I find it utterly bizarre that in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown I’m actually writing (and reading) less than before. I hate to shift “blame” for something like that, but the fact that my son is finishing this college class year at home via the internet, and both my wife and daughter have been furloughed from work may have something to do with that. My “alone time” as a work-from-homer has dropped to zero hours per week and my ability to sit downstairs and read to the tune of Music Choice Classical Masterpieces has been replaced by competing binge re-watches of Dexter and Below Deck, one of which I’m only slightly less embarrassed by…
What really has me thinking about this today is that I’m clearly not the only one going through this with similar confusion and regret. I’ve had students on my online courses tell me they couldn’t finish assignments because of things going on in their lives related in one way or another to coronavirus. My Twitter feed seems at times awash in authors bemoaning what should be newfound writing time seemingly wasted…
I blame none of those people. This is a weird time.
Still, though all that and some other personal things have had a tendency to knock me back, workload and schedule-wise in the last couple months, I do still have a larger than average measure of control over my workday, so not spending enough time writing (or reading) is ultimately up to me to do something about.
This, then, gets into the tricky subject of process, by which I mean the process of sitting down (or standing up or walking…) and writing. How do we actually make words appear?
I’ve repeated the same joke over and over for years now: If you get a hundred authors in a room and ask them about their writing process you’ll get more than a hundred different answers.
I stand by that only very slightly hyperbolic statement. Authors don’t always approach every project in precisely the same way and for every author with some rigid process, a number of words or number of hours every day, and so on, there will be at least one author who writes a couple times a week, maybe, and sometimes a few hundred words and sometimes a few thousand. I once wrote 10,000 (rough) words of a novel in one day. That’s rare for me, but I’ve done it. I’ve written sometimes by hand sometimes on a computer. I’ve written novels out of order or from start to finish. I’ve “planned” and I’ve “pantsed” and using various combinations of both approaches. But I’ve also gone into deep, lasting fallow periods where I essentially stop writing at all. This has stretched on even for months at a time.
What do we do about stuff like that?
Well, first let’s assume there is no one thing that might be preventing you from writing, in exactly the same way that there is no one way to write. I said that having everybody home all day was a distraction. Can I fix that, short of sending my wife and kids out unguarded into the Plaguelands? I’ll admit to not normally keeping up with the Harvard Business Review, but the article “Perfectionism Will Slow You Down in a Crisis” by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter somehow caught my eye. In it they write:
To combat distractibility, we need the mental agility to shift between focus and awareness. Focus is our ability to stay with single-pointed attention on the task at hand and effectively execute our priorities. Awareness is our ability to look at the bigger picture, the future, and the changes ahead. Awareness allows us to detect and assess environmental changes, to hold the meta-view of our organization, and to ultimately separate the signals from the noise. After assessing the big picture, focus is required to respond decisively, to deploy the necessary capabilities, and to execute with discipline.
So then if my family is “our organization” the HBR says I should look at them in the big picture while being able to stay focused, during work hours, on the task at hand (writing). That actually makes sense, though how exactly to do that eludes me, and, as far as I can tell, the authors of the article as well.
Maybe I just need to focus on what I love about the process of writing, and that’s the moments of discovery, the clever turn of phrase that appears seemingly unbidden as I type (or scribble), or the exciting new idea that throws my carefully crafted outline out the window. In the Paris Review article “Marlene Dumas’s Metamorphoses,” Larissa Pham points out:
There’s always a moment of transformation in the process of making. Suddenly, you understand what your novel is about or what a short story hinges on or what you’re trying to say in a poem. I love talking to people about that moment, the moment where they knew. It’s like when lightning strikes—another gesture beloved of the gods—and all the trees in a field jump out in stark relief, their leaves hot-white and glowing. But the trees weren’t created in that moment: they were there all along. There are objects in a dark room. A light bulb just allows us to see them.
I love that—I feel that when I’m writing. And that’s not the only time when I find the act of writing immensely pleasurable. It’s actually fun to do. I’ve written before on the sense of play in writing fiction but I’m not the only one. Kira Jane Buxton, author of Hollow Kingdom, interviewed at writersdigest.com said:
My best writing advice is also the most simple—just have fun with it. Take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to stretch creatively. The external goals—agent, book deals—are all attainable, but what lovely landscape opens up artistically if they aren’t the core reason for your art? Write the thing that’s fizzing and bubbling inside you. Stay true to yourself and explore your passions (even personality-disordered horses!), and remember that you will always be the utmost authority on your writing.
So then what does that process look like? It’s different for everybody, because we all take joy in different things at different times in different ways. If you’re finishing stuff—novels, short stories… whatever you’re moved to write—and you’re happy with the results, whatever process you’re using to get there works—at least for you. If, like me, you’re not happy with your current output and some of the processes you’ve tried aren’t yielding the same results, try something—anything—new.
Distractions will always be there. We’re not authorbots but humans alive in a chaotic world full of other humans. Things, both positive and negative, will intrude from time to time. If you need to attend to something in your life instead of writing for a while, that doesn’t make you a bad writer, or a bad person, it just makes you a person who is also a writer.
Now, if you’re sitting there in hour seven of some TV series, especially one you’ve seen already, and you’re thinking, Damn, what the hell am I doing? I should be writing! there is one simple process that efficiency experts would all agree on:
Turn the damn TV off, and start writing.
I know, right?
Something else I’ve said over and over again, to myself and others: No one ever said this was going to be easy.
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