A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

I AM A WRITER, I AM WHAT I SAY

I hate a lot of the accepted myths about writers, largely because they seem to establish an image of a writer as a slovenly basket case who suffers every moment of his life. You know, one must bleed to write well, writing is painful. Even worse than the image this creates of the lifestyle is how these misconceptions end up being excuses used by people struggling with the profession to indulge themselves in bad behavior. I have no patience for that, and expressing that impatience is likely going to be wholeheartedly disagreed with and make me unpopular with inkslingers everywhere; however, as we know, I have a cat, so my life is pretty much full of as much petulance as I need. Regardless, there is a place to leave comments below, so mewl and cry all you like. I may also just be strange and full of shit. I was once asked how I avoid missing deadlines, and the only answer I could give was, "I just don't." I have attitude problems.

The granddaddy of the myths is "writer's block." I often wonder if this is a syndrome created by publishers of how-to manuals and writing magazines to give themselves fodder for more books and articles to sell to unsuspecting suckers, like laxative manufacturers slipping clogging agents into popular food stuffs or greeting card companies cooking up even more fake holidays. Unfortunately, writers seem to love to perpetuate this stereotype as much as anyone. When was the last time you read a book or saw a movie with a writer protagonist who was humming along through his third novel, enjoying the process of creation?

I don't believe in writer's block. Sure, sometimes, the work goes easier than others, but in what occupation does that not happen? No writer is ever without something to write, not when there is another lame story about a writer with nothing to write about waiting to be birthed. I wish I remembered where it was, but I once read an article that posited that writer's block was a purely western syndrome, a creation of a spoiled class of people who didn't really rely on wordsmithing to put food on their tables (kind of like how people used to be just tired, and now they get chronically fatigued). This makes a certain amount of sense to me. I've always looked at lamentations about blocks as excuse-making to avoid work. Sadly, I only had this reinforced as a comic book editor. Artists have the same approach to work avoidance, along with a sister excuse of, "I got bored drawing the same characters." I usually translated it in my head to mean "Dorritos and Playstation." (Truth be told, most editors don't want to hear or care about your excuse, regardless of what it is, regardless of its validity. They just want to know when. Think about it. Could you not show up for a 9-to-5 job because you "didn't feel like it"? Or would you expect your boss to excuse your not coming in due to all the various and elaborate obstacles occurring in your life? You'd still have to report for duty, or use some banked sick time at the very least. You don't have that luxury in a freelance world.)

I think writer's block walks hand-in-hand with that other bogeyman, The Blank Page. Hacks love to talk about the fear of approaching a solid white wasteland that is the first page of a new story. Are they serious? The first page is exciting, it's the beginning of an adventure. I've always found getting started easy. It's only after the initial rush that ideas may run out of steam. If you're sitting down and staring at a screen and you don't know what you want to write about, get up until you have something. Maybe it's because I am a slow and laborious writer anyway, but I can't remember the last time I actually entered into anything without first having spent a good chunk of time mulling over my ideas. Ideas percolate, ripen, and then present themselves as the next in line. And in the times I've been asked to pitch something and opened a document and started at scratch, I just threw ideas around, pushed the words across the page, and had fun with it. It's only when you give that page some kind of mythic stature as a killer does it ever take on any kind of gruesome power.

Again, you're making getting started a chore just to avoid doing the real thing. It's better to just dig in and carve out some paragraphs you're going to throw away than toss yourself on your bed and bemoan your sorry lot in life.

Of course, it goes without saying that every writer is different. Some may struggle with the development process more than ones who find ideas come quick but for whom the execution takes longer. I am terrible at rewrites, for instance, largely because I am so laborious when it comes to thinking over what's in my stories. I literally spent half my life on one scene in The Everlasting, rewriting it over and over in my head. I came up with it when I was sixteen and have been holding onto it, re-examining it, and I was pretty secure with it when I finally committed it to paper. When something isn't working, though, the common advice just about any writer will give you is to keep going, keep whacking at it, even if it means moving on to something else. Neal Shaffer wrote of a recent incident where his work was moving slower than he desired, so he changed his tack and did something he doesn't normally do. This reboot made him productive while his mind sorted out whatever was causing the other project to stall. It's a good trick.

The concept of burnout is also not lost on me. Just like any other job, if you have a period of real intense work, it can deplete your energies and a break will be in order. The same can be said for the completion of a long-term project. I find work-for-hire can be one of the leading causes of such a burnout. There was one point when I was doing some ghostwriting for a novel based on a television property, and I spent many long nights writing my assigned chapters after working in the Oni office all day. I was wasted by the time the project was finished and had no desire to take on anything like it with any speed.. And hearkening back to comic book artists, chaps like Brian Hurtt and Mike Hawthorne who have worked on simultaneous monthly assignments, both penciling and inking themselves, can be forgiven if they eventually hit a wall of fatigue and need to dial it back. As much as constant work builds up your artistic muscles, you do have to pull away to recharge now and again.

I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two young screenwriters (I prefer to stand outside the cage rather than feed the animals directly), and these kinds of subjects came up. One conversant said, "I asked [an established screenwriter] if it ever gets easier, and he said, 'Sure. With the aid of alcohol.'"

Oh, dear. The drunk writer cliche. Ho-hum. Just because Charles Bukowski was a functional alcoholic doesn't mean you'll be one, too. And Bukowski only really had about five different poems anyway, so it was no real trick to recycle them. If you look at the trajectory of any of the famous drunks, like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, it didn't make it easier for them, it only made it harder as their brains became soaked through and their fingers turned to mush. Try writing while soused as an experiment, and I guarantee you that you'll churn out gobbledygook. Or think about the times you came home blitzed out of your mind on a Friday night and e-mailed cute girls. How poetic were you then?

Now, coffee on the other hand.... I wish there was a way to write it off on my taxes.

In the end, I think most of these misconceptions are born out of fear. If you can't start, or if you get stuck halfway through, you never have to finish, and if you never have to finish, you never have to run the risk of the work being bad. The terrible prose of an unfinished novel, for instance, can always be explained away because the book isn't done, it's still rough. After you type "The End," however (or more accurately, "# # #"), there is no way around judging it. If that prospect scares you, than you really have to ask yourself why you bothered showing up in the first place. If you didn't come to party, then why the hell did you come here?

Current Sountrack: Garbage, Bleed Like Me

golightly@confessions123.com * The Website



[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2004 Jamie S. Rich

4 comments:

Chynna said...

Yeah, it's true. When I use the term "writer's block" it's only because I'm stumped on a particular project, usually because my mind keeps revolving around another storyline or two instead, which is often the case. But something's always there, to be sure... I'm always working on *something*, at the very least. I need to kick myself in the ass constantly just to get things done, and even that isn't enough all the time (as you well know). It's a sad state of affairs, honestly, and I always feel like a giant idiot about it. I wonder if it's a form of self-destructive behavior or just laziness? I hope it's the former and not the latter, but I'm sure I could guess your answer to that. You're probably right.

On the bright side, the older I get the more I feel inclined to stay home and work. If I'm not at my desk doing something slightly productive, I start feeling agitated and paranoid. : )

xtine said...

I don't think you can really compare what a freelancer does w/ someone who works a 9-5 job... it's like comparing night and day-shift workers... sure, it's the same job, but the environmental, social, and overall mental structure is so different. No matter what, freelancing is unusual work and people react differently to it. It wouldn't surprise me in the least that different cultures can produce more successful freelancers than others (in reference to westerners being spoiled).

I tend to notice that writers and artists who are more successful at avoiding "blocks" and maintaining deadlines are those that are anti-social. I don't know why, but that is a common thing I've noticed. Perhaps because you are reliant on being your own company, from president to janitor, that the energy level involved is draining or too dispersed? I think it's a lot more difficult than most people think, you must be more disciplined and strong, or have a certain amount of outside help.

wallflower said...

That reminds me of the other creators' cliche, which is the struggle of the artists against society. Quite often it's the struggle of the writer against other's in the English department, or the struggle of the painter against the government arts grant committee.

Michael Hall said...

Yup.