It’s no secret that writers can be a moody, temperamental lot. Often, we find ourselves approaching our craft with all the boundless verve and energy of a wrongly convicted prisoner walking the Green Mile. Sure, there are a plenty of blithe souls who seem to float through the act of writing (or editing, or revising) like a soothing zephyr, even as the rest of us sit at our keyboards, get jacked up on Red Bull, and scream into our pillows until we wonder why ever cultivated the desire to write. While making a full-time job of seething with envy at these type-A demigods might be tempting, it’s probably not the most productive approach. What might serve you better, if you are one of these guilt-ridden, type-B writers, is a shift in attitude.
Yeah, sure. Easy enough to say, right? Changing one’s attitude just isn’t that simple. We’re writers. We’re artists, and stuff. Not to mention, we have this whole self-destructive image of the “tortured writer” to live up to.
Personally, I think the “tormented” part of “toremented writer” has almost zero utility. Despite breathless assertions to the contrary, writing is not a holy bolt from the blue that transforms your life without effort or dedication, nor a raging metaphorical psycho whose savage beatings you must endure if you are to create anything of worth. If you’re lucky, such agony-driven inspiration might last long enough to see you through a single poem, or awesome paragraph, or brilliant bit of dialogue — but rarely more than that.
Self-doubt and self-recrimination are natural emotions, but giving them too much influence can amount to self-indulgence, and that time you spend being a Tormented Artist would be better spent writing. I feel I can speak with some authority here, because I’ve felt sorrier for myself than just about anyone I know, and only recently began to question (and do away with) the romanticized-but-ultimately-horseshit myths that keep aspiring writers from getting real work done. Defeating these feelings isn’t easy, especially if you’re a chronic procrastinator. There is no quick fix or easy trick that will get you over the hump. But there are ways to beat them, and they aren’t complicated.
I recently had a chat with a fellow writer planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I asked her what the plot of her book was going to be, and she gave me a limp response: “Science fiction, I guess. I don’t know. I’m not really happy with the plot, but I guess I’ll try anyway.”
Now, I might have simply misjudged her tone, but my first thought was: there’s no way she’s going to make it. I run into this kind of attitude a lot, particularly among aspiring writers; people who feel they should be writing a certain kind of story, but when you talk to them, you get the feeling they don’t truly want to. Granted, not every idea is going to set your world on fire, but you will have plenty of time to get discouraged and frustrated when you’re mired in your middle act — if you’re just starting out and you already feel “meh” about your story, why even write it?
Writing takes time, sacrifice, and a lot of effort. If you’re going to put in all that work, at least do yourself the favor of writing something you deeply care about. And if you can’t think of anything you care about enough to write, then maybe take up something more rewarding, like carpentry or golf. And this may eventually lead you down a difficult road: if you’d rather watch Two and a Half Men reruns than write seven days a week, then maybe writing isn’t actually you’re calling — or maybe you just have some fears about your writing that you need to face down and deal with.
Don’t half-ass it.
About a year or so ago, a close friend told me that he didn’t actually care about finishing any of his projects. This guy was (and is) bright, talented, and clever, but has a long history of abandoned projects that start out strong, pick up a pretty decent following, and then lie fallow after he shrugs and abandons them. I asked him why he didn’t finish some of these ambitious projects, and he told me that he’d just rather put in a little bit of effort and get a little bit of praise in return, then move on to the next project and repeat the cycle.
That’s high on the list of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard anyone say about their creative life.
Maybe it’s haughty of me, but I think that’s just failure and disappointment in the making. I’ve tried hard to change my attitude since reading Leo Babauta‘s inspirational Power of Less. Babauta gives some simple but potent advice: if you’re going to put your time into a project, make it something life-changing and big. If you’re getting paid to write something that bores the crap out of you, that might be one thing, but if you can’t cultivate a passion for your story, you’re sunk. Seriously, do yourself a favor and find an idea you’re in love with.
Guilt is a crap motivator.
I don’t believe in guilt-as-inspiration. Some people might find it inspirational, though I’ve yet to meet anyone who got a lot done because they hated themselves. All the successful creative types I know work from a place of passion and drive. The people who sit around saying “oh God, I really should write because I am such a lazy-ass” tend to just sit around some more — and I include myself in this. Guilt might motivate you, if you work hard enough at feeling guilty, but it’s like fueling your sports car with canola oil — there are easier ways to get moving.
Don’t get me wrong, a certain amount of guilt is natural and unavoidable. But you have to choke it out before it keeps you from getting anything done. Wrestle it to the ground and make it work for you.
This is another bit of wisdom I picked up from everybody’s favorite blogger, Seth Godin (who picked it up from Voltaire): “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
It may seem contradictory to say “get excited, no I mean really excited, COME ON I CAN’T HEAR YOU” and then say “hey, expect to suck” right afterward. But that’s just how it is. You’re going to make mistakes. Your first draft will be so far from perfect that you’ll probably consider tossing it out more than once. Just learn to accept it, because that’s reality. It would be awesome if every writer could just rattle off a brilliant, totally life-changing, flawless, consistent first draft. Big news: nobody does that. So you shouldn’t expect yourself to, much less feel bad for failing to do so.
So, what am I saying here? I’m saying don’t write anything that bores you, because it will almost certainly bore your readers. I’m saying don’t beat yourself up so much. I’m saying that giving yourself permission to suck can lead you through the Valley of Suck to the Mountain of Awesome, whereas taking the shortcut through the Cave of Guilt only leads to the Lava-Filled Grotto of Hopelessness and — well, tortured geographical metaphors aside, seriously. Get excited. Find a story you love, and if you can’t, then read someone else’s stories until inspiriation finally groin-punches you. Lock your guilt in a trunk and kick it off the pier. And when you do write, write with passion or not at all.