The Writer’s, uhhh, Friend

May 8th, 2014

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.

brick wall

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

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.


11 Responses to “The Writer’s, uhhh, Friend”

  1. Dana King Says:

    Think of how much anxiety you could relieve if only you outlined? 🙂

    I know what needs to happen every time I sit down. It’s been percolating at the back of my mind since I got out of the chair yesterday. Now I just need to decide how it happens, and how to tell it. I like telling stories, so this is not a gut-wrenching experience for me.

  2. BonnieR Says:

    I’m speechless. I’ve felt these things, of course, but I still qualify as a dilettante. So I’m really just commenting to test the “notify me” feature. 🙂

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Dana — If I could outline, I might, but my mind just doesn’t work that way. I literally have no idea what’s going to happen in a book until it happens. I start, generally, with nothing but an incident and some characters and then see how it plays out, with a lot of rewriting and some structural touch-up such as breaking the book into sections and making sure that things that properly belong at the end of the book don’t happen 40% of the way in. I’ve tried outlining, but it actually causes me more anxiety than freestyling.

    Bonnie, we’re all dilettantes, except maybe for James Patterson. Let me know how the notification works.

  4. Everett Kaser Says:

    I’d say that anxiety is pretty much a given in ANY endeavor that involves doing something you’ve never done before (and every novel is something you’ve never done before, unless, of course, you write the same novel over and over and over… which some writers do, thankfully not you). It’s human nature.

    However, I’ve found that I’ve done some of my best work when I’ve managed to find that perfect moment of … now? A space in my mind where I have no fear, no worries, no cares, but great desire. That ability to leap from the cliff without even looking down, without caring whether I have wings or parachute, without caring whether rocks or water or alligators lay below.

    It’s a hard space to find. All too frequently fear has a death-grip on every neuron and there’s no shaking it loose. Then, there’s no choice but to push on through the thick jello of anxiety.

    And I’d say that an abandoned writing session is not a failure, as you’ve learned one way that it DOESN’T work. But if you don’t begin, that’s DEFINITELY a failure!

  5. L.J. Sellers Says:

    You nailed it, Tim. I outline (sort of), and I still have anxiety. About everything. It’s part of why we write, to make sense of things and work through our fear and frustrations. Without the anxiety, we would play golf. Instead, I’m getting back to it. Because my anxiety about not writing just outweighed everything else.

  6. Dana King Says:

    L.J., golf causes anxiety in me. i’m confident I can get the writing to come out pretty close to what I want; I’ve done it before.

    Every golf ball I hit is a random experience.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    EVERETT — Well, you’re right, of course, but for me those no-fear moments only arrive when I’ve been working long enough that there’s really nothing except the story and characters and I realize that I have no idea how long I’ve been there. But I have to go through the anxiety rundown to get there. (And by “abandoned,” I mean without really getting anything done.)

    LJ — Agreed that writing is often a way to bring our fears into the light. I wish I could outline, but nothing comes, except (on days like today) I’ll be running or something and there will be an avalanche of material, often in the form of dialogue for scenes I didn’t know I was going to write, sometimes in the form of connections among story elements or even (like today!) a big fat link between two story lines I thought might prove to be unrelated. It takes weeks of marinating in anxiety, relieved by long stretches of intermittently productive writing, for this to happen – it’s like a big Fed Ex from the subconscious.

    DANA — I’ve done it before, too, and I envy people who can go through it without all this drama. But I don’t seem to be able to. For me, despite all the previous writing I’ve done, every writing session feels quite a bit like a random experience, at least until the momentum builds.

  8. Bonnie Says:

    Well, shoot, it doesn’t work. Back to the drawing board. I ticked the box, it told me I was subscribed, but nada.

    I guess I’m more of a pantser, too. I never outlined my term papers in school or put notes on index cards like they wanted. It was the night before the paper was due, and I was, “The quotation I want s in the pink book. Where’s the pink book?”

  9. Steve Rosse Says:

    I am the king of anxiety, and I need absolute quiet when I write. Any noise chases away the muse. I cannot understand how you concentrate with music in your ears. That would be torture for me.

  10. Everett Kaser Says:

    Steve: Remember, Tim was in a Rock ‘n Roll band when he was a wee young thing, so he comes by it somewhat naturally. Another aspect of it was touched on by Zoe Sharp in her Sunday blog today on “Murder Is Everywhere” (Multitasking) at:

    Interesting read!

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    STEVE, music actually reduces my anxiety — it reminds me, among other things, that there actually ARE people who get things done, and that’s fairly inspirational. Also, I have playlists for different kinds of energy, and they’re really helpful in the effort to sustain it. After a while, I stop actually hearing the music and am just writing in a sort of bell jar of concentration and rhythm.

    EVERETT, absolutely. I do practically everything to music, so why not writing? And thanks for the link to Zoe;s post, which is really good.

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