Write What You Can, When You Can (Every Day)


Time is the exasperating enemy of all writers.  It’s hard to find, and when you do find it, there isn’t enough of it, and you are hardly ever in an ideal setting free of distractions or interruptions. But that’s the nature of the beast. I’ve posted about some aspects of this problem (Half a Page of Scribbled Lines), but I’d like to say a bit more.

“There is nothing to writing.   All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

                                                   —Ernest Hemingway

The Year of the Red Door was not written “in order” from start to finish. In fact, some of the last bits were the first to be written, and I worked backwards, somewhat, to the beginning. Then from the beginning the other way to the end. And so forth. But even that description is misleading because much of my writing is like a pinball, bouncing over here, rolling over there, and striking this bumper, hitting that obstacle, going around.

It has to do with momentum and ability, not chaos.

How do I keep up the momentum?

“Skip a bit, brother.”

          —Monty Python

I cannot always write what I “need” to write. That’s a fact. That is, if I have a passage that comes next in a story, sometimes I am simply unable to write it, or I’m unsatisfied with what I have written. I might try several times to no avail. But I’ve also learned that I shouldn’t get all bent out of shape and despondent over it.  As much as I want and need to get that particular passage written, I have other passages to write.   So I skip over the troublesome one for a while.    In my manuscript, I’ll write (or type) “Passage about So and So and his horse goes here.” If I’m at home sitting comfortably in front of my computer, I’ll also list that in my “Passages that Need to Written” document. Of course, doing so leaves a big hole in the story, but since it is deliberately done for the sake of sanity, that’s okay.  It’s only temporary.   I’ll be back.

Being willing and able to come back to a bit of unfinished work is, after all, just having a good work ethic. I have to rewrite and edit, anyway, so coming back to that gap to fill it in later isn’t such a big deal. Sometimes I have to work it like dough, but sometimes it just takes a lot of hammering away, a lot of false starts, to get going on the troublesome passage. Sometimes I discover that the errant passage is not really needed at all, or it’s an unneeded tangent. Sometimes it becomes backstory. Then again, I sometimes find that some of what I put aside as a backstory is actually needed (read more here). The point is to keep moving, keep writing, and keep working.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

                                                  —Stephen King

One never knows when and where an idea or the solution to a pesky problem might come.   So being prepared to get some notes down at a moment’s notice is really important. And since I know that I’ll be writing every day, I also know that if I get those notes down, I’ll have them ready when my “real” writing time comes. That’s why having pen and paper nearby (in the shoulder bag, in the glove box, etc.) is a must. And that’s why using electronic technology so often fails. No, really. I learned that the hard way.

Just as phones and computers are conversation killers, so, too, they can kill the internal creative conversation, or at least seriously wound it. Besides, I don’t have to charge up or plug in my paper. I don’t have to open the app. And I don’t have to worry with system updates, emails, or any of the other things that crowd in through the door of a glowing screen.  And besides, they’re just plain cumbersome.

I am no technophobe, believe me.  (And I’ll put a link here when I post about how programming and technology has helped me become a better writer.)   I’ve tried them all, PDAs, smartphones, tablets, laptops.  And I do use them all.  But when it comes to getting some real writing done, they’re not as convenient, as fast, or as distraction-free as the pad of paper and a pen.  Waiting until I’m in front of my computer (or have my writing app activated and ready) is just another form of procrastination.   The muse hates procrastination (more about her in a moment).   Besides, one of the basic items every gentleman should always have on his person is a pen (or at least a pencil, or so I was taught).   A scrap of paper can almost always be found.

Devoting time, every day, to writing is the solution to a myriad of evils. It keeps me in practice, of course. It presents an expectation on my part that I’ll be able to get to that difficult passage, that I’ll have another go at it very soon, today or tomorrow. It keeps my priorities straight. And it increases my productivity over the long term.

“I’m writing a book.   I’ve got the page numbers done.”

              —Steven Wright

About that muse…

So another bit of advice: Write what you can, when you can write it. Give that passage a really good honest try. Then try again.

But if the muse isn’t with you (that is, you’re banging your head on the wall), go ahead and let her point out something more to her liking and work on that.   I’ve found that she craves attention and hates anything that might distract me from her.  It’s always something with her.  She might be in need of vegetables right now. Tomorrow, though, she may be craving ice cream.  And she’s not all that patient.

The trick is that you can’t let the muse rule you. I don’t follow her around, she follows me wherever I go.  In fact, she’s inescapable.  Sometimes, she’s beautiful.   Sometimes, she a harpy.  She’s always a nag.  And she isn’t all that focused, either. As soon as I begin working on something that she suggested, she’d rather I work on some other idea, some other passage or character.   I’m talking serious ADHD, folks.

Sometimes, just by persistence and hard work, I can bring her around and get her on board with what I’m doing.   After days of beating my head against the wall, she takes pity and decides to help out. She’ll whisper a word of inspiration, always in a certain tone that tells me that what she suggested should have been obvious to me all along.  Whatever.   But that solves everything.  And the words flow.   Even though she’s ready for me to move on to the next thing.

You might ask: Does revising and editing count the same as writing? Of course. Editing is, in essence, rewriting. What I consider my best writing often happens while editing.  And, guess what?  She (the muse) can’t tell the difference!

And what about the time, thing?  As in making time to write?

You can’t make time.   You can only steal it.

Sometimes, all I have is five minutes to get in a bit of writing. 300 measly seconds. Maybe I can’t write that entire passage, but I can certainly tackle a paragraph. I might at least get a sentence worked out. If I can’t get it worked out, I’ll be five minutes closer to the solution by knowing what dead-end to avoid. That’s how coffee breaks during a hectic workday can be really productive, even though it is short. Added to the previous break, and to the next, day after day, it adds up to hours and days of work.

It’s bad enough being a writer.   It is far worse, and much harder, to be a writer who doesn’t write.  There is no such thing as writer’s block.   No whining.   If you are a writer, then write!

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