of the die-hard “writing routine” adherents are actually professional writers who A) can afford to set their own habits without life interfering with them, and/or B) need some self-imposed routine to take the place of the restrictions of job and family and life in general.
I’m realizing this because this semester I’m in the middle of a brief teaching hiatus, out of the classroom for the first time in 10 years, so I am actually a “professional” writer with few other demands on my day but the prose. Fiction is not just my avocation right now–it’s my job. And indeed I have settled into a kind of routine now, especially this month as I pound out this NaNoWriMo novel. It’s not set in stone, my routine, but the gist is, I get up, fix my wife lunch and see her off to work, feed the cats, then kick back for a couple of hours of music and video games and multiple, heavy doses of coffee. Once I’ve finally managed to wake up, I get to the writing. Used to be I’d pick up whatever took my fancy, but I’ve discovered that it’s true, you really do need a plan when you’re writing full time, so the past few months I’ve been focused on finishing a story collection I’ve had in the works for years and on beginning a major revision of my dissertation novel. Then the past two weeks this NaNoWriMo novel has taken over entirely. But whatever I’m working on, I’m not too rigid about how I go about it. A lot of writers will tell you to just freaking write–if you’re in the chair you need to be scribbling or typing, period. No revising, no researching, no reading, no thinking…. Just write. There’s something to be said for that, but I prefer Hemingway’s story about sitting in front of the fireplace in his flat in Paris, pinching bits of orange peel into the fire and watching the sparking blue flames they made. He was thinking about writing, he claimed, and therefore he was writing. My theory is, if the work I’m doing is in service of the writing–whether it’s research or revision or just reading a damn good book that will help lead me back to the writing–then I’m still writing. There will come a time when the reading or the research just becomes distraction, when the revision or the thinking become an evasion tactic, and there’s no way to pick up on the switch from productivity to procrastination but bitter freaking experience, but as long as I keep my ass in the chair each day, I develop the habits and the awareness necessary to continue being productive regardless the actual activity.
But then, that doesn’t usually help with writer’s block, because with writer’s block, anything that isn’t words on paper is just procrastination. There’s good news, though: there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Period. Doesn’t exist. If writer’s block is defined simply as the inability to write, and writing is itself simply the act of putting words on paper, then all you have to do is start writing. Block hurdled. What you write in the throes of an alleged block will almost certainly be crap, but it’ll be written crap, and the brain, funny muscle that it is, sometimes just needs to be warmed up first. Once the words start coming, the brain realizes it’s supposed to be writing, and if you stick with it, eventually the right words will start coming.
So there it is in a nutshell: Develop the discipline to make yourself sit in a chair once a day, with at least the intention to write. And then, once you’ve established enough muscle-memory that you find your way to the chair even when you don’t want to be there, start developing enough discipline to force words out of you, regardless how shitty they are. Anne Lamott wrote a widely anthologized chapter in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, called “Shitty First Drafts.” In it she explains that “very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.” (I can quote this because I love Bird by Bird so much I brought it with me overseas–I’m looking at my copy right now.) “We often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. […] For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Stephen King mentions similar advice (and probably quotes Anne Lamott, too, though I don’t recall) in his excellent memoir On Writing, and even goes so far as to show us his shitty first drafts. They truly are shitty. It’s nice to see.
I think for me the affliction I used to call writer’s block mostly stemmed from anxiety. I knew the way I wanted the prose to sound in my head–these days, mostly like Cormac McCarthy, because the English language just doesn’t get much better than it sounds in his prose–but the minute I start putting what’s in my head down on paper or on the computer screen, it starts looking or sounding different. It’s NOT Cormac McCarthy, it’s not even bad Faulkner when he was at his drunkest–hell, it’s not even half decent. In my head I’ll have a passage like
A warm wind on the mountain and the sky darkening, the clouds looping black underbellies until a huge ulcer folded out of the mass and a crack like the earth’s core rending rattled panes from Winkle Hollow to Bay’s Mountain. And the wind rising and gone colder until the trees bent as if borne forward on some violent acceleration of the earth’s turning and then that too ceased and with a clatter and hiss out of the still air a plague of ice.*
But when I write it down for the first time it comes out, “It was a dark and stormy night.”**
So what’s the freaking point? It took me a lot of time and study and Buddhist meditation before I realized that what I expect and what I come to perceive are almost never going to be the same thing, and neither of them will be inherently true anyway; what I expect will never really happen and what I perceive is never really accurate, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. In other words, I have to let go of my expectations and not worry about my perceptions, I have to empty my mind of what I want to write and just freaking write. Of course, that sounds a lot more esoteric than it actually winds up being–what I really do is just lower my expectations, so that, expecting a shitty first draft, I am never disappointed and am occasionally even surprised.
Until I start revising. But that’s a whole other conversation.
* from Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper
** from Bulwer-Lytton‘s Paul Clifford and, subsequently, everything Snoopy ever wrote.