Instead of approaching writing like sane, reasonable people, we act like ninnies or pussies. Instead of just sitting down and writing, we procrastinate or avoid writing for months at a time. Then, one day, when we finally do manage to sit our asses down, we find that we can’t write (1).
And we panic and think we’re blocked. We call on the saints or forswear our cruel, cruel god. We eat chocolate in unhealthy amounts. We start to blame our parents and their inadequate parenting style (2). We may even go to see a shrink and become morose when we notice the deep ass-divot on her couch and realize that we will probably succeed only in paying for her daughter’s orthodontia—not in curing our blockage.
Worse yet, if we do manage to eke something out by brute force after a long, dry spell of no writing, it often and quite predictably ends up being terrible. And not just minorly terrible but insufferably terrible. The kind of terrible where the New Yorker wouldn’t even bother sending back their quickest, most-form-iest rejection letter because they thought that vile and stinky little piece of writing shit came from a kid (3).
Now, given the output of these two scenarios—blockage or a sudden case of the terribles—how likely it is that we will ever want to pick that pen back up and write again?
Yet, most of us who write—especially those of us who teach and write—seem to follow this pattern on a regular basis: we set ourselves up to fail, we fail, and then we pathologize that failure as a debilitating blockage rather than seeing it for the bad psychological trick that it is. And the more we indulge this unhealthy writing pattern, the more we solidify a stronger and stronger case against ourselves and our ability to write. It’s like an M.C. Escher sketch gone AWOL in our heads.
An independent observer might pause and ask: is this intentionally sadistic or just merely unconscious behavior? Tough to tell. Either way, self-sabotage or somnambulism, it’s not a pretty picture.
And, as someone who struggled with writer’s block for nearly a decade and still falls victim to her own bad thinking and patterning about her writing, I am living proof about how destructive that behavior can become when repeated over a good quarter of one’s own lifespan (4).
“OK, enough of your Debby Downer shit,” my reader delicately proffers, “What the fuck do I do about it? I’m nowhere near as messed up as you are!”
Point well taken. My best advice: treat your writing the same way you would a musical instrument. No, I am not suggesting you make yourself into an Aeolian Harp or some annoyingly sacred vessel of the muse (5). Rather, I am suggesting that you think of your writing more like practicing the piano or going to the gym. You know, something that you do a little bit at a time and build up over several months or years.
By developing a daily writing practice where you learn to write in smaller, more manageable chunks over time, you can do several things:
- Turn off the expectation that you need to write a large, War-and-Peace-sized chunk of your magnum opus in one sitting.
- Give yourself more space to experiment and be creative without ruining everything—your novel, your Ph.D., or your family’s reputation.
- Create lots of opportunities for smaller successes that you can reward yourself for copiously (6).
- Build up writing callouses—both physical and psychological—that will strengthen your ass for more heavy-lifting down the road.
- Stop before you make yourself sick.
- Learn how to enjoy writing again.
I’ve written about this before, but I think it bears repeating: writing is less a gift of brilliance or genius than it is a practice that needs patient and persistent cultivation. Sure, you have to have some writerly DNA to be able to craft an interesting sentence or two, but most of us overestimate just how important raw talent is. As long as you are somewhere in the normalish range, you should be just fine.
Besides, I’ve seen a lot of gifted, brilliant writers flame out because they couldn’t get their shit together. I’ve also seen less talented writers perform Herculean feats and produce some really cool shit simply by giving it a go and refusing to look backward. Personally, I’m shooting for the latter.
To my mind, the brilliant writer who produces nothing isn’t really a writer so much as a brilliant fuck-up who pretended to write (7). Moreover, if you take a look at the so-called brilliant writers who were prolific—people like David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf—I’d say it’s probably better to be a little less talented and end up alive than, you know, dead and esteemed eternally. But that could just be me.
How to Set up a Daily Writing Practice
1. Set up a writing station where you can’t be disturbed. Fill it only with things you love and be sure to remove all items from former lovers—especially ones who commented on your lack of sexual technique—and parents (8).
2. Buy a calendar and place it on the wall. Buy the Plainest Jane of a calendar you can find. You don’t want to be distracted by George Clooney’s delightful jowls or Gisele’s hair-free crotch.
3. Write every day for 10 minutes—no more or no less. Don’t be proud here. Be a man and use a timer like the rest of us.
4. Place a gold star on the calendar for each day that you write. Then, pat yourself on the back. Don’t be lame. Just do it. (9)
5. Repeat until you are able to write for 11, instead of 10, minutes each day without dying. Adjust your writing time upward accordingly.
6. Repeat ad infinitum. Like its more famous imprimatur—lather, rinse, and repeat—there will come a time when you hit an asymptotic limit and can go no further. At this point, you need to stop adding minutes to your daily writing session and start living a more normal life. But don’t worry about that just yet.
(1) You know that day, the one where the children are off for a play date, the bills are paid, all the labels are all facing forward in the pantry, and you got laid last night . . .
(2) Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that what used to be called “child rearing” is now called “parenting”? I find this both odd and troubling. Why? Well, with the former term, the child is the focus and, in the latter, the parent is. Says a lot, doesn’t it?
(3) Usually, I have found that The New Yorker is quickest in its rejections—though The New Republic can also give them a run for their money. I once submitted a poem to TNR by USPS and received a form letter back (also by USPS) within four days. I marveled at how one poem could produce such an extreme response from the poetry editor that he marshaled his forces at the speed of light. Looking back, though, I do feel better knowing, however, that he at least read it, judged it, and responded to it its terribleness—something that most search committees in English departments can’t even bring themselves to do when it comes to job applications for assistant professorships. But I will spare you my rant about their inherent lack of professionalism and common human decency as it would be more appropriately served in a different venue where I could call out by name three particular institutions in the mid-Atlantic region and one in the state of Rhode Island. Though I guess it serves me right for even pretending to be interested in such a pseudo-discipline like “Rhetoric.”
(4) Like, hello, where did January, February, and most of March 2011 go?
(5) Though, god help you, it would be cool if it happened. I do wish I had access to the same vein of opium Coleridge evidently did . . .
(6) These tend to be very small and unnoticeable at first. In my case, they tended to look like the following kinds of statements: Hey, I succeeded in writing one whole paragraph in eight hours without once thinking of how much I hated the tenured version of Snape who haunted me in graduate school. But, hell, a success is a success.
(7) And, boy, have I loved a few of those fuck-ups. And this isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with being or dating a brilliant fuck up. You just have to know when to jump off the fuck-up train before it explodes.
(8) I know, I know, this is downright impossible if you live with someone else or if you try to do this at work. I nearly lost a romance over this one and continue to be flummoxed by my colleagues, many of whom have Ph.D.s from Ivy League institutions, who clearly do not have sufficient linguistic skills to be able to parse the following cryptic phrase: “Do not disturb me. I’m writing.” The long and short of it: you have to find a disturbance-proof location or you have to become extremely good at setting boundaries and holding others to them. (See my future post, “How I Learned to Stop Enabling Them and Love My Writing.”)
(9) I like those nasty wintergreen ones from childhood. Kinda bad but in a good sorta way–much like break-up sex.