Raise your hand if you’ve been there. There’s a brilliant idea that you just have to get out and it’s scratching and clawing at your brain. You sit down to your computer and you pound out five thousand words without blinking an eye. Maybe this happens two or three times in the same week. You’re excited, thrilled even. All those idle fancies you’ve had over the years of being an actual writer are starting to come together in your head and in your hands as your fingers fly across the keyboard and word after word flashes up on the screen. The world will know your literary brilliance. They will come to love your snarky dialogue and your eloquent prose.
But then it happens. First, you realized that you thought the word ‘snarky’ would look good on paper. Second, your steam runs out. The coal shoveler inside your brain is taking a semi-permanent hiatus, and whenever you sit down to write, all you get is feelings of ‘it will never be good enough.’ You’re wrapped up in how wonderful something else was that you wrote two, three or ten years ago, and you wonder how you will ever live up to that insanely high standard you set for yourself. You switch windows from Word to Facebook to MSNBC.
The next day you hardly think about writing at all, except for maybe a minute or two. You might even open up your word processor, but then close it, without really thinking about writing anything. Or you might scratch out a sentence or two, decide that it’s not worth it and go for a jog. By the end of the week, your hopes and dreams of publishing are squashed beneath your endless complaining about your ‘dead-end’ job and your finances and how it’s just not fair that you got stuck here. You’re too talented to be stuck here. Always, always stuck.
My favorite way not to write.
That will last for maybe two months, and then it will come back. The flash of creative genius and the work and the energy and then the crash and the agonizing torture of wondering if the cycle is ever, ever going to end.
Psychologists have a term for that particular kind of behavior. It’s called bipolar disorder and it’s generally associated with long periods of inactivity followed by a short burst of excessive energy, a huge mood crash and a rapid descent into another long stretch of depression and inactivity.
I have my own term for it, when it comes to writing at least.
Before you get all bent out of shape and start telling me that I have no right to judge you and that I can’t possibly understand the torment you’re going through and that your struggles with writing and writing well are your own, let me remind you that I’ve been there. I’ve spent months and months not writing. Months. Most of the time, I’ve been able to justify it, calling it fear or writer’s block or some other name that I invent to disguise the plain and simple truth.
When I write, it’s because I want to. When I don’t want to write, I don’t write. It’s that simple. The problem that we all face (or at least most of us) is that most of the time, we don’t want to write. We want to dream. We want to fantasize and marvel at the wonderful worlds we’ve imagined in our minds. And, quite often, whether it’s because we think that words can’t do the image justice or it’s because we feel inadequate, or because writing just takes too darn long, we put up our ‘Gone Fishin’ signs and close up shop.
If there’s anything I’ve learned during the process of writing a novel, it’s that there is no room in a serious writer’s life for laziness. Your muse and your stories and poems are perfectly willing to show up to work and do their parts. And their part is easy. They just have to be there. And guess what, that’s all you have to do, too. You have to show up to work. You have to turn your computer on, maybe turn your internet off, open up a word processor and force yourself to write. Write ten words, then fifty, then a hundred. Write for an hour and then quit. But the next day, when you’re already bored and you’re wondering if it’s worth it, shut your brain off, sit down, and do it again.
Maybe all you can do, consistently, is to write five hundred words a day. If that’s the case, then do it. While five hundred words may not seem like much, consider this. At five hundred words per day, you will produce about 180,000 words, which means that you’ve written the equivalent of roughly two 250 page novels or twenty (That’s right. Two. Zero.) decent short stories of publishable length. In a year. The numbers add up.
Discipline is the line that divides bumbling amateurs from the professionals. It isn’t talent or luck, it’s dedication to the work. If you aren’t where you want to be as a writer, then there’s only one thing to do for it, and that’s to write more. Write every day. After a few weeks, it will be as natural as breathing. After a few more, you’ll wonder how you ever managed to spend your time doing anything else. Put in the time and the effort, and believe me, you will see the results.