Every now and then, I encounter that thing called ‘writer’s block’, except it’s less of a ‘block’ and more of an ‘insurmountable George R.R. Martin-esque Wall’.
When this happens, I tend to look for Uncle Iroh-type people who can give me an idea of how to surmount the Wall of Writer’s Blockery (because left to myself, I would probably just knock my head against it until I bleed to death). Sometimes I’m lucky to actually have people to talk to – older and wiser writers who know their shit and are generous with advice. But mostly they’re not around, so I settle for looking for Uncle Iroh advice online.
For instance, if you pop over to Neil Gaiman’s tumblr, you’ll find people asking him any of a thousand variations of ‘what do I do when I’ve got this story I’ve been carrying since childhood and I really want to be an awesome writer like you please tell me what I should do.’ Gaiman’s answer is always along the lines of ‘just write.’ He tells people to put one word after the other til they’ve gone right up story mountain. And this is true.
What makes one a writer is not the ability to write but the ability to gird one’s loins and keep writing, even when piecing together a sentence feels like running uphill through a trail of brimstone and broken glass. Even when having your teeth pulled out feels more preferable to revising your shitty short story. It’s not impossible, just difficult, and potentially painful.
Steven Pressfield refers to these difficulties as ‘Resistance’. It can take any of a number of forms. It’s the irresistible call of TV Tropes when you know you should be doing something more constructive. It’s scheduling a whole free afternoon to sit in a café and type shit up, and then spending it bending those plastic coffee mixer things into funny shapes. Pressfield, who wrote things like ‘Gates of Fire’ and ‘War of Art’, has a lot to say about Resistance, most especially how the artistic life is a constant fight against it.
When I try to dissect my own Resistance, try to find out why I can’t just bring myself to fucking write the fucking story, I tend to come up with a whole range of excuses. Maybe I’ve lost interest in the project, which is fine, because it was really a shit project to begin with and I’ve got like a thousand other awesomer projects I could be working on. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer after all, and should take up a Trade so as to Make Something of Myself. Maybe I’m just stupidly lazy, a mass of wasted potential, a useless human being. Maybe I just need a power nap. (Of course all that time spent dissecting Resistance is pretty much a form of Resistance as well).
It’s easy to spend very long periods of time in a rut like that. Which makes me happy to have come upon this essay by Myke Cole. Cole is a soldier (who writes fantasy about soldiers), so it is appropriate to read this in the voice of a military officer telling you to embrace pain.
“The human condition is to seek comfort…When something is rough on you, the natural instinct is to avoid it,” says Cole. “The same is true of writing. When you see your name in print, when someone reacts to your writing in a way you’d never expected, tells you it influenced them, changed them, transported them, inspired them, it’s well worth it. But that part is fleeting. It’s the misery that endures.”
Read more of Cole’s blog and you’ll see that being a writer isn’t just about the act of writing but setting up a system so you can make yourself write. Inspiration can’t be counted on, but discipline can.
Discipline isn’t the ability to magically motivate yourself when you aren’t motivated at all (if human beings could do that, we’d probably be gods by now). It’s about setting up a system that will make you work whether or not you want to. If you can’t work at home, then get out of your house. If you can’t work in the morning, then work at night. If your right eye strays towards TV Tropes, tear it out (your internet connection, maybe not your eye). This allows you to work even if you find yourself staring at every insecurity you have as a writer / artist / human being in the face. And then you will mow over them.
Like Gaiman and Pressfield and Cole, Chuck Wendig (author of ‘Blackbirds’ and ‘Double Dead’) exhorts the penmonkeys of the world to gird their loins and write. He addresses many of the concerns of writery types in a series of conveniently-formatted 25-point articles like 25 Ways to Survive as a Creative Person, or 25 Motivational Thoughts For Writers, or 25 Ways to Defeat the Dreaded Writer’s Block. The bottom line is always ‘if you want to be a writer, you have to do the work’.
Besides producing creative content, actually doing work punctures the pink cloud dreams of Being a Writer. As this article on PsyBlog points out, dreaming (or fantasizing about success) may not always be to your advantage. Sometimes, having all those unrealistic expectations actually drags you down. ‘Why aren’t I a 16-year-old multi-award-winning multi-million-dollar three-book-deal sensation yet?’ you may ask. ‘Where is my legion of online fans?’ And when you realize that you are, in fact, a quarter-life crisis-ing desk zombie who can only find time to write afterhours and on weekends, and that the closest thing you have to an online fanbase are a handful of indulgent friends, you feel sad about your life.
This doesn’t mean you should stop dreaming. According to the article How To Commit To a Goal, your dreams should be held up against reality, so you can set reasonable expectations for yourself, which goes a much longer way towards You Becoming That Awesome Writer You Wanted To Be.
Finally, a lot of what constitutes the Wall of Writer’s Blockery is simply that writing is an intimidating process. It’s intimidating because you will potentially humiliate yourself with the level of shitiness of whatever you end up producing.
For instance, you have this brilliant idea for a story –a splendiferous epic with characters that will resonate so deeply with the readers that people will be cosplaying them at conventions. But when you get down to writing, you realize your characters are convoluted pieces of codswallop and you’ve forgotten whether to use ‘their’ or ‘they’re’. So then, you just give up. You pack that splendiferous epic up and send it back into your head, where it will remain as beautiful as it can never be in reality.
Instead, you’ll just settle for writing what comes quick and easy, regurgitating 4,000 words of just your personal feelings, or observations of other people, or musings about the universe. It’s not a splendiferous epic, but it’ll give you the same high that comes with settling into a writery rhythm. Good enough, right?
Newport makes a case for deliberate practice being the key to getting better at what you do. It’s less about throwing yourself into the throes of that thing you’re passionate about, but coldly practicing your craft over many, many hours. This means doing what comes difficult to you.
Newport’s examples are chessmasters and musicians, but say we apply this to writing: you can write every single day of my life and never get better at it unless you’re writing something that actually challenges you, that pushes you a bit further than you can bear going. So that feeling of looking down at something you’ve written and wanting to scratch your face off with your nails is not all that bad. It means you’re practicing, learning, maybe even getting better.
If you want to write, or draw, or put up a business, or play a musical instrument, or whatever, you may as well accept that Resistance, like a Westerosi Wall, will be there to stay. Since you can’t wait for it to disappear, you can only learn to get over it, by however slow, painful, and mind-numbing means you have. The view from the top should be worth it.