I have told myself every day since I discovered I was Not A Writer Anymore that this was not, I repeat, not just an excuse to stop working on my writing projects. This was not the only way I could bring myself to accept responsibility for stepping down from my writing duties for a while; I was not so neurotic and self-conscious that I had to fake an entire life-changing epiphany just to feel justified in taking a break from work that was not fulfilling me to work on anymore. This was not me being so hung-up on the idea of being a Good Writer that, never mind anybody else who might judge me, I wouldn’t be able to bear it if I judged myself for just doing something else for a while as I recovered, rested up, did whatever I had to do in order to get past this blockage. This was not because I knew that judgment would be swift and severe, so morally crushing that it would kill any tiniest amoeba of joy that still lingered in the wake of the fallout of my inspiration’s cataclysmic demise over the past year, and I wouldn’t be able to take it.
Today, I am entertaining the possibility that all of these things might actually be exactly what’s going on.
Well, except for the “fake epiphany” thing; that was real, and I’m glad it happened. But just because one day you have a life-changing revelation about X about doesn’t mean it instantly uproots every wrong, dysfunctional, unhealthy notion, attitude and habit that you have cultivated regarding X; that’s all still there, and it needs to be worked through before it’ll come unstuck and float away in the epiphanic breeze. So while I am, indeed, Not A Writer Anymore, I didn’t think of myself that way when I finally realised it was true. I had all the old beliefs and attitudes rearing to go, just as they always were: “if I stop now then I don’t really want to write and I’ve been deceiving [who the fuck knows] all this time and I’m a fraud”; “just do the work any decent writer would push through the bad stuff because of their convictions and desire to see the end product”; “you’re fat and ugly and are a collapsing astral void of anti-worth and oh sorry did you say something about writing?”
What I’m realising now, trying to be aware of this new realisation I got about the nature of realisations all the while, is that I needed a break, like, two years ago. I needed a proper break. Not just avoiding the physical act of writing, but getting my mind onto other things entirely, basically forgetting that my book existed and exploring another lifestyle, complete with new ambitions, horizons, desires and parameters of fulfillment. I already knew this. I just didn’t follow through. I played videogames instead, and that did not do much for the whole “new start” thing.
And on the other hand, I’m realising that my writing will always have dips and troughs, that not only have I known this for the past 15 years, but that no amount of time off will change that fact. I can have the most cathartic writing vacation any human being has ever experienced and, at the end of it all, writing will still be a process. It will still be a process where some days are brilliant, some days are utter shit, and some days are a null zone. Nothing will ever change that.
Thus I ask myself: what’s more important? Taking a break and finding new kinds of fulfillment, or forging ahead with my three-year commitment to this novel I still haven’t finished, and in a sense have only barely begun? Because even after my break, the book’s still going to be there. The writing will still need to be done. No break will change that. But what might happen is so long of a break that, by the time I come back, I won’t want to write my book anymore. And I know I don’t want that to happen.
That’s a big part of why I came up with my “first draft made of chapter summaries” idea: it was a way for me to write my way, but get it over with so quickly that I wouldn’t have time to grow attached to any of what I’d written – which would automatically be bad, according to myself – and thus moving on to the next part, the editing, the Good Writing, would happen faster and be more painless.
Guess how well that’s worked.
I have so, so many restrictions on what I allow myself to write, and one of those is the blathering, stream-of-consciousness thought-dump that is my writing process every single time I sit down to write something new. It’s the Author Avatar effect; I have gotten so used to hating that idea that I don’t even want to see it in a first draft. And there’s some value to that, because if you write a story a certain way, then it’s written, it’s structured, it’s built out of what you have written, and in order to change it you have to change the story in a fundamental way, which is hard. Emotionally hard, I mean. Not just because you’re attached, but also because it takes so much fucking time and energy to figure out the Right Way to put things back together after taking them apart, having to trust your judgment, when your judgment led you to writing This Piece Of Shit in the first place.
And while I say I have this big restriction on not allowing myself to just plaster my inner self onto the page, the truth is that I don’t even allow myself to do that; the other day I started trying to write my vampire political thriller/comedy and was about to write something that was directly from me, not a self-insert character but rather a really presumptuous stance on a topic I have no idea about, done in character as a character I don’t feel confident in my ability to write faithfully. That is, to me, what you’re supposed to let yourself do in a first draft: fuck up big time. Think of it like a propaganda piece. People hate propaganda when they recognise it as a blatant, boorish, unsubtle invasion of privacy and affront to any semblance of intelligence. That is what an Author Avatar is, and that is what a first draft should be allowed to be: the author’s own personal propaganda, in all its cringe-inducing, soul-baring, embarrassingly revealing glory. But I panicked about how very much this first draft, only one line in, was exposing my utter lack of gorm as a human being and thus defaulted to “safe mode” – in this case, changing the gender of the protagonist from female to male – and shortly thereafter the writing siezed up and I couldn’t walk on it anymore.
Restrictions in one’s public life? Necessary, moral, responsible, vital. And by “public life” I don’t mean when you’re “out in public”, I really mean “social life”, the life that you live with other people, in which you must consider their needs and boundaries in a moral and ethical light. That includes “behind closed doors” stuff, because so many atrocities are committed and excused through the ideology of one’s “personal life” being off-limits to scrutiny and criticism or, heaven forbid, moral obligation. To me, that’s part of your public life, because it involves other people, and if it involves other people, you are obligated to not be an asshole to them. And that includes with your art.
So your “private” or “asocial” life, then, is where you don’t need to consider that stuff, and things that you write privately that nobody else will ever see are part of that for me. In that area of your life, the restrictions are all about what you need and what you want, because there is nobody else to consider. So when you sit down to write a first draft – which is meant to be completely private to begin with – it ought to be the first draft you want to write, the embarrassing, out-of-your-depth, propagandist exultation of your imagination, probably related to what Freud called the Id. A first draft, I’m realising, needs to be that fucking bad, because otherwise you’ll end up resenting it and yourself for not trying things out and seeing how far you can get before the brick wall appears in your face.
Don’t be your own brick wall in your private artistic life. Be kinder to yourself than that. Simply run at full speed, and I guarantee you, the world will most definitely provide.
Sometimes that’s enough to feel motivated again, the letting-up of arbitrary, self-imposed restrictions with rules that apply to social interactions rather than private fantasy. We need privacy to imagine whatever the fuck we want, and I’m going to include art in that category – art that you keep to yourself. The moment it’s up for public consumption, it has to be edited to fit social considerations. That’s what drafting is for. And if you allow yourself to draft the truly embarrassing, sometimes darkly so, unmediated bullshit that you are nevertheless dying to put down in writing, you can only benefit, because the worse a first draft is the better the second will be. Sometimes that’s enough.
When it’s not, and you’re in a situation like I am currently where I don’t want to write but I also really want to write, things get trickier. I want something other than writing (and, right now, videogames) to define my life. I also want to write my fucking books because I like the ideas in them and think about them a lot. What is the answer here?
I don’t know.
I have no fucking idea what will work.
I have ideas about what to do, though, and since I’ve been going on about how first drafts are meant to be bad so that they can better inform subsequent edits, I may as well go with that.
I’ll try both.
I will allow myself to write propaganda, and I will suck it up and let myself not write as well. I’ve been treating my writing as a public act for so long I can’t remember when it wasn’t that way, and that’s where all of my ridiculous self-imposed restrictions come from, because they’re the kind of restrictions that do and must apply where other people are concerned – but in my case, there aren’t other people concerned, so they only serve to keep me from doing anything at all. I’ve been thinking of my writing as though it was always in the public eye, under public scrutiny, always beholden to social considerations, because that’s the end goal. I want to produce writing that will connect with other people and not hurt them in the process, writing that is subject to the obligations of social morality; obviously I can’t cater to everybody, nobody can, but what’s the good of a story that isn’t for other people, that doesn’t consider its audience in a moral, conscientious way? Stories – once they’re told to an audience – are for other people. So the end goal of a story that has been written and rewritten and edited to account for those who will be reading it – that’s a good end goal.
It’s actually a good starting goal, too – you just have to allow yourself to fuck it up at the start, to assume that what you want is also what will work for other people, to allow your conviction that you are Telling It Like It Is or whatever else it is that’s driving you to tell this story, right here, right now, to guide your hand and inform your creative decisions. You must allow yourself that indulgence, that mistake, that presumption. Otherwise you’ll never learn why it’s wrong – nor, conversely, how much of it is actually right. But in order for any of that to happen, you gotta let yourself go. (In private. I stand by my assertion that writing in a group is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean writing in a group and then showing them what you’ve written.)
At least that’s what I’m going to be telling myself from here on out. I’ll try and get that vampire piece written, see just how terribly terrible and fucking awful it is and I am as a human being for writing it, and then move on and do something else entirely, something that doesn’t involved writing at all. I need both. I need to write, and I need a break from Writing.
I just want everything, why is that so wrong?