If the writer’s gift is the gift to make choices, then the writer’s war is the struggle to make choices without going nuts. Without second guessing ourselves, annoying ourselves, stopping or subverting or diverting ourselves. If we succeed, then we communicate our thoughts in a meaningful way. If we fail…sigh…we try again, because we’re writers and we can’t stop writing. The writer’s gift is to make choices, but not the choice about that. As we discussed last time, if writing is our itch, then we simply have to scratch. And no amount of mental Benadryl can change that.
Meanwhile, back at the war, we find that we’re assailed on all fronts. Procrastination creeps through the lines. Doubt occupies the low ground. Bills come flying in like bullets. Metaphorical land mines (the worst kind!) block our path and also our Path. Inner terrorists lurk. Enemy personnel constantly advance, trying to seize or kill our time. And the trouble with these personnel is that they might have our best interests at heart: we do deserve a break; we have wanted to see that new film (or the ball game or the kids’ school play or whatever). But writing takes time, and anyone or anything stealing our time is, de facto, the enemy, even if also a frenemy.
Then again, as wars go this is a fun one because we really can’t get killed, and we do get to call the shots in a way that people who have only the desire and not the drive envy. Just ask the guys down at the tire shop. I’m sure they’ll tell you there are some terrific darn stories in tire repair, if only they had the wherewithal – no, the guts, I say – to write them down. They envy us our war because war, albeit hell, is not dull. Better yet, it’s a war we can’t ever totally lose. Just by putting words on the page – waging the war – we’re bound to advance on some fronts.
They may not be the fronts we expect, for this battlefield is fluid, and we never know where our breakthroughs may come. In fact, since part of being creative is taking oneself by surprise, we can expect to make breakthroughs in unexpected places. Especially if we’re expecting them.
Expect the unexpected? What’s that all about?
It’s about a feeling common to writers, a feeling that washes over us when we see our writing take on a life of its own. We bury ourselves in a writing project for an hour or a day or a week or a month or a year, and later we look back and wonder where all the good stuff came from. That’s the magic of writing: I know that I wrote all the words, but they don’t all seem to have been written by me.
There’s either a logical or a mystical explanation for this bit of battlefield magic. Logical interpretation insists that if we work on a project long enough with our conscious mind, eventually our subconscious mind starts pitching in, too. Mystical interpretation suggests that creativity is a gift bestowed upon us by higher powers, and that by writing we’re just putting ourselves in help’s way. Which interpretation is correct?
Whichever one you choose.
They serve the same end.
If you love logic, you’ll spend more time writing in order to derive more benefit from your subconscious partner. If the mystic thing moves you, you’ll spend more time writing as a means of positioning yourself to receive such gifts as higher powers bestow.
Either way you win, because either way you spend more time writing.
More time fighting this blessed war.
Now, no one wants to go to war unprepared. And war lore is rife with tales of greenhorns who didn’t make it through their first battle because they lacked the seasoning that making it through their first battle would have brought. Same with writing. To become a well-informed and confident writer, you have to write a lot; however, to write a lot, you have to be a well-informed and confident writer (otherwise, fear and procrastination freeze you). How do we resolve this paradox? How can we work toward being the kind of writers we want to be before we have the confidence and craftsmanship we need to move forward? How do we build strength?
Gradually. By degrees.
We start by pretending that we’re not completely ignorant and ill-informed, and move our writing forward a tiny bit on that basis. Having moved our writing forward a tiny bit, we now have that extra iota of writing experience to draw on. This experience gives us new information and new confidence, which we feed right back into our writing process, like a not-for-profit corporation feeds its income right back into research and development, or like a mama bird feeds half-digested worms down her babies’ throats.
Additional writing gives you more experience of yourself as someone who can do a writer’s job, and also gives you more skills for doing that job. Each time you confront recurring writers’ problems (motivation problems, story problems, logic problems, detail problems – oh, that list is long) you’re incrementally better equipped to handle them than you were last time through. Eventually the war starts to go your way.
But it’s a long war, and it warrants a long view. You won’t win it overnight; hell, you won’t win it ever, for it’s a sad fact of the writer’s life that whenever we succeed at any writing task, we perversely assign ourselves a new, bigger and more difficult one. It’s an addiction condition, a have-more/need-more vicious circle that leaves us not satisfied to re-fight battles we’ve already won. But you know what? That’s okay. We don’t have to win the war; we just have to keep winning battles. And this we do just by writing, just by advancing our craft. Skill builds confidence, confidence builds skill, and this is how we improve: slowly, incrementally, over time. My best advice to any writer always boils down to this: Take small steps, and take as many as you can.
But who has that kind of patience, right? You want to be good from the start. Okay, fine, me too. But contemplate this: You don’t have to be good to get good. Choose to learn. Choose to have patience. Choose to serve the writer you’ll be in the long run. That’s a place where a writer can stand, and that’s a war that a writer can win.