Why is Writing So Hard?

You’ve set aside a couple of hours to write, and you’ve been looking forward to it all day. You finally get home. You get your snacks, your tea or coffee, settle down to write, and…  You can’t find the mental energy to begin the process of writing, or stay in the groove long enough to be productive.

This lack of mental energy shouldn’t be confused with writer’s block or some other problem. It occurs simply because our writing brainpower is limited.

Every creative act requires us to make decisions. These decisions, conscious and un-, take a toll on the brain. It can only make so many in a day.

Writing requires TONS of decisions. In an hour, a writer makes hundreds if not thousands of decisions. Simply putting one word after the other means a decision: choosing what word comes next. And the English language in particular has many synonyms and shades of meaning to choose from. Then there’s the big-picture decisions. Character description and development. Dialogue. Scene. Overall plot. Subtext. The list goes on.

The problem is, our brain doesn’t distinguish between creative decisions and daily decisions, like what to wear, what route to take to work, what to eat, and etc. So when a writer sits down to write after a long day, her brain is likely already close to the maximum decisions it can handle in a 24-hour period. She has decision-fatigue. This makes engaging in the writing process extremely difficult.

Some famously creative people deal with decision-fatigue by cutting down on decisions. Steve Jobs, for example, had a uniform–the black turtleneck and jeans–so that he wouldn’t have to decide what to wear in the morning. Those were decisions he could spend on something more significant than his appearance. Routine ways of beginning the morning and schedules can also help.

Others choose to engage in their creative work first thing, before any other decisions crop up, demanding to be made. Sheila O’Connor, author of Sparrow Road and Keeping Safe the Stars, gets up in the morning and goes straight to her writing space. She doesn’t talk to anyone or interact with anything involving words. I don’t think she even gets dressed. Straight to writing, no questions asked. That way, her freshest, best decision-making energy is spent on her work.

It’s important to be aware of where our decision-making energy is spent.

It’s also important to know when a decision must be made, and to make it firmly.

Writers (myself included) often get ourselves into trouble by trying to put off decisions. Because of decision-fatigue or sheer wishy-washiness, we don’t want to commit to a certain character’s motivation, reaction, or an event in the plot. We want our options open. We keep writing, thinking we can come back later and clarify. Meanwhile, without a solid backbone of made decisions, the work that follows becomes spongy and disintegrates.

Even if we are managing our decision-making energy well, sometimes the fear that a decision is wrong holds us back from committing to it. It is almost impossible to know if the option we choose is the best one. Even those that feel right in the moment can be wrong.

But we have to choose an option. We can’t predict the result; we have to try the decision on and see what happens. Even if we lose pages of work on wrong decisions, we haven’t wasted our time. We come away from them knowing more about the world and the characters in it.

Writing, making endless decisions–it’s hard. Understanding the way our brains works can help us make the most of our writing time, and being willing to make decisions fearlessly helps us move forward, even if it sometimes feels like we’re moving backward.

If you want to learn more about the science behind creativity, check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. He goes into much more detail about this concept and many others that can give you a leg up in your writing life.

 

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How Do You Find Time to Write?

I came across this line in a tweet the other day:

You either make time to write, or you’re not a real writer.

My reaction was something like: YIKES. Harsh! Who is this person, and why do they think they get to define what a “real” writer is anyway??

It’s easy to react to some irritating piece of internet space junk like this and fly off the handle without thinking about what it is that bothers us. Let’s slow down our reactions, put aside the judgmental tone in the statement, and try again.

You either make time to write, or you’re not a real writer.

Can I be a writer if I don’t make time to write? Here I am, not making time to write, and therefore not writing. Not writing kind of does mean I’m not a writer, since that’s what writers do. They write.

Dictionary.com:

writer

noun

  1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.
  2. clerk, scribe, or the like.
  3. person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc., to writing
  4. (in a piece of writing) the author
  5. a person who writes or is able to write.

See?

Writers write. To do that, they have to spend time writing. That’s not a revolutionary idea. So why do we get so defensive when we read things like, “You either make time to write or you’re not a real writer”? And what does it say about us and about our writing lives?

Perhaps we already feel that imposter’s syndrome–we don’t believe we are real writers. This statement touches on our own insecurities, which are likely misplaced. All we have to do to be real writers is write.

Sometimes we really are avoiding writing because we don’t want to work on a certain project, or we feel stuck.

Maybe a negative reaction comes from a place of guilt. We aren’t being as purposeful or disciplined as we know we could be, and we’re letting minutes, hours, and days slide by without writing, zoning out in front of a screen or [insert preferred method of procrastination here].

Our schedules have gotten out of control. We made too many commitments and there’s literally no place to put writing time.

Here’s the thing.

We control our own lives. No one forces jobs, activities, or projects on us. We accept them. We think that life has to be a certain way. But it doesn’t.

If my first priority is to be a writer (someone who writes), then I must rearrange my life to that end. No one is going to do it for me. No one is going to ask me or remind me to do it. I have to learn to exert my will over the pattern of my days and weeks, because it is my life, and I am in control of it.

Action 1: I may need to quit something. 

I took up cello in earlier this year. I loved the instrument, but I couldn’t keep up my schedule, and give adequate mental space to writing as well as practicing. So I quit after a month.

It can be hard to let go of commitments, especially if you were raised to always finish what you start like I was. Sometimes, though, you have to reprioritize. We get to decide for ourselves what we need to do, and what we need to let go.

We won’t get to do everything we want. I don’t get to learn cello and finish my novel, and that’s okay.

Action 2: I may need to be more purposeful with my time.

Our time is so limited.

The internet sucks up a lot of it. I’ve been cutting back on social media and trying to break patterns of repetitive e-mail checking and pointless-article reading.

If I haven’t gotten to writing and it’s evening (my least-productive time), or I only have twenty spare minutes, I try to write anyway.

Some of us have demands on our time that we can’t exactly shuffle off. Then again, there’s writer Mindy Mejia, who just published her second novel Everything You Want Me to Be. I heard her speak in Fall 2015, and she said she wrote her first novel, The Dragon Keeper, during her lunch breaks at her very-full-time job while raising kids. Talk about using every minute.

Action 3: I may need to practice stricter discipline.

Try writing at the same time every day, for a set period of time, even if it’s “not very long.” Writing for a few minutes is always better than not writing at all. Guard that writing time with your life. Nothing interrupts it: not phone calls, social media, texts, pets, appointments, e-mails, reading, non-writing projects, chores, meals, etc.

Toward the end of the summer, I wasn’t writing regularly. So I set myself writing goals: a minimum of 10 new pages a week for the rest of the calendar year, and to finish a full draft of my novel by December 31. I keep track of my daily page and word count in a notebook. There are days I don’t write, but I make up for them by writing more on other days.

Stricter mental discipline may also help: practicing positive thinking/self-encouragement. See my last post about positive thought cycles for more ideas on this.

In any case…

Write every day, every other day, once a week. Do what you need to do in your life. But if you want to be a writer, if you want to wear the label proudly, you kind of, sort of, do actually need to, like… write.

Writing’s not easy.

And it’s not easy to value something so counter-cultural, that emphasizes time alone, quiet, and results that probably won’t bring massive financial success.

That’s the beauty of it, though. Thou mayest, which also means, thou mayest not. It’s up to us. We may choose to empower ourselves as the determining force in the patterns of our lives, then with that power, reshape our lives to match our goals. Or, we may not. You choose.

 

 

 

 

The Twitter Revision Experiment: Writer’s Edition

Twitter has made me a better writer.

Sounds like clickbait, right? It’s totally not.

When I graduated with my creative writing degree, I lost a lot of involvement in the supportive writing community I had gotten used to. Thankfully, the internet is teeming with brilliant people building virtual writing communities.

In particular, there are amazing creative writers on Twitter. They tweet about their writing lives, what they’re working on, and give encouragement to each other, all in 140 characters or less. They’re pretty easy to find. Search the hashtag #amwriting.

I joined in. One of the best things I discovered were daily writing games. There are many, and they are known by their hashtags: #SunWIP, #MuseMon, #1lineWed, #ThruLineThurs, #Thurds, etc. Each different hashtag/game has a weekly prompt. For example, a recent #MuseMon theme was Love’s Worth Fighting For. The idea is, you post something from your work in progress (WIP) that resonates with the theme, hashtag it #MuseMon, and tweet it into the Twitter world.

Here’s what I tweeted for a recent #SunWIP for the prompt DARK:

screenshot-2017-10-11-10-47-37.png

Searching these hashtags brings up pages of people playing along. You can like their posts, see how they interpreted the theme, and follow them to see what other things they’re up to. It’s a great way to find writing community online.

It’s also a great way of becoming more aware of your own writing.

When I find something from a WIP that fits the daily theme, it’s usually too long. I have to squeeze it down until it fits the 140-characters limit, minus however many characters the hashtag takes up.

The result: I re-write the piece more concisely, and in the process, I condense my idea into its purest, most powerful form.

Here are two sets of original text compared to the text I eventually tweeted.

EXAMPLE 1

Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.02.39

Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.00.08

First draft = 31 words. Second draft = 22 words.

Cut = 30%

Final tweet with hashtag = 139 characters.

Sentence 1: I cut out “and scoops” which really didn’t add anything important.

Sentence 2: I substituted the (perhaps) pretentious verb “plastered” for the simpler and more straight forward “blew.”

Sentence 3: I opted to cut the final sentence and make it into a fragment. The WIP is in first person, and my narrator has a tendency to use fragments, so this worked just fine.

Result: I changed the description in my manuscript to match the tweet exactly. The tweet format had helped me hone in on what was most important in the description, and I wasn’t about to bulk it back out with unnecessary details.

EXAMPLE 2

Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.12.37Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.12.46

1st draft = 40 words. 2nd draft = 20 words.

Cut = 50%

Final tweet with hashtag = 137 characters.

Sentence 1: I cut out the adjective “haphazard.” I wasn’t thrilled about that, but it felt less important than the later adjective “cavernous.” Two adjectives in one sentence really weigh it down.

Sentence 2-4: I cut them completely. The descriptions were redundant. For example, both “countless” and “armies” are number indicators. I picked the one I liked best. I also didn’t like the repeated sentence fragments. Too rhythmic and simple feeling.

Sentence 5: I took out the repeated “all” and added a color detail about mold. Black mold has such a sinister feel…

Sentence 6: In my WIP, this was actually the start of a new paragraph. I decided I liked the way it fit with the description, and could then work to foreshadow the next paragraph where the narrator explains her negative reaction. I replaced “this place” with “them.” This seemed to make more sense, as the narrator talks about the file cabinets in the previous sentence, not the overall area. (And it’s shorter…)

Result: I discovered points of redundancy and some rhythmic issues. However, in my actual WIP, I ended up keeping some of the description that was cut, namely the file cabinet colors and the emphasis on the size of the place.

So, to sum up…

  • Squeezing bits of your work into 140-character tweets can help you realize what words, phrases, or sentences are most important.
  • It forces you to examine sentence-level details, like repetition, redundant descriptions, and ineffective word choices.
  • Tweeting your work can alert you to patterns in your writing you want to change, like overuse of fragments.
  • It can also give you great ideas for revision.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King relays advice he once received: the second draft of anything should be 10% shorter than the first draft. Twitter can be an amazing tool for finding those places you can (and maybe should) cut.

So, by all means, tweet on…

Write on…

Positive Thought Experiment: Writer’s Edition

My writing life is a constant rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs, especially in how I feel about the work I accomplish. I am realizing how much the way I feel effects my writing, and at the same time, that the way I feel does not always match up with reality.

My writing times tend to be colored with resentment, insecurity, or unwillingness to write. These negative emotions sometimes fade as I become more present with the work I’m doing, and sometimes make it almost impossible to get down to business.

I started to wonder whether my manuscript is still unfinished because of these emotional experiences, these negative thought cycles.

Negative thought cycles begin as self-deprecating internal dialogue. If the thinker allows the dialogue to continue long enough, those negative thoughts become engrained mental habits. It can actually change the way the brain operates. People with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and similar problems deal with this phenomenon on a daily basis, and work hard to break the mental habits their brain has developed as a result of something like trauma or genetics.

I deal with anxiety, and in the process of dealing with it, I came into contact with the idea of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Of course, this wasn’t in the context of writing. But as I began to realize how much my negative emotions were messing with my writing, I started to suspect a negative thought cycle in action.

The next time I sat down to write, I turned up the volume on my internal dialogue. There were infinite negative thoughts. I started to hear myself think things like,

You’re not a good enough writer to do this story justice.

This story isn’t worth being finished.

These characters are flat and you’re never going to be able to make them realistic.

You don’t care enough about this story to get it done.

You don’t have the time or energy to write.

You can’t figure this story out well enough to put it down on paper.

You shouldn’t even try.

So, I decided to do an experiment.

Every day before I started to write, I would journal positive thoughts. Even if I didn’t believe them, even if they sounded ridiculous, even if anyone who found the journaling would think I was insane (a la April Kepner), I would drown out the negative thoughts by consciously thinking and then writing down positive ones that directly contradicted the negative.

For example:

Thought: “I can’t write well enough to meet my own standards.”

Replacer: “I do have high standards and am careful about how I put words together. I do not let that care stop me. I produce more exactly. I rise to my own challenge. I will meet my goals.”

Thought: “This will never be finished. I can’t finish it.”

Replacer: “I am working hard and making progress. It is okay if I don’t finish it today. If I keep working, I will finish it someday.”

In the psychiatric world, this is called positive thought replacement. And let me tell you, it works.

I was far more productive than I had been in previous weeks. My emotional life was more stable, and so was my writing life. I had given myself permission to feel good about the work I was accomplishing, and I did.

The practice carried over to other areas of my life, too. I started to feel more positive during the rest of my day. I would catch myself in the middle of a negative thought about something totally unrelated to writing, and reverse it. Even though the experimental term I set for myself has passed, I still do positive journaling before every writing session. I have no intention of stopping.

I highly recommend trying this! Here are the steps I followed:

  1. Identify the negative dialogue you are allowing and engaging with.
  2. Write down empowering, positive statements that directly contradict each negative thought.
  3. Repeat.
  4. When you feel all the negative thought demons of the moment are still, begin writing.

Good luck silencing your negative internal dialogue…

Write, and be happy.

when to give up on a story

I’m reading the novel 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (totally recommend, though I’m starting to take issue with 800+ page novels; they’re EXHAUSTING). There’s a character in it who’s an aspiring fiction writer named Tengo. He has a revelation part-way through the book. He realizes he’s never really been passionate about anything. He’s performed well in school and in work because of people’s expectations. But when those expectations are taken away, he drifts. He writes when he can, but none of his work finds real success. This changes when he ghost-writes a fantastical novella. This story itself and the process of re-writing it changes him. For the first time, he feels for the first time a passionate need to tell his own stories.

These days, I feel very much like Tengo, pre-revelation. I either don’t have the right motivation for this fiction-writing work, or I haven’t discovered it yet.

I am starting to believe the reason you start writing is not the same reason that will sustain continuous writing.

Starting a new project is joyous. There are endless options, and the world of my imagination spreads out before me like Willy Wonka’s candy garden, all glittering jewel tones and unlimited possibilities. But as soon as I start writing, I start making decisions. I prune the paradise of options, sometimes haphazardly, and sometimes I kill the best parts without knowing. One day I realize the story isn’t working. Revision is hard work. I know it’s supposed to take a lot of drafts, but I didn’t realize it would be this many.

Beginning a purposeful writing life is also joyous. I am now a Writer. Visions of solitude, tea, coffee, rainy days, and fountain pens dance in my mind. But at some point, the solitude turns lonely. The tea is gone. And the story I’ve poured so much time into is still lying there like a corpse. Twitching now and then, but mostly dead.

In both cases, what got me sat down in the chair, pen in hand, and what prompted me to choose a writer’s life, has run out.

I don’t want to write.

Does that mean I should make myself anyway? Utilize that childhood lesson to always finish what you start? After all, Neil Gaiman said that you only learn from finishing things.

Or does that mean that this novel is one giant dead end, that I’m wasting my time on it, and my sluggishness and lack of love for it is an indication that I should just move on?

I don’t know.

I’ve been listening to Frank Zappa recently. He’s got some amazing views on art, some of which I talked about in a recent post. In order to compose (create art), Zappa says,

Just Follow These Simple Instructions:

  1. Declare your intention to create a “composition.”
  2. Start a piece at some time.
  3. Cause something to happen over a period of time.
  4. End the piece at some time (or keep going, telling the audience it is a “work in progress”).
  5. Get a part-time job so you can continue to do stuff like this.

Ending a piece, finishing it now doesn’t mean you have to be finished forever. Maybe you are. But you can always decide you aren’t finished and start again.

Zappa put out over 60 albums in his lifetime. I wish I had a fraction of his carefree attitude or determination or whatever it was that constantly motivated his art.

But I’m also afraid that what I’m really experiencing is not some deep, metaphysical need for a motivation, but my inherent flakiness and tendency to be easily bored with what I’m doing. Impatience. My own insecurities in my abilities, intelligence, and vocation as a writer. Or some such toxic combination.

So I decided I had reached the end point with my novel. For three weeks I tinkered with side projects (some flash fiction, a piece involving cyborg pirates), and remembered what it felt like to enjoy the work. And then, out of the blue,

AH-HA 

I identified an element of my novel that, whenever I try to introduce it, stagnated the story. So I cut it out, backed up, and wrote forward again. I think this may be the right (or at least a better) direction. In any case, writing new material feels exciting again. Whether that has anything to do with the story’s progress has yet to be seen.

So I guess the right time to finish a story is if you put it away and never take it out again. Give yourself permission to declare the composition finished, even if it’s not Done. It may help you to tell yourself, “I’m never touching this garbage heap of a story ever again.” Fine.Work on something else.

If  nothing in you or in the world around you calls you back to the story and you forget about it, then let it rest. You ended the piece, so it’s finished.

My novel drew me back in. So I keep writing. It’s a work in progress.

And I have a part-time job, so I can continue to do stuff like this.

Ways to Spend Your Writing Time That Aren’t Writing

Almost every writer successful enough to gain a platform to talk about such things prescribes setting a consistent writing time. So, desiring to be a successful writer yourself, and maybe even a good one, you set aside a block of time to write. You look forward to it. You have visions of filling up all of that time with productivity, swinging words and sentences into place like a discus thrower.

Then your writing time arrives. You get your tea/coffee/water/snack and settle in to write.

Some days it goes really well and you can write the whole time you have set aside. Other days…not so much. You stare at the paper/screen and nothing happens. It’s like your writing brain switched off by itself and you don’t know how to turn it back on. Suddenly you start remembering all kinds of unrelated things, like how long it’s been since you cleaned the bathroom, or you black out and when you come to, you find yourself deep in a Wikipedia wormhole of research gone wrong, or writing a blog post.

*clears throat*

There will always be days on which we are less likely to produce new words. A variety of factors can affect this (sleep, time of day, energy already expended, preoccupation, stress, etc.). For whatever reason you find yourself unable to write. The good news is, there are lots of legitimate alternative ways to engage with your work without actually generating new combinations of words and recording them. 

Here are some of my favorite writing alternatives for slow days:

  1. Take notes. This is a close relative of writing, but it takes the edge off, because you aren’t WRITING the real project. You’re writing ABOUT the project. I use this often to figure out what exactly I’m thinking about and then to sort through all of those thoughts on the paper. This tactic often leads me into writing the project.
  2. Draw. Sometimes words hold us back. Yes, even us writers. Sketching a character, setting, object, or map of something involved in your project is a way to get your head in the game without actually writing. I usually discover something new about an aspect of my project when I engage with it in shapes instead of words.
  3. Timeline/Outline. Starting with the beginning of what you know, outline the events of the story or the sequence of your argument as far ahead as you can. It doesn’t have to all come true. In fact, play around with different variations. See what makes the most sense, what makes the least sense, and why. The goal here isn’t to nail down all the events of a story; it’s to get you interacting with your project, so don’t be alarmed if you feel you can’t stick to the outline later on. You don’t have to!
  4. Flow Charts. This is one of my favorites. I do this whenever I get stuck on a character’s next decision. I draw the decision at the top of a very big sheet of paper, and then map all the potential reactions she could have below. Then I follow each of those reactions as far as I can based on who she is and her central desire. You could use this with anything you’re unsure about that you can see many options for.
  5. Meditate/Apply Intense Brainpower. Maybe there’s a particular spot you’re unsure about, or you don’t know what happens next, or who a character is. You’re stuck. A ton of thinking and decision making is involved in writing. On some days, it is enough to spend time thinking about the project. Turn off the lights, close the door, sit, and just think about it. Do this for a really long time. Until A) Your writing time is up, or B) You feel the urge to write. I’ve solved many a twisted plot problem this way.
  6. Take Time Off. This is the last resort. Even so, skipping one day will not end your career as a writer. In fact, scientific research about the creative process suggests that our biggest breakthroughs happen when we step away from a project to give our subconscious mind time to work it out. Time is an essential ingredient to writing. So go do the dishes, clean the bathroom, take a walk. When your brain has a solution, it’ll bring it forward for your inspection. And if a breakthrough doesn’t occur, at least you’ve cleaned or gotten exercise. Tomorrow is a new day with new writing opportunities.

I’m sure there are lots of other ways to write without writing. If I missed your favorite, let me know! I can always use new tricks.

Whatever it takes to keep us at our desks…

Frank Zappa, Art, and The Frame

I was talking with a friend about Frank Zappa’s view of Art, and started listening to his band, The Mothers of Invention. I’d heard them before, but just little snippets of songs. Today, I listened straight through the first two albums in a kind of wondrous, outraged, joyful daze.

It’s totally weird. Stream of consciousness. Avant garde. Totally free self-expression. The first track in Freak Out! has a kazoo solo. In fact, I think all the tracks in Freak Out! have kazoo… I’ve never heard anything like this stuff.

A while back, I read a short essay by Zappa. In it, he loosens the definition of Art as anything with a frame around it.

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively– because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a “box” around it because otherwise, what is that s*** on the wall?

For example, he writes, the sound of a man swallowing juice is nothing. But if you record that sound and call it Art, then it has significance. We start to ask questions: What about this is art? What could this sound represent? How does it make me feel? And that’s what makes it art. That we think about it and find meaning based on it.

Frank Zappa put out over 60 albums in his lifetime, and I think this view of Art had something to do with that incredible amount of work. Whether or not you like them or love them or hate them, they exist. His vision exploded into the world and remains even after he’s gone. No matter how humble we pretend to be, all of us have these pearly dreams of being remembered after we die, of our work surviving us. That kind of immortality.

Here’s the problem. We don’t let our work out. I think it’s fair to say that Zappa didn’t worry too much about whether a track was perfectly recorded. The imperfections were just as much a part of the Art as the parts that sound more like what is typically called music.

At first I assumed that these were sort of first drafts of songs. Most of them sound very raw. Then The Mothers would sing in perfect four-part harmony. The parts that sound “bad” (whatever that means) were intentional. Planned. Just because something sounds like stream of consciousness doesn’t mean it popped out of someone’s brain that way.

Then again, I often fear we take ourselves too seriously. We think of our work as The Next Great Novel instead of the sound of a guy swallowing juice. If that’s the Art we can offer the world, the kind of sound effect that makes some Art-viewers uncomfortable, some Art-critics quit their jobs, the kind that’s controversial, the kind that might be considered “lesser” (whatever that means) by the general public, then we should offer it. 

Put a frame around it.

I’m not necessarily advocating for all of us to become the kind of person Zappa was, believe in what he believed in, or do the things he did. What I will say is, he got me to write a blog post I had given up on, in one sitting, with a pretty liberated feeling. His attitudes (and his music) take me outside The Box, The Status Quo. I’m thinking about how to write with his mentality, without self-doubt, without so much self-editing and -criticism. If he doesn’t do that for you, cool. Groovy. Whatever. I’m sure he wouldn’t care.

But when you stumble across other artists and work that pushes you into new territory, go there. Explore. Listen to people playing kazoos, bobby pins, and tweezers. Respect their Frame. Do your Art.