I think that people who don’t write sometimes envy those who do, and I think it’s time to set them straight.
I’ve had people in bookstores and at writing conferences tell me they can’t imagine how amazing it must feel to sit down and have the story transmit itself through me, to see vistas unrolling beneath my fingertips, populated with attractive, fascinating people doing memorable things.
Usually, I lie to these people. I say it’s all in the sitting. That the only way to inspiration is via drudgery. Inspiration, I tell them, is a result of gruntwork.
But as true as that answer is, it avoids what they actually said, which was about what it must feel like. So this is what it feels like.
The writer at work
And that’s a good day. On a bad day, it feels more like this:
Inspiration on demand
I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, writing is a product of anxiety. Every day I get up absolutely certain that I’m going to write all day, that this will be a three thousand-word day. (At three thousand words per day, assuming that they’re the right words–which they never are–one could conceivably write a 90,000 word novel each and every month of the year.)
As you may have noticed, if you read me, I do not write a book every month.
Instead, I go through the day, answering emails, checking out the decline of Scientology, laughing at John Boehner’s canned tan, and generally persuading myself that these are pleasant pastimes, as opposed to desperate diversions, and that nothing whatsoever stands between me and the first brilliant words of the day. But when I visualize that nothing whatsoever, this is how I see it.
And it’s higher than it looks.
Writing, for me, is a matter of balancing anxieties. I spend every day in the grip of a pair of almost-identical anxiety twins: on the one hand, anxiety about not writing. On the other, anxiety about writing.
Anxiety about not writing takes up most of my time. It’s characterized by sharp self-criticism on a spectrum of issues, from my lack of will power to my lack of courage, plus, at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near (with apologies to Andrew Marvell) and the chariot’s payload is deadlines.
Andrew Marvell, after a couple of Valiums
Anxiety about writing takes over the moment I (finally) open my laptop. Anxiety about writing is one form of performance anxiety that’s rarely used in a punch line. This is the day nothing will come. This is the day crap will come. This is the day crap will come and fit perfectly into the manuscript, revealing that it’s all crap. This is the day I finally learn that I’d be better suited to a life spent in the sun and in pleasant, green surroundings, retrieving golf balls from water traps. And who thought this idea would work in a book anyway?
The key to my getting anything at all done lies in a careful balancing of those anxieties. It requires judgment and experience to get it right. What I have to do, on a daily basis, is wait until my anxiety about not writing outweighs my anxiety about writing. At that point, I can choose two courses for my day. If I don’t take the cue to get down to it, this is what I face.
This is not something you want to do in front of children.
If I do get down to it, what I face is a slow, word-by-word beginning, much deletion, many games of Hearts, a moderately interesting middle and, perhaps, total exhilaration for an hour or two as I pour onto the page one absolute keeper after another, the best stuff I’ve ever done, most of which will be rewritten the next day. But, God willing, it won’t look so awful when I rewrite it that it’ll put me off the session completely.
The only writing session that’s actually a failure is the one you either abandon or don’t begin.
Somehow, I’ve gotten sixteen published books out of this, um, process, and there are even things in some of them I’m proud of. That’s the reason for this blog: if you want to write something and you’re having a hard time of it, remember me, neurotically balancing anxieties to produce 1000-1500 words a day, most of which are the wrong words. But you know what? At the end of the road, there’s almost always a book.