Want To Write? 18 Great Writers & Thinkers Show You How (Guest Post: Julie Duffy)
Julie Duffy is a writer and the host of StoryADay.org, a creative writing challenge held in May every year. This Friday, March 25 is the start of her 3-week Warm Up Your Writing short story course. (http://storyaday.org/wucourse/)
I was tickled to see Debbie’s recent cartoon, No Magic Beans, Just Write because I was researching that very topic for this blogpost. There is a curious truth about the writing life: You could wait your whole life for time and the inspiration to write, but it is not until you force yourself to simply start, that either will turn up.
The good news is that the more you force yourself to sit down and write, the more inspiration and writing time you’ll find. And the happier and saner you’ll be. I’m certainly not the first person to discover this:
Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work. – Horace
Nothing will work unless you do. – Maya Angelou
Laziness may appear attractive but work gives satisfaction. – Anne Frank
The harder I work, the luckier I get. – Samuel Goldwyn
The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary. – Vince Lombardi
Of course, the problem with reading inspiritional quotes is that they can leave you feeling like, well, a bit of a slacker. You might agree with all of those quotes, but still find it difficult to sit down and write. You need more than motivational tidbits. You need a little empathy, support and a few good tactics to help you get through the difficult labour that comes with delivering a story to the world. I can help you there, too.
DON’T FEEL BAD: IT IS HARD!
You’re not the only one to find it hard to be creative. Perhaps it would help you to think of this difficulty as a noble, essential part of the process. Andre Gide did:
Art begins with resistance – at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.
Well, that makes it seem a little better, doesn’t it? And if you want to feel even better about the bullets you’re sweating, how about a little Thomas Carlyle:
Every noble work is at first impossible.
We’re doing the impossible here, folks. So don’t feel bad when you’re finding it a bit tricky to plot out the next chapter. And know that even experienced writers feel the same fear you do as you plonk your inadequate words down on the page or screen.
We sit there alone, pounding out words, with our hearts pounding in time. Each sentence brings the sickening sensation of not being right. – Isaac Asimov
Wait! Isaac Asimove?! Didn’t he write about five hundred books, including no less than a complete, annotated companion to the Old Testament?! OK I’m starting to feel a bit more grounded. How about you?
TACTICS FOR OVERCOMING RESISTANCE
Start – You can plan all you like, but until you start writing, you’re just procrastinating:
Procrastination happens before hard work. Incubation happens after hard work. – Mark McGuinness
When you have started work on a project, only then you can stare into space productively – wrestling with character traits or searching for one perfect word. If you are staring into space before you’ve started writing, you’re probably just killing time or arguing with your inner critic. And I’m not sure how we think tomorrow is going to be better if we haven’t started writing today, but it is a favourite stalling tactic of writers. Elbert Hubbard, however, quite sensibly points out that,
The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.
Ah. Good point. Turn Up – Even if you think of yourself as the kind of person who doesn’t like routines, you have to commit to turning up and writing on a regular schedule. Don’t resist this step. It will really help, I promise, and so does my pal Gustav,
Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. – Gustave Flaubert.
And when it is hard to turn up because you are second-guessing yourself, turn to everyone’s favorite failure, Vincent Van Gogh, who cries,
If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’ then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.
Sensible man, that Vincent. Make Mistakes – Remember: it does not have to be perfect in the first draft.
The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first draft. – Anne Lammott
That’s a blunt way of putting it. They don’t have to be that bad, but you have to be willing to allow them to be. You can clean up later,
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. – Scott Adams
And even then don’t worry too much about getting it all right.
The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing. – Eugene Delacroix
Our old friend Isaac Asimov writes stories full of great ideas, but no-one ever accused him of writing brilliant, well-rounded female characters. That doesn’t make him a worthless writer, as his billions of sales attest. Don’t try to be perfect — and bland! If All Else Fails, Steal – If you are having trouble writing it’s no surprise. You’re trying to juggle with five balls in the air. You’re thinking about character, plot, setting, language and dialogue – and that’s after you’ve carved out time, hog-tied your inner critic and decided on a topic. Sometimes it’s all too much. So don’t be afraid to steal one or more elements, to free your brain. After all, Lionel Trilling said,
Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.
He has a point. If you’re having trouble getting started, warm up by re-writing a fairy story, or steal a character from real life. Steal from nature: go outside and describe a maple tree in spring. Steal someone else’s framework (it worked for Neil Gaiman, who stole the Jungle Book’s structure, hung his own story on it and went on to win about seven thousand awards, including the Newberry Medal). We don’t have to make all this stuff up. We just have to put our own twist on it. Which is impossible for us not to do anyway. Hooray!
REAP THE REWARDS
Procrastination is exhausting. Physically, if you tend to clean your house or exercise to avoid writing; mentally if your favorite sport is ‘beating myself up about not writing’. Yes, writing is difficult. And scary. And frustrating. It is hard work. Well, what more could you ask for in your life? No, seriously. Theodore Roosevelt nailed it, saying,
Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
And your writing is work worth doing, not only if you become a published author with riches and fame. It is important for your quality of life and your mental health. And if that sounds unreasonable, that’s OK with me, and it’s OK with GK Chesterton:
The Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god of both imagination and of sanity. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom…Most of the very great poets have been not only sane but extremely businesslike…
So yes, writing is hard; and no, you’re not alone. Equip yourself with tactics for the tough times, get writing and get ready to reap the rewards.
Some Useful Further Reading
How To Write First Thing In The Morning – Leo Babauta
Procrastination vs Incubation – Mark McGuinness’s excellent article on the topic: http://www.wishfulthinking.co.uk/2007/10/23/whats-the-difference-between-incubation-and-procrastination/