Heigh ho, we’re back again to talk about writing things. I’ve been writing a heck of a lot lately, so I figure it’s high time to take a bit of a break and… write some more. What? I like writing.
Over the course of my weird and wonderful life, and its many inane days, I have had a tendency to mystify my work as a writer. I mean, writing does feel sort of magical, at least in retrospect, right? I start out with this blank page, and an hour or two later I have all these pictures and peoples and ideas and emotions splattered all over the place. Awhile after that, give or take few weeks—or a few years, depending on whether it’s a short story or one of those monolithic, fancy-pants Novels—and you have a story that actually makes sense, with a plot and everything (if you’re lucky). As a writer, you just kind of have to look back and scratch your head and go, “How did that happen?”
The thing is, reading feels like wizardry. Whether you’re reading your favourite book, or something you just wrote yesterday, it feels magical. You’re peering into other worlds, full of magic and monsters and anything else at all, where any lie can be a truth, and any truth a lie. Reading just feels like magic. So, when you’re writing, you just kind of assume it’s magic too. Or, at least, I often do. I’ve never really been super clear on where my ideas come from (I’ve heard it’s a common feeling)—my really good ideas, anyway, the ones I try and make stories out of—so, in the past, I’ve usually just spread my hands and explained it away as just “Magic!” Call it a lack of self esteem, if you want, but owning that I made these crazy stories of mine is just kind of hard. Now that I think about it, it may be the same reason, or at least the same impulse, that drives some people to think there are no original ideas in the first place (“I didn’t make this magic story, I just subconsciously stole a load of bits from other stories, and didn’t add any flourishes or fine details of my own that make it its own thing.” “Dumbledore is really just Gandalf,” and the rest). My ideas may be so weird and odd I can only really hold my own demented mind fully accountable for their final results, but thinking of them as my ideas has never come particularly naturally to me. My impulse has always been to chock it up to inspiration, or some other arbitrary factor. It wasn’t me, it was just the music I was listening to, or the picture I was looking at, or the weather. Or what I ate for breakfast. I don’t know if this is a common emotion, or just a me thing, but I’m willing to wager it’s not rare.
Whether or not you struggle with admitting ownership of your own ideas (which I do think is important, for the record—owning your ideas is a part of having a healthy relationship with your work. At least, I think so. Honestly I’m just pulling this out of my butt, or wherever else all my writing comes from. Now that I think about it, I hope it’s not my butt), I think this tendency to mystify the writing process is something worth addressing. It’s so very easy to blame inspiration, or your Muse (whatever the heck that’s supposed to be), or that notebook you happened to use for your first notes, or how you set up that first paragraph, or even how many breaks you used (please tell me I’m not the only one who’s obsessive about formatting). I myself have spent most of my life enslaved to this impression there was some special trick, or shortcut, or metaphorical magic word that made my writing work. The thing is, I can’t deny that sometimes I write, and sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I just get so stuck I scream internally and try feebly to tear out my hair (mostly because I think I saw someone do this in a movie once, and it strikes me as the Thing To Do when you’re frustrated beyond wit and soul’s end). I’ve always figured there had to be a pattern or a reason, so it has become my habit to search for any outward explanations. We all want to beat writer’s block—it’s the main enemy for so many of us, especially, I think, as aspiring writers—and the idea that there is some special trick or hidden weapon is very attractive.
It has been a surprising help to me to actually study writer’s block, a bit, and learn the difference between being stuck and being drained. Sometimes, when you stare at a page for ages and ages, and nothing happens at all (I’m not talking about what I sometimes classify as nothing, but as in actual nothing, where there are zilch words coming out), your creative tank is just empty. Recognizing this isn’t writer’s block is, I think, super important. At least, it’s helped me a lot, so perhaps it might help others. When you’re empty, you’re just out of gas, and you have to go fill up on music and reading and video games and whatever other Art you can cram in your face. Fundamentally, we can’t make anything without consuming fuel. It’s why so many people who read wind up writing, and so many writers who don’t read enough don’t get anywhere (coughcoughIdidn’treadforyearsandIwroteutterubbishcoughcough). You’ve got to feed your creative fires, otherwise they just go out. It doesn’t mean you’re broken, it just means you’re tired. Creative fires is kind of an unusual analogy, but it makes me think of dwarf forges, and dwarves are cool, so I’m going with it. Creative fires.
Knowing the difference between being empty and being stuck is, I think, a key component to conquering that dire enemy, writer’s block. Furthermore (and here’s where I loop to this back to what I was actually talking about), I think overcoming the impulse of mystifying writing, and reducing it to a pseudo-superstitution of inspiration, is absolutely necessary for overcoming writer’s block. At the very least, it has been necessary for me. I get stuck writing for a variety of reasons, but if I only believe I can write effectively in the first place because I have my lucky writing hat (to clarify, I do not have one of these, per se), I will never be able to find those real reasons, because I’ll be too busy looking for my hat. It’s so, so easy, especially when you’re a young, aspiring writer (ahem, like myself) to give into that age-old impostor’s syndrome, and become convinced your ability to write is reliant on some arbitrary inspiration thingummy. I’ve been doing it for years, to be honest. Maybe it was a desktop picture that “set the vibe” for me, maybe it was a place or a chair, maybe it was just a mood, or sheer motivation itself, but I’ve always had this tendency to believe I can only work when things are “just right.” When I “feel inspired.”
And I’m not trying to say that inspiration is nonexistent. Stuff inspires us; that’s how we make ideas. But perhaps—perhaps—inspiration is only the spark, not the fire. And perhaps—perhaps—it’s just the first flame, and therefore, in some ways, the least important. The first flame may feel the warmest, but it’s the long, slow, deep coals that come with time that actually burn the hottest. And the only way to keep the fire really burning is not by adding more initial sparks, but by putting in the real labour and stocking it with hard-cut wood. You can’t build a fire with only flint.
What I’m getting at here is that, ultimately, I’ve come to believe that writing comes down to the unmagical, uninteresting, but ultimately imperative task of just putting in the hours. I actually read this years ago, and resented it entirely at the time, and spent the next week or so explaining to myself why it was wrong, and how I was different. Truly useful writing advice—advice that actually changes how you write, and fundamentally alters your workflow as a writer—takes years to sink in, I think. Anything really impactful is going to take its time to process in your head. If writing was just a matter of reading the right tips and shortcuts—the Top Ten Things You Need to Know If You’re Writing a Novel—then everyone would just become master-class novelists in the space of an afternoon.
And that’s what I’m getting at. Maybe the writing process isn’t a series of elaborate tricks played upon your psyche to make you creative, or some arcane inspirational sorceries, but rather just cold, hard work. I know that’s not very fun, or very magical, but I’ve firmly come to believe that, while stories are magic, writing isn’t. Writing is blood and sweat and tears and soulfelt agony, but it isn’t magic. Reading may be magic, but I don’t think writing is. As writers, we love a good story, but I don’t think the process of actually writing one makes for much of a tale. If you actually want to write, I think you literally just have to sit down and write. It sounds glib, but I think it’s true, even if it isn’t glamorous or particularly nice to hear. It may not be easy—nothing worth doing is—but it is simple, at least. Maybe you don’t need that special notebook, maybe I don’t need my mood-setting desktop picture. Maybe I don’t need to be in the right mood, or in the right place. Maybe there is no Muse. Maybe, rather than a beautiful Muse of Inspiration, there’s just an ugly Monkey of Determination, trying to climb up a tree to get the Bananas of Prose. Maybe writing isn’t a matter of counting up words, but rather putting in hours (I actually have a lot more to say about this, so hopefully this topic’ll get its own blog post. And by “this,” I mean the thinking in hours over words, not the monkey thing).
So maybe, next time you’re faced with that blank, staring page, instead of turning away with a groan and putting it off for when you feel inspired (as I’ve been doing for the past several years), it would be worth trying to buckle down and try writing anyway. It will be hard—monstrously hard—that I promise you. I regularly slam my laptop shut and fling it away, and feebly try to tear out my hair when faced with this stage. The Resistance of emptiness is suffocating; overwhelming almost to the point of being unbearable. But only almost. If you can overcome that resistance, if you can get over that craggy hill and come sliding down the other side, and cast off the chains of counting words and parsing paragraphs and just abandon yourself to putting in hours, perhaps—perhaps—you’ll find that you’ve written something by the end after all.
At least, I hope so, because, as unmagical as it is, putting in hours is something I can do, and catching the magic butterfly of Muse is something I cannot.
What do you think? Do you kind of hate me for suggesting writing just takes boring old hard work, and nothing fun like magic elves and mood boards? Have you ever tried just logging hours writing, or found it effective? Does everyone actually do this, and I’m just behind? Do you think this post was inadvertently way too smug for its own good? Do you think that fickle inspiration thing is even necessary to write? Do you feel like it’s even important? Is inspiration even real, or is it just Keebler elves whispering to us through our breakfast cereal? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. After all, what’s the good of having an internet if we don’t build a hive mind—I mean, if we don’t communicate?
Non potui cogitare quid dicam.