On a brief phone call a short while ago I was asked, “Have you written today?” The hazel-eyed voice of accountability on the other end was reminding me of my commitment to 500 words (a couple of pages or so) per day. I had not. (As I’m writing this, my word counter says I’m at about 50 words or so. 450 to go.)
But of course, the question had a more specific focus. That funky little thing I’m somewhat euphemistically calling a novel is what I’m supposed to be chunking my words into, at half-a-K per. Instead, I’m doing this tired little schtick writers do when they don’t want to write the things they’re supposed to write.
It didn’t used to be this . . . well, I was going to write difficult, but that’s not quite the word. My “heyday” as it were, was when I was in high school. Man, I could write anywhere, anytime. I almost always had a spiral notebook with me in which I was putting down stories, during class, between classes, riding in the car or on the bus, at home late at night. It seemed I couldn’t stop the stuff flowing from my head to the page.
Now, not so much.
And it’s not like it’s writer’s block. No, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to write. And I’ve been learning not to fear the vast blank nothingness that suddenly overcomes me when I put my fingers on the keyboard. But for some dadgum reason, I shy away from the task of writing anyway. (250. Halfway there.)
Pressfield, in his great little book, The War of Art, gives this phenomenon a name: Resistance. Pretty much the entire book is a mapping out of Resistance, uncovering it’s strategies and disguises, and how to beat the living snot out of it and keep on writing. Resistance comes in many shapes and sizes, but mostly as self-doubt and as fear. Pressfields notes that if we question whether or not we are a writer, it’s likely that we are. He says of fear: “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
It may be that my life is just too busy and complicated right now. I could sure make that argument. Except it rings hollow. Writing is like a drug. I’m in an altered state in which I do not notice the passing of time. I feel euphoria, even when the words aren’t flowing. There is no hangover. No downside. Who wouldn’t want to escape from a busy and complicated life to write–even for fifteen minutes every day?
No, I know precisely what it is. At the end of September, beginning of October, after almost 50,000 words at breakneck pace, I was suddenly brought up short. It was like smacking into an iron wall. I looked at what I had done and, instead of feeling like I had accomplished something I had never before achieved (which was true), only one thing was in my mind: This sucks. (I just hit my 500 words, but clearly I can’t stop there.)
So, what did I do? The one thing Pressfield (among myriads of others) says not to do: I stopped writing and then started to rewrite from the beginning. “One rule,” Pressfield writes, “for first full working drafts: get them done ASAP. Don’t worry about quality. Act, don’t reflect. Momentum is everything” (Do the Work). He continues: “Get the first version of your project done from A to Z as fast as you can. Don’t stop. Don’t look down. Don’t think. Unless you’re building a sailboat or the Taj Mahal, I give you a free pass to screw up as much as you like. The inner critic? His ass is not permitted in the building. . . . This draft is not being graded. There will be no pop quiz. Only one thing matters in this initial draft: get SOMETHING done, however flawed or imperfect. You are not allowed to judge yourself.” Whoopsies.
It is, then, very simple: About four months ago, I got my writer butt kicked. I doubted. I stopped. I began to rewrite in mid-draft. This is Resistance. Since then I’ve been making excuses. Color me too busy in the morning, too tired at the end of the day, or any other shade of excuse in between. Bottom line: I feel a fraud. I don’t think I can do it. This sucks. Another wannabe author, visions of grandeur dancing through his head. Wanting it to be like it was in high school, carrying around that beat up spiral notebook.
There’s an aftermath to that high school writing heyday. It’s not a happy one. I’ve told the story before. Under some naive, if well-intentioned, insanity, misguided by some really bad advice: I destroyed those notebooks. It was the epitome of fear and doubt. I’m not supposed to do this sort of stuff. Now that’s all gone. It would have been far more romantic if I’d burned it in a blazing bonfire. Cue the violins and cellos. Fade to black. Nope, I did what Resistance would find more fitting. I threw them in the wastebasket. I suspect they disintegrated at the city landfill. The little wire spirals lying lonely under the bleaching sun.
I suppose when one is a teenager one can actually believe the romantic dreams of being an author, and assume that will happen just around the corner. Highly improbable tales of authors like S. E. Hinton and others fill one’s mind. Of course I’ll be a writer. And thus the words flow. But the plus about being more than twenty years older is the opportunity to remember and to avoid the same mistakes. There will be no dumping of drafts in the computer trash bin.
Now, two decades later I’m engaged in a struggle I didn’t really have then. Self-doubt and fear may distract me into writing something–anything–else than the 500 words on the novel (yes, dadgummit, I’m calling it a novel, because that is what it is; not a project, not “something I’m working on,” but a novel). But at least now I know them for what they are. All I have to do it face them and fight.
(1000. That’s now twice the effort I put forth into this instead of the novel.)
[Anticlimactic update: I did get to the novel today. 892 words. Take that, Resistance, you bastard.]