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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


How to write when you're not all right

I've long wanted to call shenanigans on a particular writing myth, but have feared to do so for a very simple reason: it sounds amateurish if you say it. However, on reflection, there's no law against looking amateurish if you want to, so here goes.

The discovery itself is a fairly simple one. Unpublished writers call that vicious little nay-sayer in their head the Inner Critic or the Inner Editor, but I've discovered something interesting: there's a published writer version of him. He's the Inner Professional.

Writers, you see, are supposed to be resilient. You're having trouble in your life? Escape into your writing! You don't feel confident today? Pull yourself together! Something's bothering you? Ha, Kafka said he was nothing but literature, 'nothing but a mass of spikes going through me'; proper writers turn their problems into art and nothing stops them producing masterpieces!*

This is the voice of the Inner Professional. Once you've sold some work, you see, you have a contract you can wave at the voice inside your head telling you that you aren't any good and will never write anything publishable. That one is dead and gone. The inner voice has to change tactic. (Give up? Ha! It never gives up. You think it'll give up if you get published? That's what it's telling you now, but take my word for it: it's lying. This is because it hates you.) And a simple method for the little beggar to adopt is the following one: now you're a writer, you're supposed to live like one! So pull yourself together and be one!

Having seen Sin City, I find that the Inner Professional sounds like nothing so much as a Frank Miller character. That guy who's crawling along with, I think, some serious injuries and a heart attack on top, telling himself, 'Keep it together, old man!'? That's what the Inner Pro thinks you should be: you should man the fuck up and take it like a man, keep going, just keep crawling... The trouble is, of course, that it doesn't work. Because I'll tell you a secret:

It's hard to write when you're not all right.

Nobody expects a dancer to dance on a sprained ankle; if a painter breaks his hand, he takes a rest till the bones knit. But writing is intangible. The writing bone is invisible; it is, therefore, hard to get any sympathy when it's aching. That includes getting sympathy from yourself: most writers are conscientious people who struggle hard to prove themselves, and if you can't show them a concrete reason not to beat themselves up, many of them will grab a stick and start whacking. In order to write fiction, you have to draw on your emotions and your imagination. But if your emotions are all disordered because something's wrong in your life, and you're trying to use your imagination either to work out how to fix it or, less positively, to imagine that things aren't as bad as they seem really - denial is a terrible drain on creativity - then you're in the position of a singer with an overstrained voice. The part of you you need to write is just tired.

It's easy for people to sit on the sidelines and say, 'Put the stress into your work', but it's seldom helpful advice. For one thing, a writer's feelings wind up in their work will they nill they, and deliberately putting them in is likely to produce a more mechanical rendition of something that would have happened naturally anyway. For another, putting stress into your work isn't always a good idea. If you're feeling hopelessly discouraged and unable to solve anything, giving those feelings to your brilliant sleuth is going to create some serious plot problems. If you're feeling misanthropic and alienated, giving those feelings to your romantic leads is not going to lead to the hearts-and-flowers ending the story needs. If you're feeling weary and lacking in drive, giving those feelings to your high-octane action hero is going to produce a pretty dull book. Emotional exhaustion, given to fictional characters, tends to create fictional characters who don't want to do anything - and that's a book that won't go anywhere.

This can be a vicious circle, because not writing is depressing and makes you less all right than before. In situations like that, the best thing to do is usually to make an effort to relax; to look after yourself, work out what in your life is causing the problem, try to create a safe space for yourself and have some no-pressure fun with writing. A silly little flare of imagination, even if it's just a one-page ramble about a grape-juggling mouse or something equally inconsequential, can lift your spirits tremendously - which makes you far better able to carry on writing.

But the Inner Pro, which doesn't like you, has worked out a clever trick. Rather than letting you relax and take care of yourself, it starts haranguing you for feeling discouraged, stuck, doubtful or anxious. Which doesn't cure those problems at all. It simply adds a sense of guilt and inadequacy on top.

I've said before that getting published doesn't necessarily make life any different. What I've been noticing recently is that it can actually give your inner demon a sudden advantage in the battle. If its main tune has been You're no good because no one will publish you, it's a painful thought, but at least you'll build up years of experience ignoring it. Once you do get published and that thought explodes, the demon has to regroup. It comes up with something else - and the biggest weapon it has to hand is You have to be a professional now, and you can't hack it. Like an evolved virus, this new attack hits your system harder than the old one, which you'd at least built up a degree of resistance to.

This, I suspect, is a big cause of secondbookitis: having cleared the old disease out of your system, you get hit with a new one, and it takes quite a while to develop antibodies to that. And when you start a second novel, there's a big area of 'not all right' for the Inner Pro to get to work on: inevitably, you're worried about whether your second book will measure up to your first. Result: the Inner Pro hits your system like measles hitting a hitherto-undiscovered civilisation, and a disease that's really not so bad once you've built up some immunity - which, if you can survive, you will have done by Book Three - tears through your self-confidence like an epidemic, laying waste all around it.

I'm telling you this so the published writers who've encountered this will know they're not alone, and so the yet-to-be-published writers can at least be forewarned and start building up some antibodies in advance. Anxiety about your second book, combined with a guilty sense of incompetence for feeling anxious, can magnify each other tremendously. But here's the thing: it's okay to feel worried. Everyone does. I've heard stories about writers who never worry about their work and produce tremendous amounts; I've even edited a couple. Good for them. But they, my friends, do not speak for the group. Neither are they necessarily the better writers; I can think of at least one writer, now deceased, who was extremely prolific and apparently carefree, and you know what? Nobody on the staff wanted to edit that writer, because nobody liked the books.

And here's another thought: everybody wants to put the best possible face on their work. You had a crisis of confidence halfway through your novel? Are you really going to tell an interviewer that? Interviewers have to write interesting articles, and nothing livens up an article so much as the glimpse of a weak point. Remark that after the first ten chapters, say, you had a massive rethink and had to change everything, and the interview will report it, readers will look at your book with a critical eye, spot all the things that went wrong around chapter ten, lose all respect for you, never buy your books again, and you'll have to spend your life mopping floors in a fast-food restaurant. That's the thought process. You think I'm exaggerating? I'm really not. An interview isn't a heart-to-heart, it's a performance; even the nicest interviewer is a human being, and therefore inevitably more concerned about preserving their own career than yours. It doesn't make them bad people, but it does make you weigh your words. Hence, many a writer, answering interview questions, is going to evade, fudge and outright lie in response to questions about how difficult the work was to produce. There's a reason why we use the word 'interview' both for job applicants and media types.

So next time you hear about a writer who's never slowed down by a personal crisis, a loss, a bad patch, a temporary block, an illness, or a massive pink tyrannasaurus eating his dog and then exploding right on his front step while the writer just typed away, lost in his work, here's what to do: class that writer as a fictional character. Talking to the public via journalists is not the same as talking to a therapist, and there may be all sorts of issues that writer is just not telling you. They're constructing a character that happens to have the same name as themselves. The real writer that you know is you, and you're best off being kind to yourself about that.

*There's a logical flaw to this one that's obvious when you think about it - and yet somehow, writers seldom do. 'Nothing stops great talents from producing art' is entirely untestable. You can't prove a negative. If there were talented people a hundred years ago who, given the right circumstances, could have written masterpieces, but were held back by lack of opportunities, emotional problems, financial pressures, ill health, self-doubt or any of the other things that prevent you from writing ... we won't find out about them, will we? Because they didn't write anything. The great talents that were stopped from producing art didn't produce any art. Of course, nobody wants to join their melancholy ranks, but if you think of it that way, it at least stops being a reflection on your inherent abilities if you have a bad patch. It doesn't mean you're untalented, just that you're having a bad patch.

Blimey, did you really last mention this almost a year ago? I remember it like last week!

But really, nicely developed theme here, although (and yes, I do have to say this), some of us are still waiting to get published! :-)
There are so many different types of writers that I guess there are never any real rules, just rules for ourselves that happen to apply to other people and/or are interesting to other people.

I know many writers who can't write when they aren't right, and others who can only write when they aren't right and for them to be right is to be wrong if they wish to write.

Personally I find it is all completely impossible to create a norm for, I write when I can, sometimes it is something internal that stops or allows me to write and sometimes it is the externals such as having no time, probably that is more often my problem.

But if and when I am published I'm sure I will find other things to create my angst, if I were to have no job and no commute and no money worries and no personal troubles I would no doubt invent them.

I think this is because I, like many writers but certainly not like all of them, write as a form of conflict, the struggle being essential to the process. I wish I wasn't this type of writer, but I am and that is all I can be.
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