I hate writing. I love having written.
Is one of those phrases writers seem to get very acquainted with very fast. Much like, the oft quoted,
There is nothing to writing; you just sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Interestingly neither of these can be tracked. Some attribute the last to Hemingway, others to Wolfe, some attribute the first to Parker, others to Chandler. They seem to simply have sprung into being, there like a residue of writing itself. An undeniable truth of the pain of what might technically be called a work out for the finger muscles, but more accurately a holiday for all the others.
Some bloke called Robert stated that we should ‘beware writers who tell you how hard they work’ and I agreed so much with the sentiment I took the time to memorise the first half sentence of it. Because its not brain surgery, its not a marathon and its not slavery, by any known definition. It’s a choice to sit, drink too much tea and make shit up. There just isn’t any way to justify moaning about that.
Every time I start to think, to consider writing, even a little piece like this, I feel the same grinding grating reluctance kick in. It starts in motion a series of physical preparations which, (I googled) is akin to what the body does before it goes into battle. Actual spears and bullets battle.
Every endless moment is torture (all five minutes worth so far). The average post takes a half hour minus research, which is so pain free it feels like skiving. A half hour, with little pause between words, except when the left hand moves slower than the right and I have to keep putting teh back to the.. A half hour that feels like a maths exam. A half hour that feels like the only half hour I will ever live, somehow stretched in torturous masochism to forever.
I love writing.
I’m not quitting.
I tried. I was miserable. The torture is preferable.
In some ways this entire post may be an attempt to pretend that I wasn’t skiving when I happened .. em carefully researched this interesting contradiction. However, if you are currently nursing a large cup of tea and numb bum and staring at nanonovel #22 and wondering why you torture yourself so, I might have the answer.
Good news, it probably means what you are writing is better than you think.
Bad news, you’re still going to hate it.
There are several stages of learning. When we start to learn any skill psychologists believe we are unconsciously incompetent. This is the King-Slayer stage some might argue, when the novice writer has vomited 200k of incoherence and cliché and then subjects the world and literary agents to it convinced it’s the greatest book, like, ever. If I’ve experienced it, I’ve buried it deep. Then we move to consciously incompetent. Some kind souls have pointed and laughed. After that we move to consciously competent. And this in some ways is where the writer gets stuck.
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
The ultimate level of competence is unconscious. It’s what you do when you drive. It becomes so automatic that you don’t have to think about it. I do it when I type. I didn’t even realise I was touch typing for years. We do it when we talk; it’s frequently used as an argument against teaching grammar in schools (or least in depth. Most of us will still get the basics on nouns and verbs) as we have already assimilated unconsciously all we need. Most toddlers demonstrate a clear awareness of concepts such as tense, object and subject.
As such as writers we do use our unconscious competence in writing, but not in storytelling.
Like many writers, she finds writing hard work. “It is one of the few professions that doesn’t get easier the more you do it.” ~ Irene Kampen
Why? Why can’t we follow every other skill curve out there? Because storytelling, whether its fiction or non-fiction, isn’t a skill, it’s a creative act.
Every time you sit down to write a new story, you call on all those skills you have assimilated and practised until you aren’t even aware you are using them, but each time you have to use them in a new way. Every story is essentially a new learning curve.
You can’t go into automatic drive because you don’t know this car. You don’t know the controls, how it handles, the road surface, the area you’re driving in, the weather conditions. You have to put yourself on high alert, question every move.
Human beings have two essential modes of operating, we can define them as conscious and unconscious or we can think of it as habit versus decision. The vast majority of our day we’re actually working in habit mode. Life is a routine, a rut, from the side of the bed we sleep in to the position we curl up into, to the futility of a Sunday lie in as yet again our eyes pop open at seven am. Habit – the familiar patterns literally scored into our brains – is so powerful that studies are showing even those with severe short term memory loss can use it as a substitute for new memory formation. Even though they have no conscious ability to recall surroundings or people, their bodies react instinctively, finding the kitchen, the bathroom, knowing where to look for the teacups, creating a sense of home and familiarity despite their lack of memories.
Decision on the other hand is not so easy. It’s effectively a form of willpower. When our willpower fails we fall back into habit. If we can make it a habit to go to the gym every day, even when we are knackered and the very last thing we want to do is pound it out on the treadmill for an hour, it actually becomes far harder not to go than it is to go. Because we have to make the decision not to. And decisions demand effort, a force of will, to wrench ourselves off the treadmill. The brain, and the body, doesn’t like being taken off the well-worn path, it reacts furiously, with all the feel good hormones flattening out and making us instinctively feel as though we have done something wrong. This makes it incredibly hard to read anything you’ve just written in a positive light.
New stories are all about decisions. The newer they are the more decisions must be made. Who is the narrator? What does she sound like? What’s the tone? What’s the world like? And because we are treading on untested ground we can’t ever really know if what we are doing is right. That in itself is another decision – to rewrite or to take the risk.
As my terrifying mentor Paul Arden said,
Being right may be like walking backwards proving where you’ve been.
Being wrong isn’t in the future, or in the past.
Being wrong isn’t anywhere but being here.
Every story is a leap into the abyss.
Nothing is universal, not even the universe probably. You might love writing. You get in the flow, you go, it’s all good. You might. But you also might want to ask, if maybe it’s because you’re in habit mode. Sometimes it can happen without you even noticing. Arthur Conan Doyle famously declared in relation to Sherlock’s untimely fall in Reichbach
I have been much blamed for doing that gentleman to death but I hold that it was not murder but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.
While in Cards on the Table, Ariadne Oliver, the detective writer believed to be Agatha Christie’s sneaky way of putting herself in the book, is asked if she ever used the same plot twice. Poirot, of course, points out the curious similarities between two of her novels. At which point she confesses really, they’re all the same.
I’m not sure I consider the above as examples of writing by numbers. Although returning to familiar worlds and characters does greatly reduce the number of decisions you are making, there are many far better examples out there, not that I like to point fingers. I did once play a drinking game involving one well-known sitcom and how many times we could spot it ripping off the storylines from another well-known sitcom (I’m not naming them, but I’m sure you can figure it out). My memory of the night is very hazy.
If you do fear you might be in automatic pilot, #12 of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling is
Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
Short term it’s harder, without the immediate rewards that following the well-worn and familiar path usually brings, but long term it’s worth it.
Hating doing what you love doing might sound like an idiocy – and it kinda is – but it’s not actually a contradiction. When you strip away the rhetoric and the science it’s just a way of saying its worth doing right.
Ariadne Oliver frequently complains about her detective Sven, and his many strange foibles, which her readers know far too well to abandon.
‘Of course he’s idiotic, but people like him.’
Often believed to represent Christies own frustration with Poirot, a character still loved decades after his creation, its worth remembering that to date only the Bible and Shakespeare have managed to outsell her.
*If you are interested in researching habit (looking for an excuse to skive) and making them work for you, this is worth a look