Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter has returned to the road. In a short New Yorker piece, Hunter admits his decision to return to the stage “kind of knocks me off my writer’s game.” Hunter pointed out a very important distinction between writing and performing, which he describes as “probably like the difference between eating watermelon and playing basketball.”
I wondered if Hunter’s choice of similes might have been different were he a novelist instead of a songwriter (poet?). I realized that virtually every non-writing activity has an analogical writing twin. Some examples: driving a locomotive—exactly how forging through a challenging paragraph/page/chapter can feel; painting a house—writing so often involves putting a new coat of paint on an old plot, sometimes a bristle full at a time; doing the dishes—writers are always cleaning something up or organizing things or thoughts; changing the cat’s litter box—well, I’ll leave that connection up to you.
The reason writing is so ubiquitously connected to most everything we humans do is because our activities are the raw material of story.
The cover of the just-arrived edition of The Writer magazine touts “Secret writing habits from Ayelet Waldman” (Bad Mother, Red Hook Road, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Love and Treasure). I couldn’t locate the article in Contents so had to search for it and finally found it on page 34. Turns out that it wasn’t an article by Ayelet but about her and merely invests in its opening paragraphs a few words on where to write. The issue included other articles on where to write, all of which involve spending thousands of dollars to go traipsing off to various idyllic settings to do something that is a lonely effort no matter where you are when you do it, which makes the where you are less important than where your characters are.
Writing is not about your comfort—or discomfort—but the comforts and discomforts of your characters.
If you’re going to travel, do it for research that you can use to enhance the accuracy and realism of your story. Setting is just that. It’s the stage upon which the play takes place. It rarely is the play. Most of the time, the someplace where your story takes place is more an invention or heavily modified reality located inside your head. It’s cheaper to travel there. That means the physical act of writing can be done just about anywhere you happen to be. It simply is not about where you are when you write that counts but where your story takes place and where your characters reside. Writing does not require that you scout locations to do it at. You can do that on the Web or in the library or at your travel agent’s office. Once the lights go off, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a Marriott and a Motel 6 from you own bedroom.
What writers do is create a world and inhabit it with their characters. Really, do you have to be surrounded by chirping birds or gentle ocean breezes to do that? In reality, breezes and birds more likely offer the potential for distraction than inspiration. You haven’t time for that; you’re supposed to be working on your story. Running around finding the perfect location or workshop will, about 99 percent of the time, add to the list of reasons why you didn’t get around to any serious writing, and increases your credit card debt. Get real. Instead of spending your time making travel plans, spend it writing about the travels—physical and psychological—of your characters.
The result is that many of the ads for workshops and escapes feed your procrastination rather than your inspiration. But then, procrastination is not the real cause for not writing. It’s my position that procrastination has little to do with not writing. The term is typically applied to putting off something distasteful or some chore you don’t like to do. If writing falls into that category, look for a new hobby. You’re not meant to be a writer and you’re wasting your time and money searching for the magic formula that someone hints might be hiding in some exotic venue.
Like Ponce de Leon and his search for the fountain of youth, you’ll likely end up getting nicked with the poison arrow of useless effort and die a slow death from never getting started, let alone ever getting finished. You are finished.
Fact is the problem isn’t one of procrastination but the lack of organization and discipline. We all have the ability to sit down and generate prose; it’s finding the time and wherewithal to do it and do it to the point you get pretty good at it. Like any investment, writing demands its quid quo pro—commitment, time, and effort. Unfortunately, all three have the same mortal enemy—the lack of willingness—that deep down need to tell story. If it’s not there, you won’t find it in a converted barn or by a gurgling brook in Wisconsin.
The reason discipline is so important to an army is not that it drives the troops forward. It keeps them from quitting and falling back. There is a big distinction between those two concepts. In writing, we spend a great deal of time talking about the drive forward. Have you ever sat down and thought about why you quit, or don’t get to it? The reason many would-be writers do not peer into that cave of the unknown is the fear they might discover their desire to write has no legs in reality.
Lets look at what is involved with procrastination. Marc Chernoff has a website called “Mark and Angel Hack Life – Practical Tips for Productive Living.” The site is not specifically for writers, which enhances its credibility. Mr. Chernoff presents seven causes and “proven cures” for procrastination. Let look at them and see how they might relate to the writing life:
1) Fear of the outcome. This is another way of saying fear of success. Yeah, right! Writers probably don’t suffer so much from that as from fear of failure. That’s the monster that lurks just beyond the entrance of that dark cave. If you do not finish, you can’t be assessed. Instead of discussing a literary challenge, you dwell on the excuses that keep you from the keyboard. Excuses are endless. To put this fear into perspective, walk into a bookstore and look around. You’ll be surrounded by hundreds of success stories. They finished. They got beyond “Chapter One.”
Chernoff is not alone when he suggests to the fearful that they face their fears. “The best way I’ve found to defeat fear is to stare it down,” he writes. “Connect to your fear, feel it in your body, realize it and steadily address it. Greet it by name if you have to: ‘Welcome, fear.’”
Screw all that! Why invest time in self-overcoming? Let Nietzsche worry about that activity. How about ignoring or circumventing fear? It’s pretty much the same as the monster under your bed. Step out ahead of it. My example: I have a life-long fear of heights. A long time ago I found myself climbing toward the top of one of Colorado’s Fourteeners—mountains higher than 14,000 feet. (How I found myself there is another story.) There’s a place on the mountain I climbed—Long’s Peak—called The Cables, because you have to hang onto a cable and pull yourself up a particularly smooth and steep area. The shear granite face was covered with a skim of ice, water trickling under it. I remember the water because I was looking at the little bubbles flowing past when my feet came out from under me. I didn’t spend much time overcoming or naming my fear. I had no desire to hang around and get to know it better. I wanted to get the hell away from it. The person on the small ledge maybe 10 feet above me said to take it easy and come up slowly. After I kicked my fear’s ass off the mountain, I told my friend to “move over.”
That experience was epiphanic. No I didn’t overcome my fear of heights. It slapped me across the face again when I looked down at the tiny ledge off the backside of the mountaintop. I could really see where I would die were I to slip on my way back down from the mountaintop. There were no options. If you climb up, you have to climb down. I focused on getting that job done. So screw the fears; kick them off the mountain. Your job is to soldier on, as it were, not fall back, and certainly not to lament about it.
2) Helplessness in the face of complexity. We’ve all been there. It’s that feeling of being overwhelmed. Mr. Chernoff’s advice is perfect. Break down whatever it is into smaller parts. Focus on the bits and pieces. What’s the saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Actually, that’s a bit of a misstatement from the Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” The version I like states, “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand.” It removes the mental obstacle of a journey being 1,000 miles long and lets you focus instead on forward movements—the bits and pieces. So what if your steps are tiny. They’re steps. They accumulate. Words add up to sentences, and sentences to paragraphs, and paragraphs to pages.
3) Rebellion and laziness. Mr. Chernoff’s example is of the boy who is told he would be doing the same stuff in homeschool as in public school. He responded rebelliously. No success. Then his mother created a new paradigm: “Finish early, we do something fun.” Run with that idea; offer yourself little rewards for achieving some reasonable level of output. Instead of reading about fear and procrastination, read about self-motivation. Focus on the positive, not the negative.
Here I clash a bit with those who preach that you should hammer it out and fix it later. Don’t get me wrong, I rewrite a lot. But I also revise, edit, and tweak constantly as I go. Rewriting means you’re doing the same thing over again. It’s not that I never start over, I do, a lot. But the goal is to get better at putting the better version down on paper the first time. That’s how you grow as a writer. It’s how you know that you are growing as a writer. You sense it. You see it. It’s not a matter of speed, but increased efficiency and verbal creativity that will make this little trick work. Hemmingway’s goal was 500 words a day. That’s two pages! My goal is to get it closer to right, each time I write. But I try not to angst over it when the magic doesn’t always work. When you come back to it, you’ll likely see the path to improvement.
4) Lack of motivation. Mr. Chernoff’s advice here is inapplicable to writers. As an example he uses doing one’s taxes, which is a good candidate for something distasteful (unless you’re a tax accountant). Writing cannot be distasteful. It might be hard and demanding and frustrating at times, but when it becomes distasteful, it’s time to burn the paper, grind up the pencils, and throw your computer into the dumpster. You will never be a writer.
5) Lack of focus and fatigue. Mr. Chernoff suggests that we disconnect from outside distractions, or schedule them (e.g., checking e-mails) at fixed periods. “And only take breaks as a reward for accomplishing smaller sub-tasks.”
Writing doesn’t work quite the same way. It’s the product of an amalgam of invention, interpretation, translation, organization, and production. It’s easy to get out of focus or hung up on a fragment of non-importance. Hard physical labor can leave you exhausted. Hard mental labor will leave you with a strange combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. Take a break, stretch your legs, walk a few circles around the living room—or block—and then come back. There are a thousand little ways to take a mental break. Explore what works for you, but keep in mind, a break is not the project, the project is the project and that must be the center of your attention and focus.
6) Not knowing where or how to start. Bingo! Mr. Chernoff hit the bull’s eye with this one as it relates to writing. I suspect that a lot of writer’s fear is related to this. Keep in mind that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Put those at the top of the page or whiteboard and under each list what might be involved in making it happen. Those are your tasks. Complete them in pieces, work backwards, sideways, linearly—whatever works for you. I’m a linear person, mostly, although sometimes I jump ahead to write a scene that is tickling my brain or kicking the door to get out—or in. When I jump ahead and write, however, I frequently don’t use or end of totally rewriting it by the time I reach that point, but the exercise keeps me moving. I would tell my middle school students that their words are neither made of gold nor cast in concrete. They are totally frangible. They have to earn their keep.
Writing is organic, which means it grows and alters itself, and its direction, as it grows and expands. To me an outline is little more than road signs. They don’t mean you have to follow that particular path. You find your direction as you travel. There rarely is a map to a story because it takes on a life of its own, once it has legs. When that happens, you have reached critical mass and most of what precedes this point in this essay becomes irrelevant. It’s wheels up and you’re flying solo.
7) Perfectionism. Mr. Chernoff says, “It just doesn’t matter.” Well, in writing it does matter; it’s just that it has be defined and managed. You can’t shove the stuff that comes out of the ground into your crankcase and call it oil. It has to be refined. So does your writing. It’s a process. Mr. Chernoff refers to it as putting off “implementing ideas by using the excuse that [you’re] not yet prepared to do the idea justice.” Writing is both the assignment and the practice for the assignment. That’s why it can be frustrating. You write in order to learn to write and to write better. You write story in order to discover ways to make the story better. There’s no Wizard of Oz who can give you a certificate of Writeology. That comes from effort and practice, and on some days the magic works better than on others. You are the man behind the curtain.
This all brings me to the rules of success. If you haven’t noticed, articles about the rules are always written by the successful. I’m not being coy. The rules are frequently presented as magical formulas—follow the steps and success awaits you. Life doesn’t work that way. Life and reality present too many unconsidered and/or uncontrollable variables. What worked for Joe might we spell failure for Jim.
The simple fact is you can follow and apply all the “rules” and still not succeed because it’s not the rules that generate success but your own best efforts. And there’s an element of luck and being at the right place at the right time that comes into play in all activities human. The rules on how to become a great writer need the same disclaimer as the ads by investment companies. “Results will vary.” But remember, without effort there is no results.
So when you are taking a break from your writing to read that article about what makes a successful writer, the rules listed never mention that most successful writers got that way by keeping their eyes on the ball. They haven’t time for interruptions that don’t fuel their progress.
Here’s what happens: you have an idea about a story and some characters who might bring it to life. You think about it. Make notes, maybe, even do some research. But absolutely NOTHING will happen if you don’t start writing it. And rarely is that journey one you can take in the comfort of a limo. The road is rough. You need a Jeep and some fortitude. But each little effort adds to the mass. And when that mass shifts from being a concept to something with substance, then words on paper, the story and its characters reach critical mass—that’s the point where they come to life, inhabit your brain, and become your collaborators and motivators.
Discipline means trying to write on a schedule that keeps the story from losing its momentum. When you can’t write—and life will always throw obstacles in your path—keep the story alive in your mind. Consciously think about it. That will keep you subconscious primed and trigger it to keep working on your project while you’re busy having to do other things. Don’t let the story or the characters sneak away from you. They’re like plants. They need water. Just try not to slip on the water when it occasionally turns to ice. Keep the fire lit.
Fire! Fire on the mountain.
Long distance runner, what you holdin’ out for?
Caught in slow motion in a dash for the door
The flame from your stage has now spread to the floor
You have all you had. Why you wanna give more?
The more that you give, the more it will take
To the thin line beyond which you really can’t fake.