A couple of years ago I took a weekend writing class from a reasonably well-known author. In the first hour of class he told us a little bit about his writing process, and at the end of his spiel he said how much he really hated writing (but was driven to do it by the stories he had to tell). Writing is hell, he said, I don’t enjoy it, not one bit, and, further, if you’re a real writer—if you’re doing it right—you shouldn’t enjoy it either.
At the time, I was beginning revisions on my second novel, and I was querying my first. I couldn’t wait to sit down to write everyday. I was in the zone. I was having the time of my life. I opened my mouth to disagree, but when I looked around the room, I saw that everyone else was nodding in agreement. I clamped my mouth shut, put my head down, and furiously took notes, determined to learn what I could.
Here’s the thing. What I remember most from that class is not what that writer set out to teach. My real take away was this: if you’re a real writer, writing’s not fun.
Here’s the other thing. That first novel (that I was querying at the time) is in the drawer. I’m querying novel number two—the one I couldn’t wait to write everyday—and now I’m working on a new project. But I’m stalling. I’m writing but barely. I stop short of using the words writer’s and block in close proximity, but let’s face it, that’s what I’m afraid of. Because although I’ve started several times, I’ve never gotten very far. It wasn’t that I ran out of story; it was more that I…couldn’t write any further, wasn’t sure how to proceed. And eventually I just stopped.
So…am I a Real Writer Now?
Of course Mr. Reasonably Well Known Author’s voice is loud in my head. “Now you’re a real writer,” I imagine him saying to me. “Now get your ass in the chair and write, dammit.” (Yes, he would’ve talked to me that way; he did a lot of pointed swearing and swearing while pointing.)
How can I be a writer if I’m not (regularly) writing? Not even when I do put my butt in the chair—which, for the record, I do everyday. But, it turns out that may not be enough, because there’s a second piece I need to complete the writing puzzle: flow. In a blog post on Psychology Today, psychotherapist Barry Michels explains it this way. There are two points when a writer gets blocked (eeks, there are those words again). The first is sitting down to write. The second is “flow”—the feeling I describe as fun…being in the zone…when the writing just seems to flow effortlessly out of your brain and onto the keyboard. It’s the feeling of looking at something after you’ve written it and barely remember writing it. That’s what it used to be like for me—and that’s what I miss most and want to get back to.
Michels says lack of flow comes from the inability for a writer to be noncritical of what they’re writing. He advises this: “If you can’t accept the bad, you can’t get to the good. It’s as if the flow is pure, clean water trapped behind dirty, disgusting sewage.” And if you can’t welcome the sewage? You’ll never get to the good stuff.
Sigh. Welcoming the bad is easier said than done. Lately—in addition to having trouble putting words on the page—I’ve been deeply critical of even ideas I come up with to write about.
What’s A Writer To Do?
Rather than spiral into a negative vortex of, Oh my god. I can’t do this. What if I can never write again? (Which is what I—somewhat jokingly—recently texted to a writer friend.) I’ve started to accept and acknowledge my fear of writer’s block and then let the thought go, instead visualizing myself moving toward the flow of clean, pure water. I imagine writing effortlessly again.
I know I’m not the only writer who has struggled with this. In a 1979 article in The New York Times Book Review, Philip Roth said, “The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”
No, Mr. Roth was not the one teaching my class, and, no, I still don’t agree with the author who taught my class, but Mr. Roth and writer friends I’ve talked to about this have helped me open my mind to look at writing differently than I once did. Yes, I want to find that effortless place again—the fun of writing—but I’ve accepted that the path to get there may not be all fun. Maybe it’s not as black and white as I once thought it was. In fact, maybe Mr. Reasonably Well Known Author wasn’t (all) wrong. I’ve embraced the fact that sometimes writing—or parts of writing—will feel like hell, and when it does I need to pull on my hip boots and wade through the sewage before I can once again taste the clean, clear water of writing fun.
Do you think writing is (or should be) fun? Or is it pure hell? Or is it not so black and white for you either?
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