First, if you have somehow missed reading this letter to a very young writer from a not-much-older writer over at The Rumpus, you should go fix that posthaste.
…If you re-orient yourself to your fear it can be motivating. Let’s say you’re walking down the bucolic streets of Lancaster and an alligator comes out of nowhere and starts chasing you; I’d bet your fear of that alligator’s teeth would be pretty good fuel for running.
But since alligators don’t live in Lancaster and you are a writer and probably not being chased by anything at this moment, your alligator is Not Writing. And you need to run from that alligator. You need to write your alligator into oblivion. Everything else will happen on its own time as long as you keep writing.
Brilliance! That same advice has been given many times by many writers (anyone looking for a Christmas present for me, I direct you to the Write Like a Motherfucker mug), but it always needs repeating. Especially when it’s repeated wrapped in a whimsical little alligator metaphor.
It seems obvious that the key to writing is, well, actually writing. That if you don’t sit down, every day (or at least, say, 5 days a week, cause writers are only human), you’re not going to get better at it, and that, DUH, you’re not going to actually get anything written. I don’t know how I can sometimes go days or, yes, even weeks without writing anything and still expect stories to spring whole-cloth from my head like I’m freaking Zeus and publications to come rolling in like magic when I only have one story out there, floating around in the Submittable ether, drawing a steady trickle of rejections into my inbox.
But let me tell you, I do it. Because the necessity of writing is something that’s so easy to forget (or ignore) in the day-to-day. An innocent little Wednesday will come along, and I’ll be feeling lazy and burnt-out and tired, and all I want to do is watch some Netflix on the couch. Just one day, right? That can’t hurt! I’ll write extra tomorrow! Just one little day. And then before you know it, it’s two weeks later and I’ve re-watched the entirety of Friday Night Lights from the first episode and I’m surrounded by a mound of tissues (if that show doesn’t make you cry, you’re not human) and drinking beer at 3 in the afternoon, Tim Riggins style, and my husband is saying things like “maybe we should get out and do something this weekend,” which in translation means Claire when was the last time you showered and your skin is the color of an albino cave salamander’s and I’ve become concerned for your sanity, and I can’t even remember what story I was working on two weeks ago.
That is what my alligator looks like. It’s an ugly, ugly beast.
And I think the reason it’s so easy to let myself slip does come down to fear. Fear that the writing won’t come easily, that I’ll sit down and nothing will come and I’ll feel that welling of despair and defeat. Fear that whatever I do manage to write will be crap and those hours will be wasted. (Although I know in my head that those hours spent writing are never, ever actually wasted.) Fear that I’ll never be as good as this person or that person. And fear of the very act of writing, itself.
Because writing is hard, guys. Whoever said writing is therapeutic must have been writing exclusively for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Writing is the opposite of a hot stone massage.
Writing does definitely bring with it moments of catharsis, where you get some hard knot of emotion untangled on the page and feel that instant of release, or you get one of those epiphany moments where the entirety of your story is suddenly laid out in front of you and the clouds open up and the angels start singing. I’ve been there. I’ve felt that. And I’ve had many times where writing is fun. I’ve actually sat in front of my computer cackling softly to myself at what I’m making my characters do. And when the writing is working, really working, it’s amazing and thoroughly enjoyable. But a lot of the time, writing is difficult and frustrating and exhausting and I’d rather clean the freaking bathroom than stare at my computer for one more minute. And I HATE cleaning the bathroom.
Therapeutic, my ass. Writing requires the exact opposite of therapeutic. It requires you to imagine yourself into all these stories where there is, of necessity, conflict, into the minds of characters who are Not Okay. It requires you to think about lots of bad, ugly, messy things that normal people would really prefer not to think about. It requires you to conjure feelings of loss or rage or heartbreak or love or fear or whatever the story requires, to feel them inside yourself so you can put them on the page. When it comes down it, writing is empathy. And that’s a glorious, wonderful thing, but it’s also hard and scary and can take a serious emotional toll. That’s not therapy, unless it’s Fear Factor-style immersion therapy where you’re dropped into a tank full of spiders to get over your arachnophobia. (And does that really ever actually work? Like, really?)
And beyond that, I really wonder if being a writer doesn’t require you to have a severely screwy mind. It takes a certain weird breed of exploratory cognitive dissonance, if you will, in order to think up all these different characters, all these detailed lives, all these difficult and sometimes downright disturbing situations. Sometimes, I’ll write a really messed up, creepy scene and then look back on it and wonder, with mild horror, Where the hell did that come from?!? I’ve often thought that writers must be half-way crazy to be able to engage on a regular basis in this sheer act of insanity that is writing. I actually wrote a paper on this during my MFA in a class on, well, why writers write. One section of the course was on the alarming correlation between writers and mental illness, or writers and first-degree relatives with mental illness (which is my situation). The thinking is that so many genes have to be present to make a person full-blown mentally ill, but maybe writers have only some of those genes–enough to make them think and see the world differently, but not enough to make them non-functional. So: half-crazy. Chew on that.
When I’ve spent a long afternoon writing and then emerge back into the world and try to interact with humans, people almost always ask me if I’m okay. This happens all the time. Apparently, this is because I get some kind of crazy-eyed stare going on where I look positively unhinged, like I’m not all there. And I think that’s true. I’m not all there. The husband and I refer to this as “writing-head.” He’ll come home and be trying to have a conversation like a normal human being, and I’ll be lagging like 12 beats behind and just not really absorbing any of it, and all I have to say is, “Sorry, honey. I have writing-head,” like it’s a headache or something, and he’ll just nod like the wonderful husband he is and talk real slow until I return to the land of the living. Because when I really get into the writing, I think my brain switches gears and starts working in a way completely separate from how it works when I’m cooking or brushing my teeth or making conversation. I’m sure neurologists would point to their lit-up brain maps and say, unequivocally, DUH, your brain is of course functioning differently that it does when you’re brushing your teeth. No news there. It’s just, I can actually feel it, like my brain is running a million miles a minute in a world completely separate from my apartment, and there’s some kind of Avalon-style veil of mist between me and the dishes I’m trying to wash, and it takes me awhile to shift out of that and reorient myself and be fully present in, you know, real life.
Half-crazy, I tell you.
So is it surprising that, sometimes, all I want to do is watch some freaking Netflix?
Should I indulge in my TV escapism for two straight weeks, curled in the fetal position on the couch and hiding from my own writing?
Despite all the horrible things I’ve said about writing thus far, the experience of writing, after you’ve stared down your Not Writing beast and are in it, doing it, writing the shit out of it, is one of the most wonderful things in the world. And the feeling of actually finishing a scene or a story, while not necessarily therapeutic, feels Fucking Good. Definitely better than the self-loathing and extra few pounds that comes after staring teary-eyed at Tim Riggins and eating a diet of potato chips for two weeks. Writing is empathy, and it’s also a whoooooole lot of diligence. There’s a lot of advice out there about “how to be a writer,” a whole lot of it good, some of it narrow and picky beyond belief, but the soundest, most irrefutable piece of wisdom is just to write. No matter how hard it is, no matter what else you’d rather be doing–write. Write and write and write. You’ll improve your craft; you’ll get things written; you’ll find your way. And somehow, despite how unbelievably difficult writing can be, the end always justifies the means. How?
Maybe because we’re all half-crazy.