Monday, May 25, 2009

Tricking yourself into working

Though writing is my profession, it often feels like my hobby, in that nobody really gives a crap whether I do it or not. Oh, I'd like to think there are some readers out there who are waiting for a new book or story. But they're probably not waiting all that eagerly. There is no urgency to it. If I get up tomorrow morning, and don't write a word, there will be no effect whatsoever on anyone on earth but myself. The act of writing is publicly invisible, as is the non-act of not writing.

So why not just work on your stamp collection or flower arrangement? The reason, presumably, is that writing is not just a hobby for most writers--it's a compulsion that is closely connected to one's sense of self-worth. And so to not do it is often more painful than doing it.

But it's hard to motivate oneself to do work that nobody is waiting for (hell, they don't even know what it is, specifically, that they are anticipating, and probably the writer doesn't, either), and is going to take forever to finish even if you do buckle down and do it this time. And of course you might end up erasing everything you do today anyway.

And so the writer has to generate some kind of artificial urgency. For me, it's an ongoing feeling of panic that, if I'm not creating something, I might as well be dead, or never have been born. Writing makes me feel real. This is irrational, but useful. Relaxing, conversely, makes me feel like I'm fading away to nothing.

Needless to say, this apparent advantage can quickly turn into a disadvantage--a person should be able to relax. I tried that this weekend--alone in the house, I did no writing for three days, and in fact didn't even try to, or think about trying to. And indeed, I felt a little like I was disappearing. But it wasn't a bad feeling, not entirely.

Tomorrow I have to ratchet up the imaginary urgency again, though, and I wonder what will happen to me if the illusion eventually fails me, and I stop panicking. Perhaps my career will be over. Or maybe, given room to actually think for a change, I'll write better.

So what twisted logic or internal emotional blackmail do you use to make a pile of pages?

Note: a little word of sad regret here at the death of Jay Bennett, former Wilco agitator and frantic multi-instrumentalist. It's never nice to see someone creative die so young.


christianbauman said...

My compulsion died, along with a few other compulsions, as a result of some emotional trauma that led to a serious brain purging and re-wiring almost 5 years ago, and I am much happier for it. I write when I want to write, and because I want to write, and 2 weeks or 2 months might go by now without writing and that's fine. At 38, I'm the happiest I've ever been -- in general -- and along with that, the happiest I've ever been about my writing and my role as a writer. I'm honest to myself about what I've written in the past and what I think about it. Regrets are still there, but instead of taking over, now they pass quickly when they arrive at all. Having said all that, though, I still find you can't write without urgency (I can't, anyway), and in fact the urgency is still there but driven from a different source, and now it's the same urgency that surrounds me in the company of my daughter at her softball's a sense that time is passing much too quickly for my liking, so I better pay attention and buckle down, but with it also comes an inevitability and sweetenss...this moment is only here right now and will never be here again, and it's sad, but it's also okay, quite okay. One thing for sure is that I don't want to exist in this moment in a mad rush, so I must remember to breathe deeply, and if I happen to write when I exhale than I am that much happier about it, but if I don't, that's okay too.

jrlennon said...

Wow--nicely described, Christian. I am certainly not hoping for any emotional trauma, but I definitely see the appeal of finding a new way in, a new way to be motivated. Taking a few days off this week felt like taking time off from myself, not just from my work...and though I'm glad to be back at it (well--in a couple of minutes I'll be), I'm wondering if there might be some value in deliberately rewiring a few neural pathways.

I'm hoping Rhian will weigh in here--she should have something to say about this.

christianbauman said...

...although, 3 hours after I wrote it, what I said there now seems somewhat ridiculous to me just like my first novel seems somewhat ridiculous to me. But I guess I conveyed my feel on it. Clearly, we all make our own way through this jungle (writing) that some of us were born into. And what drives one will not be what drives another. Graham Greene's method always seemed appealing to me (not that I follow it): 500 words a day. Every day. Period. If it took all day, then so be it. If it took 15 minutes, so be it. At the end of 500 words, he closed his notebook. What appeals to me about this method are two things:
1. The discipline (500 words is not a lot, but 500 words every day without fail no matter what adds up)
2. The ability to shut down when the 500 words are reached, and engage in life in other ways, engaging those other neuronal pathways (as you said, JRL), safe and secure in knowing that the strengthening of those non-writerly pathways certainly must lead to a strengthening of the substructure of the whole, and thereby making a better writer.

Sounds good, anyway.

jon said...

Christian says it very well. I try to understand my own compulsion to write, which remains despite purging almost all of the hopes I had getting into it. I finished two very long and complicated novels in a row, which meant I was writing and neglecting my family for about 5 years. I decided to take some time off then, and for the past 9 months have been editing an old novel and posting it on my website, which is less time consuming and doesn't tax my brain at all. That meant more time for the kids, and also time to recharge. It was the first time in my life where I didn't feel terrorized by the idea of not getting it done, of tempus fugit. About a month ago I started another novel, not one I intended to start, and for the first time the compulsion to write is sufficient to getting it done, but not debillitating. Maybe it's confidence? or maybe I just don't give a shit anymore. It will be what it will be, but it won't be anything if I don't sit in the chair every night for an hour or two.But why do something the world neither needs nor cares about? I guess for me it's because I have something to say, I enjoy the art, and I continue to get better at it. And of course I would feel useless and as if I were dishonoring myself if I didn't work. And there are about 12 people out there who seem to actually like reading them. But no, they aren't waiting for another.

Zachary Cole said...

Good insights, guys. I've been lax abut writing lately. Stories I wrote months and months ago (and, in one case, in early '08) were finally getting published. As JRL pointed out, to everyone else writing looks exactly the same as updating your Facebook. In fact, to most it looked like I was more productive than ever.

The scribblin' drought ended this weekend, when I wrote maybe fifteen handwritten pages in about six hours. The story is rougher than rough, but I knew I needed to finish the thing, or I'd have another half-finished short kicking around.

My solution was denial:

"Hmm, I'm picking up a pen. Maybe I'll write a grocery list for tomorrow."

"Now I'm picking up a notebook! Veggies first, then maybe some eggs..."

"Hey, fancy that! I'm writing a story."

Not quite that campy in real life, but you get the idea. The best way for me to write is to pretend that I'm not, until it's too late. ;)

christianbauman said...

Okay, I've said far too much on this subject, so let me apologize. But clearly you must have struck a nerve, JRL.
Anyway, last night, I come across this line in the novel I'm reading: "Without Genet as a witness, nothing I did was meaningful." Context is a teenage boy who is missing the girl who is his friend and surrogate sister. The line got me thinking about your original post, JRL. And the two combined made me re-evaluate how I have long viewed my writing.

I've often said that I feel like I'm a witness, and my writing is the tool with which I testify. Whether it's life in the town I grew up in, or the soldiers I knew in Somalia...whatever. I've often felt like a witness, with a duty to report, and that's what my writing did.

But maybe I've been wrong. I'm thinking more and more about what you originally wrote the other day. And maybe, in truth, it is not me who is the witness. But in fact my writing is my witness. And without it, self-meaning begins to slip away...

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jrlennon said...

Christian, let Vicki St. Clair be your witness--after all, she's the host of Book Talk on Conversations Live!!!!

Honestly, i think that writing is a very direct expression not of who we are, but who we'd like to think we are. And when we starting thinking hard about what we're doing and why we're doing it, there's a danger that some of our illusions will fall away. I've written here about this often, but I think to be good you always have to be on this razor's edge between oblivion and self-consciousness...seeing without seeing. It's a very weird place to spend hours of every day.