I have been guilty of perpetuating the… myth? feeling? cliché?… that writing is not just difficult but effectively impossible, no one should be encouraged to try it, only mentally ill people are attracted to it in the first place, and if you’re the slightest bit serious about it it will only exacerbate those mental illnesses until it ultimately destroys you.

Y’know… the sort of  stuff that even smart people like Connie Willis said in a Clarkesworld interview:

When I’m on panels with writers who say, “Oh, I just love writing. I just sit down and it flows out like magic,” I always want to slap them.

Or what Steven James said in his book Story Trumps Structure:

The truth is, if you like long hours in solitude, emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism, and bouts of heartrending disappointment, you’ll make a good writer. And if you can actually tell an engaging story, you might just make a great one.

Terrifying, right? But then when I look back at my own writing life, I find that when I’m writing, I’m less depressed, more engaged, and when I’m finished I’m happier, easier to get along with, and in almost all cases it’s really a joy to start, to do, and to complete. And I’m not alone. William S. Burroughs said in an interview with The Review of Contemporary Fiction:

I don’t know. I just sit down and write! I write in short sections; in other words, I write a section, maybe of narrative, and then I reach into that, but if it doesn’t continue, I’ll write something else, and then try to piece them together. The Wild Boys was written over a period of time; some of it was written in Marrakech, some of it was written in Tangiers, and a good deal was written in London. I always write on the typewriter, never in longhand. 

I wrote portions of Baldur’s Gate in Renton, Washington, some in Issaquah, Washington, and… okay… bad example. But you might be thinking, Okay, but Burroughs is famously, if not infamously incomprehensible, known as a disorganized, stream of consciousness writer and all that stuff, but maybe that’s exactly what he can teach us. Still, no one can accuse the brilliant J.G. Ballard of incomprehensibility, but in a Paris Review interview, he seems to indicate he has no more trouble writing than did Burroughs. When asked “So, how do you write, exactly?” he answered:

Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

So then Ballard was a drinker and we know Burroughs was a heroin addict… deep breaths. I’m not advising you to hurt yourself with drugs and alcohol. But what can you do that’s safe and healthy to calm yourself down, get the fear out of the way, and just write?

This starts with being honest about what scares you. Is it that you’re somehow “not ready”? This is usually the terror of research at work. But consider the advice of Mark Billingham in his “Ten Tips For Writing Crime Fiction”:

Obviously, there will be stuff you need to know about, but then there’s the temptation to crowbar in everything you’ve found out at the expense of the story. Why not be counter-intuitive and do your research afterward? That way you only find out the things you really need to know and avoid falling into the trap of showing off. You’re writing a novel, not a documentary, so don’t worry about annoying the handful of readers who might actually know this stuff in detail and will take great pleasure in letting you know where you went wrong. We all get the occasional angry letter and they’re fun to read out at events. Truth is not always the same as fact… especially these days.

And this goes for worldbuilding, too. If you think you have to build your world out in such detail that it will anticipate everything you might need to tell this one story, you’re officially doing too much worldbuilding. Keep in mind what Mark Billingham said about being okay with occasionally getting things wrong and who might bitch about it later. Just write, and let future readers, your literary immortality, and other similar bits of, let’s face it, complete nonsense, take care of itself, or not, as the case may be. And if you don’t believe me, how about Bertrand Russell from nothing less than his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

Vanity is a motive of immense potency. Anyone who has much to do with children knows how they are constantly performing some antic, and saying, “Look at me.” “Look at me” is one of the fundamental desires of the human heart. It can take innumerable forms, from buffoonery to the pursuit of posthumous fame.

Speaking of smart people, in another Paris Review interview, Kurt Vonnegut said:

If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

No one dies at the end of this. No one gets hurt—not really. Some people will like what you’ve written, some people won’t. Some people will get all angry about what you’ve written or how you’ve written it—or they’ll pretend to anyway. Some people will post on the Internet that it’s the greatest novel of all time—but it isn’t, really, because there’s no such thing. This novel, this short story, this poem… is what you have to say right now, said in the way you’re saying it right now.

So then, what have we learned about how to enjoy writing? Start with this…

  • Don’t be afraid to be as incomprehensible as William S. Burroughs, at least in your rough draft. Your raw creativity is always more interesting than your strictly controlled craftsmanship.
  • Write anywhere. Okay, you don’t have to fly to Tangiers, or even Renton, but get yourself out of your bubble and let writing happen for you, not to you, wherever and whenever it pleases you.
  • Calm yourself, without dangerous chemicals. Brush off the fear or nervousness so you can relax into it.
  • Research and worldbuild later—even after you’ve completed your rough draft. Let your story and characters tell you what you need to research, and what you need to make up.
  • Get over your legacy. No one, including you, has any idea if you’re going to be the next Shakespeare. Shakespeare had no idea he’d be Shakespeare. Just write, and let the future take care of itself.

…and you’ll find at least a few ways to write joyfully all your own, if you go ahead and write.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. mjtedin says:

    I like what you say about worldbuilding. I’m not sure it makes sense to do the research afterwards. I think a story needs a certain level of world building for the characters to be able to interact with. For a full fantasy novel, the worldbuilding informs the characters’ motives. On the other hand, I outlined a near future short story without much of a world at all. I thought about the world as I outlined and plan to flesh out the details when I get around to writing it. A lot can be done with default settings.

  2. Jl nash says:

    Thanks for this. I have been wrestling with the piecemeal story i wrote last year. Was about to throw it all out.. then read this.. thank you.. i think i have a way forward.


  4. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writers Links | No Wasted Ink

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