I put out a call on Facebook a few days ago, asking writers who aren’t writing, why they aren’t writing. (I know some of my own reasons.) Of course, not writing because you know your creative process and the value of fallow fields is good. I’m interested in reaching out to those who’d rather be writing and aren’t or, for some reason or another, can’t. Here are some unrefined thoughts on the subject. (If I were capable of refined thoughts, I’d be writing a new novel right now.)
Most of the people wrote in saying that time was the issue. I’ve given a lot of advice in the past on creating time, on reserving your freshest brain cells for your own work (and committing to that), on reclaiming your muse time (down time while showering, gazing, waiting for kids to get out of practice, commuting) — I have a very specific speech for this alone.
But the fact is that when juggling the demands of a very, very busy life, sometimes there simply isn’t enough time. And the novel, in particular, is so architectural burdensome and, early-on, so ungainly that it’s very hard to work on it in small increments. This is why artist colonies exist and why some writing professors simply don’t write until summer hits. (I can’t work this way. I have to write or my gears would whir too hard, and I’d resent those around me. I believe in living life with a metaphorical metal detector, always listening for the beeps of possible resentment and digging them out so they can’t root — especially important in relationships.)
But what happens here is that the desire to write when you know you won’t really have the time and head space to do it is painful. It’s an ache. And sometimes the only way to make it not ache is to shut down your desire to write. Stop the wanting. If you practice this, however, this tamping out of the creative impulse, you’ll perfect it. And once shut off tight, it’s hard to open again. There’s been a breach of trust inside of yourself.
I’m not sure that I have a fix. (Can you accept the ache if you know that a stretch is coming? Can you build stretches for yourself? Can you work with your partner to find ways to allow yourself time and head space?) I do know that shutting down the want is not healthy. It’s a shutting down on a life force.
In lieu of not having a great answer to the above, I’ll offer three things I’ve thought of recently about why I get stuck.
Being haunted by projects past.
Sometimes I can’t move forward because I have too many almost finished projects or fifth-draft disasters or it’s-so-close-but-this-bucket’s-got-a-hole novels on my desk. I try to head into something new, but I’m entangled by the complex pulley system of weighted failures (or near misses).
Should you go backward and rededicate yourself to finishing all of those projects? I’ll say this. One reason companies fire a CEO is that a new CEO will come in and clean-house on projects that have been draining resources (in our case the resource is time). The old CEOs sometimes can’t cut a project loose because they feel like they’ve already invested too much (both resources and personal investment) to let it go. (This is discussed in the book Thinking Fast and Slow, which wasn’t about writing.) But this is where the phrase about good-money-after-bad comes into play. In some cases, it’s better to stop pouring time into a novel that’s not working. It’s a drain on your resource of time.
That said, can you reframe the loss of, well, perhaps years? You should try. Almost all of my novels have parts of other novels or stories inside of them. In my early days as primarily a short story writer, I used the stories to build novels. Now I use failed parts of novels to build better novels. All of the texture of my failures — painfully wrought and worry-loved — are great saplings.
Can you and the almost-novel go “on a break,” to reference Rachel and Ross? In this case, you need the time away, but you promise to come back with fresh eyes and you might be able to really make it work. Meanwhile, however, you’re allowed to work on other things — it won’t even be cheating. That’s key. Write while you’re on that break because it will allow you, possibly, to get caught up in a novel that could really work.
Fact is, the time away is often what the novel really needs. And this you’re drilling your skills and learning something (or relearning something) that’s the answer to the novel that you’re taking a break from.
While I’m locked in edits, my mind riffs on new ideas. They’re kind of escape hatches. I’m locked in this book for now, yes, but that escape hatch is marked with some new desired world I want to build, sometimes comedic, sometimes brutal, sometimes just a feeling … But it keeps me going.
However, if I reside in edit mode for too long, then too many escape hatches appear — a wall of them. And when I’m finally allowed to open one, I don’t just open one. I open five. And then I don’t know which one to travel through. I’ve spent too much time, dreamily envisioning each one, and then I’m over-committed in my imagination, and a kind of paralysis takes hold.
I start writing each one — just a bit — to see if one will take the lead.
If I still want, say, three of them, then I need someone else to tell me what to do. It’s got to be someone I trust — who knows me and my work and what I want — even when I’m not clear on that myself.
Commitment within the novel itself.
Sometimes the problem is that you’ve written the beginning and now you’re seeing the infinite heartbeats of the novel — all the directions it can go. (I’ve written about infinite heartbeats elsewhere…) Here’s my advice. If you know the ending in any way, shape or misty form, write it.
Why? Well, the only analogy I have is this one. You’re in a tub. You’re reaching for the rubber ducky. You can’t reach it. You panic. Your wild gestures and flailing create waves that push the ducky farther from you.
By writing the ending, you’ve already got the rubber ducky in hand. It’s done. The action is known.
If it’s the wrong ending, it’s fixable, but meanwhile you’ve got a finished action of some sort, duck and all.
The rubber duck metaphor, however, isn’t the one I want to end on. In fact, I don’t want to end on how we navigate the middle of a novel. I want to circle back to wanting for a moment because wanting isn’t just something we shouldn’t tamp out. It’s something that we should tend and care for and nurture within ourselves. Or, maybe, it’s something we should fire and stoke. Wanting provides the urgency that the page demands.
If I’m going to err as a writer, I don’t want it to be because I was cautious with my heart, that I loved writing a little but never too much.
My resolution is to want to write, to desire it, deep down. To be jealous of my time with the page when I’m away from it. To long for it. To be torrid. To love it too much and to accept the pain that might come from that.
What about you?
NOTE: I’ll be offering a .pdf version of my writings on writing, including “efficient creativity,” notes on craft, courting and cultivating the beautiful idea, notes on publishing, and a collection of writing exercises.
This will be available to those who pre-order my forthcoming novel,
HARRIET WOLF’S SEVENTH BOOK OF WONDERS,
online or at a bookstore,
and send proof of order via email.
If you want to be alerted when that promotion starts,