So you clicked here, did you? Well, good…sort of.
Let me start by getting some things out in the open. First, this post is a little long. Second, you may not agree with or like everything I’m about to say. Third, I’m writing this because I actually care about writers like you, or at least that’s my honest-to-goodness reason for hammering out this post. Fourth, I probably need to hear it as much, if not more than, you. So hopefully what I’m about to say will help hammer it into my brain (and yours, should you benefit as well).Okay, enough of the preliminaries. I thought I might grab your attention with my catchy title (you often have to pat yourself on the back, because your publisher, editor, agent, and readers aren’t always up for the task). Then I figured I’d offer my insights into what you should really do when you’re having a hard time writing, whether it be from writer’s block, fatigue, lack of inspiration, or the itty bitty shitty committee that lives inside your head and tells you that your writing sucks 🙁
But wait! you might protest. Why take advice from a guy who’s only had two books published? If I told you I was almost finished with the third, would that help? No, probably not. Okay, well, let me say a few things in my defense. First, there are thousands of writers out there (a rather conservative estimate) who give advice and/or publish how-to books on what to do when you’re stuck in your writing who haven’t many published books to their credit. So let’s just say I’m in ___________company (I’ll let you fill in the blank).
In fact, I’ve read so much of this advice and so many of these books (in case you’re keeping track, this is the second point in my defense), that I feel warranted—no, I’d go with darn near compelled—to say something on the topic. Yes, friends, from Aristotle’s Poetics, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (rewind if you missed the quantum leap) and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, to more modern folks like Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer), Larry Brooks (Story Engineering), James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure), Nancy Peacock (A Broom of One’s Own), Ann Lamott (Bird by Bird), Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) and a slew of others, I’ve read the gamut of writing books. So maybe that puts me in a place where what I have to say on the topic at least qualifies me to…well, at least not to say anything too stupid.
I know, I know. You’re saying, “Well hell, Matthew, you’ve already done that,” to which I’d heartily concur and slap my head in Homer Simpson fashion (“Doh”!). Nonetheless, I remain undaunted in my effort to (eventually) get to the point. Now I hear your chorus of, “Oh, please, God, soon!” so I’ll make this a little shorter than I’d intended.
The third part of my defense (that I have something useful to say on writing despite having only two novels published) consists of the very fact that, after many years of hard work, I’ve only had two novels published. Now, how can I use such a point as a justification for the very same point? That, my wordsmith friend, is an excellent point. I’m going to try my hardest not to use the word “point” for the remainder of this paragraph.
There, I’ve succeeded. My point is this: If you’re having a hard time writing, the best solution I can offer (after years of reading about writing much more than I’ve actually written) is to write. I’ve discovered via that long and winding road (and strawberry fields forever, man) that when you’re a writer, the answer to most questions/issues concerning writing can be found by doing one thing: writing. Now, if you’re completely burned out (and only you can tell if you are), or forcibly restrained, this does not hold, I repeat: this does not hold. But short of these exceptions, the general rule seems to be that, when in doubt, write. In fact, when you’re not in doubt, write. Actually, I think there are only two times when you should write: when you feel like it, and when you don’t. Even if you don’t actually use what you write in your work in progress (WIP), having something on paper, to me at least, sure beats having nothing on paper.
So what am I saying? Am I telling you not to read books on writing? No. I would never tell you to do or not to do anything. There are certain books out there I have found absolutely essential to keep me sane as a writer and a human being, and to prime the pump when my creative juices freeze into a popsicle. If you’re wondering what those books are, please see all the books I mentioned earlier—with the exception of E.M. Forster’s book (I just couldn’t get that one to work). Are there other good books out there on writing? Certainly. I just mentioned the ones that I can’t do without—your choices may well be different. But I also know that writing books on writing is to some people a lucrative business, one that preys on our insecurities. So I think we need to be selective in the books we choose to help develop our craft, and to realize that, once we’ve got the fundamentals of writing down, often the solution to our writing problems is to keep on writing.
There are a million excuses not to write, but the creativity we use in coming up with such justifications and rationalizations would be better served furthering our WIPs. So the stark naked realization I’ve come to is that 99 out of 100 times, writing is the best solution to my writing problems. The boldness, starkness, and simplicity of this statement may catch some unaware or cause others to say, “Well, of course”! It’s kind of like saying the answer to your smoking addiction is to stop smoking, and the solution to your drinking problem is to quit drinking. But ultimately, these ARE the answers, and, however simple and painful they are, they exist whether we want to acknowledge them or not. It’s taken me a long time to realize this, and a longer time to implement it, so I needed to put it out there. I hope it helps someone.
I’ll sign off with the words of Brenda Ueland. They’ve often provided me with inspiration to keep on writing and to help me remember that writing can be joyous. “[Y]ou should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”
Peace and love, my friends.