Friday, November 16, 2012

Halfway Through #NaNoWriMo, Some “Advice” for Writers

The title of this entry is a bit of a misnomer. There won’t really be any writing advice, just some truths about writing. Some might call them hard truths, but they’re just really how things are and it’s up to you whether you take them hard or not.

First of all, congrats to everyone who is even remotely adhering to the NaNoWriMo schedule. Halfway through, you’ve probably experienced your fair share of ups and downs. There have been days when you’ve met or exceeded the prescribed word count and those days have ended with a smile on your face. There have been days when you’ve failed to write more than a few sentences—or anything at all—and on those days you have been grumpy, irritated, and anxious. I’m sure that for some of you, your daily disposition has corresponded to the number of words you’ve typed out, and the last two weeks have undoubtedly been a rollercoaster of emotion. If your mood is particularly dark and low and frustrated at this point, you’re probably thinking that this experience has shown you that you aren’t a writer. And you’re probably right.

But even if you’re on cloud 9 about your progress and every day is one of unfettered joy, full of typing and having fun and marveling at your word count, chances are you are also not going to come out of this a full-time writer.

The fact is if you’re feeling anything other than a calm neutrality about the writing process, you’re probably not going to be in the writing game for the long haul.

Here’s the deep dark secret about writers: they don’t particularly feel one way or another about writing. They don’t hate it (obviously), nor do they like it all that much. Even that old saw about writers who hate writing but love having written isn’t really true.

They sort of just write. All the time, every day.

Writers are compelled to write, simple as that. They don’t get too high or low about it, they just do it. Feeling bad about an unproductive writing day and feeling happy about a good writing day are both reactions writers—professional ones—never have. For them, writing is just something that needs to be done every day, in a sort of vaguely dispassionate way. I’ll try to draw an easy-to-understand parallel :

Think of writing like brushing your teeth.

This is an analogy all but the most hygienically negligent can understand. You brush your teeth daily. No matter what. It’s like not even an option to go to bed without having done it. You can be bone-dead tired, or crazy busy, or stuck in some foreign place far from home surrounded by unfamiliar people—you will still make time to brush your teeth. You even do it twice a day, preferably.

You don’t really “like” or “hate” doing it. If anything, it’s a little inconvenient, or boring, or a chore. But you do it because you are compelled. Sure, there are very practical reasons for doing it: the prevention of tooth decay, the elimination of bad breath, etc., etc. But I don’t think that stuff goes through anyone’s mind when they are actually in the process of brushing their teeth. I know it doesn’t go through mine. I just do it without thinking too much about it, and I suspect you do too.

Brushing our teeth is such a part of our daily routine and so disconnected from its long-term rewards that we don’t feel “happy” that we do it every night. We’re not high-fiving ourselves after another successful tooth brushing. We also don’t stress about it during the day, wondering whether we’ll be able to fit it into our schedule. We know we will, no matter what. And we don’t feel miserable about going a whole day without brushing our teeth, because it doesn’t happen. Ok, there’s that handful of times in your entire life when you go a day without brushing your teeth. But those are very rare occasions indeed.

This pretty accurately describes how true writers think of writing. They don’t get down about not writing, mostly because it never happens. (Even those authors who put out a book a decade are writing furiously every day, I guarantee you, perhaps even more than anyone else.) They might conceive of “feeling bad” if they didn’t write for a week, but it’d be little more than a thought experiment, like if someone asked you how bad you’d feel after a week of not brushing your teeth. You’d imagine you’d feel pretty awful about it, but any speculation is pointless because it’d never happen. Not brushing your teeth for a week wouldn't feel bad so much as just plain wrong.

Also, writers aren’t constantly patting themselves on the back for writing, in the same way we don’t give ourselves props for brushing our teeth. And just like writers, we don’t necessarily take any long-term satisfaction from the activity. Someone’s likely reaction to a lifetime free of tooth decay would probably not be “Go me!”, rather “Well, yeah.” It’s not too hard to see why doing something like brushing your teeth because you think it’s fun or it makes you happy or it leaves you with a sense of accomplishment could be very dangerous. Fun things can become un-fun, and dangled carrots lose their appeal. If sustained activity is what is desired, better to be compelled than rewarded; the compelled person will continue to do something no matter what, and the ones who do something for the feeling they get from it will always be vaguely dissatisfied and eventually quit doing that thing.

It's ultimately kind of inexplicable why writers write. I don’t think there’s a lot of choice involved. Writers write in the same way that birds fly south for the winter or bears hibernate. That fable about the scorpion and the frog seems relevant here.

For those struggling through this month, you have my sympathies and I hope at the end of the month you’ll be buoyed by the knowledge that there’s this thing you don’t ever have to do again. For the others who are deriving great joy from this process, I am happy for you and admit to regarding you with a certain amount of wistfulness. There was a time when my own words gave me a fair amount of immediate pleasure, when writing was unqualified fun. Eventually I found Hunter S. Thompson’s sentiment to be true when he said that writing, like [having sex], is only fun for amateurs.

But of course we all start out as amateurs, and there’s nothing wrong with having fun. For those having a blast with NaNoWriMo, I will say this: If that happy, joyful feeling of writing devolves into something a little less pleasurable, if it becomes harder for you to write, if you don’t exactly dread writing but you also aren’t especially ecstatic about it…and yet despite all of this you can’t stop writing, then you’re probably a full-blown, no-holds-barred writer. What I’m trying to say is don’t be too worried if the fun goes away. Writing isn’t really supposed to be fun; like anything worthwhile it’s hard work and stressful and time-consuming. And that’s probably as good an explanation as to why we writers keep coming back to it.

To paraphrase David Mamet: Of course writing is hard work. If it weren’t, then what’d be the point?


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