Dear DD, I’ve seen you give excellent advice on writing and thought maybe you could help me with my dilemma. During the week when I am at work, I am pretty much constantly thinking about writing, imagining scenes etc (it’s a bit more than just simple daydreaming, it has focus), and I cannot wait for the weekend – uninterrupted time to write. But when the weekend rolls around, I do anything BUT writing (while having a constant bad feeling about it). Is this “writer’s block”? What can I do? (TA!)
What you’ve got here is something that I believe most writers get. Around the house we have a name for it, in fact a couple of names; A Case of the IDon’Wannas, or in extreme versions, “CBA Syndrome” (the acronym standing for “Couldn’t Be Arsed”).
It’s really surprisingly widespread. I remember one time when David Gemmell came to visit us — he and Peter launched at the same time at the same UK publisher, back in the day, so they got to be friends – and we were hanging out in the kitchen and talking shop (as one does) when Dave suddenly said, “When you find yourself on your knees scrubbing behind the toilet in the downstairs loo, you know you’re avoiding writing way too hard.”
It was strangely reassuring to hear this from an independent source. Indeed, from someone who became one of the leading lights of British fantasy (while he was still breathing, God rest him). And we kind of groaned in unison and nodded because we knew exactly what he meant…and then changed the subject to something much more pleasant that Dave was much more interested in (that being my recipe for fudge brownies. He really liked his brownies, did Dave).
Anyway, I think the condition you’re describing stems from the intersection of a couple of different problems. First of all, the expectations that you’ve placed on yourself concerning what work you’re going to do – at the weekend, tomorrow morning, whenever. What turns the equation toxic is the intersection of these expectations with a different set of expectations entirely, a set that I believe all too often writers don’t question closely enough.
Chief among these is the idea that writing is fun.
(oooh yeah, heresy, inserting a cut here…)
Writing’s not fun, usually. It’s hard work. It requires effort, and care, and thought… a lot of thought. About all kinds of things — structure, character business, descriptive detail, action, pacing, thematic arcs, you name it. And the common wisdom has it, in some circles at least, that mental labor is twice as bad as physical. Maybe more. Well, if there’s a more mental labor than writing, I don’t know what it is.
What causes the trouble here is the generally-accepted though little-examined idea that writing, if you’re doing it right, ought to be fun, or worse still, easy. (And if it’s not one or the other of those, or ideally both, then somehow you’re doing it wrong.) It’s like the too-general assumption that you ought to love your parents, or your siblings. And the harsh truth is that it doesn’t always work out that way. Nonetheless, you get this expectation lodged in your head, and then afterwards, when you don’t love your siblings, or don’t find your writing easy, you feel guilty about that. And then (at the writing end of things) you come up against the weekend, when you ought to be sitting down to do this thing you’ve been thinking about all week… and the hind parts of the writer’s brain– that mulish, it-knows-what-it-wants-to do-whether-it-bothers-telling-you-about-it-or-not organ – both refuses to function (why should it do otherwise? Brains are about keeping you alive, and mostly this means avoiding pain, which is a danger sign) and makes you feel terrible about it. And in order not to deal with this (there’s the avoiding-pain thing again), you go off and do anything else. For me it’s the dishes. Things have to be really bad when I start willingly doing the dishes. (Or if it’s a nice day I’ll go trim the hedge, or pull some weeds.) And all this while I too feel terrible because from the next room, where the computer is, the Work is sitting there looking at me. Guilt!
And then I remind myself that this is not supposed to necessarily be fun, and I get back in there.
Now certainly there are times when a concept or project will grab you and run away with you, and you write at such speed you’ll feel like you’re flying. (I saw Peter do this once when he was finishing up one of the Russian books: he wrote fourteen thousand words in twenty hours. And some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen out of him, too, partly because he didn’t have time to sit and pick at it.) It’s still hard work, though. And those times are relatively rare. In a thirty year career, doing work that I have after-the-fact enjoyed at least 98% of the time, no question, I have experienced spells of writing like that exactly three times: once on my first novel, once with a piece of screen work that was intensely difficult but at the end very satisfying, and once with a piece of prose work which people may eventually see in some other form than the one in which it was originally committed. But three times in three decades? That’s not a lot of fun.
That said, what is fun is, not writing, but having written! To get up out of the chair and be able to say to yourself, “That was a good hour’s / afternoon’s / day’s work”…and then walk away from it. There’s no question but that’s satisfying. It’s always after-the-fact, never in the middle of it. The middle of it, the part that feels like breaking rocks — with your head – is not fun. And why should it be? Who made that up? Hard work feels great, yeah… when it’s Miller time. (I’m not saying that I don’t get the occasional spasm of glee at something I’ve just done. But mostly I try not to indulge those when I’m in the middle of composition. I’ll snicker about them later: what’s more important is not breaking the flow.)
So what will probably be most helpful for you is to work at letting go whichever is the easier of the two sets of mutually toxically-reinforcing expectations. It’s going to sound funny, for example, to suggest to you that you should let go of the anticipation of the writing you’re going to enjoy, not doing, but having done — and approach it more like a chore. But then that’s what this is, this is what Harlan Ellison and others have referred to as The Holy Chore – like doing those dishes or scrubbing behind the toilet. It’s something you have simply committed yourself to do. And in that spirit, you sit yourself down at the weekend, and say “This is my proper time to be doing this, and I’m going to do it now. Whether I like it or not.” Trust me when I tell you that this will not sap your enjoyment of what you’ll have done when you’re finished. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s going to come out all right. Once you start rolling, and submerge yourself a little bit into the work, you’ll find things loosening up.
If you’re really having problems with sitting down to get the work done at all, you may want to experiment with changing the conditions under which you’re working. If you’ve been typing, try doing your writing in longhand. If you’ve been handwriting, try typing. Change the parameters of the experiment. Do you play music or leave the TV on while you’re working? Turn it off. Is it usually quiet when you write? Try music and see what happens. (I often program music against what I intend to be writing. I have a lot of soundtracks, and use them as tools. Yet at the same time there are days when any noise distracts me from the dialogue in my head, and I work in silence.)
Going to do the work in some other place than you would normally do it can be useful. This has worked really well for me in the past. Sometimes I’ve found it almost impossible to get any work done at home, and so I have picked myself up and gone elsewhere. A pub, a café, a library, even on occasion a hotel or holiday apartment when I was able to swing both the time and the money to just get out of the house for a week. Granted, this is an extreme example, but it’s done the trick for me. In general, though, removing yourself from what someone with a Catholic upbringing would refer to as “occasions of sin” (in the writing sense: distractions such as husbands, wives, children, pets, THE INTERNET) — can be really helpful. I have one friend who writes who purposefully goes away, when he has a heavy piece of writing work to do, to someplace where there is no broadband. I’ve done this myself, and when you have literally nothing else to do but the work for which you went to a place, it tends to get done.
But the expectations are the core of the problem. Lose one or the other of those sets of expectations, and the equation of stasis should fall apart. You just need to attack the one that seems the most vulnerable for you personally.
I think, though, the best thing I can do for you is to disabuse you forcefully of the idea that writing is, should be, or ought to be fun. (Satisfying, yes, it’s absolutely that: and absolutely worth doing. Having written well, and knowing it, is in my opinion as close as you can get to Heaven without dying.) My guesstimate would be that most career or habitual writers don’t find it to be fun. And I harbor a sneaking suspicion that most of those who claim to enjoy writing, the actual “in-media-res” act of it, are lying. …But that’s just me.
Anyway: hope this helps. 🙂
(Originally published at Tumblr: http://dduane.tumblr.com/post/90362758616/dear-dd-ive-seen-you-give-excellent-advice-on )