The Writing Rookie #3: Off Balance

In this edition of Jonathan Langford’s guest column The Writing Rookie he describes a phenomenon I know well — it is an odd combination. ~Wm

Walking (I believe I once read) is a process of continually falling and catching oneself. Always, at every point in the process, we’re essentially off balance. What stability we achieve comes from the fact that the activity is continued over time, in a constant, ongoing transition from one unstable position to another.

That’s an image that’s occurred to me more than once over the past year in connection with my writing. No matter how much I write, it always feels like I’m a little bit off balance. It never actually gets comfortable. At the same time, there’s a certain impetus to it, a drive to do more each day. It’s an odd combination.

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I remember back when I was around what’s now called middle school aged that I used to dislike essay tests because they were hard, even though I did well at them. The mental exertion involved in trying to come up with things to say seemed to me quite a sufficient reason to avoid writing when I could. It wasn’t until I was older that I started to value writing for the focus and clarity it provides to my thinking, the opportunity to explore ideas, the sense of satisfaction in successfully aligning words with intent–the feeling that in writing I am creating something, and that part of what I am creating is myself.

Of course, much of the time writing doesn’t feel like that. Each stage can turn into a nightmare. Beginnings like a trackless waste in which one is hopelessly lost. Middles like the “horrible, confused moment” after Peter had stabbed the wolf in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when “[h]e was tugging and pulling and the Wolf seemed neither alive nor dead, and its bared teeth knocked against his forehead, and everything was blood and heat and hair.” Endings like ashes, leaving words like shivering children huddled around the embers of dead intentions. You wish that you could weep for them, orphaned offspring of your literary ambitions, but the tears freeze on your cheeks.

(Can you tell that it’s winter where I’m writing? Brr!)

The point is that writing and not-writing both involve their own separate brands of misery. Milton, wordy windbag that he so often was, nevertheless captured the essence of being a writer (at least, I think he’s talking about writing) in his allusion to “that one talent, which is death to hide.” Once you get into the habit of writing, going without writing leads to a feeling of mental and emotional constipation, at least in my experience. Sitting at my keyboard, there are times when I can feel the tension and stress drain away as I start to write–a sensation of unblocking, as it were.

And then there are the times when sitting at my keyboard brings the stress back again.

Writing is the hardest thing I know how to do (as opposed to the many other things that are hard precisely because I don’t know how to do them). One of science fiction writer Roger Zelazny’s characters, describing the craft of literal worldbuilding (which he’d learned from a cooperative alien), states, “All the thinking power within the seven-doored chamber of the skull is required, true; yet a dash of something still best described as inspiration is really the determining factor.” The jury’s still out on whether or not my creative writing possesses that spark, but I can attest to the “all the thinking power within the seven-doored chamber of the skull” part. Writing stretches and challenges us, which I think is both why I keep being lured into playing hooky from writing–who, after all, really unreservedly likes hard work?–and why I keep being irresistibly drawn back to it.

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Back in 1985, as I recall, science fiction writer Frederik Pohl was a guest of honor at Life, the Universe and Everything, BYU’s annual science fiction and fantasy symposium (still running, by the way. My son Nathan is co-chair this year. Tracy Hickman is the writer guest of honor, Jim Christensen is the artist guest of honor, and Dave Wolverton/Farland is expected to show up as well. February 19-21. Don’t miss it.)

Ahem.

Anyway, as I remember it, Pohl let us know that he wanted some unscheduled time that he could use to write in his hotel room each day while he was here. He’d found by long experience–so he said–that if he didn’t get in at least 4 pages of writing a day, it became progressively easier not to write on each subsequent day.

I don’t have anything like that kind of a set routine. Basically, I’m still stumbling around trying to figure out what works for me–trying to get to a point where something does work for me: the right balance of writing and not-writing, focus and distraction and realignment, time spent on what I think of as writing support services (research; sales and publicity–such as it is at this point; nagging my test readers; reading about writing; writing about writing) versus time actually producing text.

I have managed to acquire a kind of internal sense for when I haven’t done enough writing yet, and then a slightly (perhaps deceptively) different sense for when I’ve done enough and should walk away from it awhile. A way of noticing, I guess, which type of imbalance I’m suffering from at any given moment. (And we all know that writers are unbalanced anyway.) It’s a start.

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They say that people who exercise frequently come to like the endorphins that get released during the process, so that exercising becomes enjoyable for them. (You’ll guess from my language that this isn’t something I’ve had enough experience with to know about firsthand.) That seems kind of kinky to me–a kind of chemically induced masochism–but hey, whatever works.

I was really excited one time, hearing a writing friend of mine describe what sounded like a writing-based equivalent of this–until I realized that he was, in fact, talking about actual physical exercise, not natural happy-chemicals released from his writing habit. Rats.

The thing is, though, that I sometimes do feel something like this. A kind of pleasant mental burn, accompanying the ache of effort. Not all that often, and not all that much, but enough to make me hope that maybe someday, if I really get into training with my writing, that kind of thing will happen often enough to make writing mentally and emotionally easier than it is at present. That I’ll be able to produce my own happy-drugs from writing. (And what does it say about how I think about writing, that one of my fondest wishes would be to attain a chemically altered state that I don’t have to confess to my bishop about? Hm.)

If I ever get there, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, here’s to lurching on from one off-balance state of writing consciousness to another . . .

12 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie #3: Off Balance”

  1. Beginnings a trackless waste
    Middles a horrible confused moment
    Endings like ashes

    This is some good stuff, Jonathan. It might sound a little overwrought and bleak to some people. But writers (or at least this writer) does experience certain emotions as those points in the writing process. Middles, especially, are the worst for me. It does often feel like wrestling something that is neither alive nor dead.

  2. William,

    Glad the similes (or are they metaphors in this case?) connect with you. Yeah, they’re over the top, but when else can we have fun with overwrought language if not when we’re writing about ourselves? “Oh, the agony…”

  3. I have an ongoing mental conversation with myself about the role that creative/fiction writing should have in my life. Sometimes I’ve got myself convinced that it’s the equivalent of a hobby, but other times I realize that it’s too much work to be considered a hobby, and you can’t help but hope the work might lead to successful publication, which makes it a would-be profession, not a hobby.

    I too write/edit for a living. Even when I’m doing all kinds of whorish work solely for money, as I have been doing with all my spare time recently, I am fantasizing about getting back to my novel, memoir, personal blog, etc. I do get a buzz from working on all of those personal outlets, although I also cause myself some anxiety by trying to get myself onto schedules and by thinking too much about publication prospects. I really do hope to get my personal creative writing more onto the hobby level, somehow, something that may be possible now that I’m middle aged and have already tried and failed so many times at monetizing/professionalizing my creative writing.

    I’m really hoping 2009 brings me a few open months for personal writing, but hopefully not because the paying work dries up!

  4. “Walking and Falling,” by Laurie Anderson

    You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you’re falling. And then catching yourself from falling. And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time.

  5. Eric,

    Kind of creepy (the video, I mean). Thanks for sharing.

    Looking at this now, I’m sure I must have read this sometime, since it’s so similar to the idea I started out with. Who’s Laurie Anderson, and where would I have encountered this?

  6. Well, that tells me how out of touch I am with popular culture.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen (heard?) O Superman. And I have no idea who Lou Reed is.

    Crawling back into my cave…

  7. You’re not out of touch with popular culture — you’re out of touch with indie/underground culture, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    I’m not much of a fan of either Lou Reed or Laurie Anderson’s work (although that was a great reference, Eric. I should have thought of it myself). A bit too avant garde for me (although I am indebted to Lou Reed for his work with The Velvet Underground because that band influenced pretty much all the bands I like).

  8. Some thoughts from about a week ago…

    I experienced a benefaction today, a gift of grace: a day when my writing went well, when scenes fell into place and problems righted themselves that I had not even known were there, when characters sat down and opened their hearts up to me and showed me more than I knew they contained.

    The last several days have been a struggle. Yesterday in particular was hard: tense, nervous, unhappy. Every bit of writing I did was an effort, and I tried to write nearly all day. But today… today…

    I didn’t even start trying to writing until the middle of the day. I’d talked with friends before then, chatted about our scandalously cold weather (-26°F this morning), looked on blogs. Read books, which I kept doing off and on all day long.

    And by the evening, I was sitting on the couch and scribbling away, carefree and only mildly astonished at it–as if the previous day’s labors had happened in some other universe to some other Jonathan, whose panic and distress were only phantom pains to the calmly composing figure in my living room.

    It was all too much; the snap from one day to the next too extreme, too extravagant to be dumbly accepted in the normal way of one day following another. I could only call it what it was: a gift, and a reminder that all days are gifts, all power to do and act and mate intention with capacity. All, all is a gift, and we too blind to see except when it flashes in upon us, suddenly and surprisingly.

    I don’t know what the cause was: superior sleep or chemical balance; earned accumulation of all the previous day’s work; grace of friends who wrote, talked, and answered–careful management of my affairs, or even the fact that today, low on milk, I skipped my morning cereal and ate leftover quiche instead. (It’s worth a thought. As a child, I was allergic to milk.) Or even that my anti-gout dosage dropped another notch today, leaving my body less stressed by pills than the day before. (It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of Prednisone.)

    Tolkien describes the Eucatastrophe of the fairy-story as “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” Already the shadows of parting fall upon my day of grace, faint yet regretful; and I scribble away, unable to sleep, saddened by the guess that tomorrow will dawn ugly, tired, irritable, catarrh in the nose and a shrewish temper in the mind. But today–today is a gift for which I am purely grateful.

  9. Wonderful, Jonathan. Thanks for sharing. I have moments when I’m in the zone, but they come far too seldom.

    In his book about craftsmanship, Richard Sennett suggests that the more experience one has with something — the more hours logged — the easier it is to get in to that zone (assuming all the right conditions are met, which as you note, isn’t always possible and sometimes we’re not even sure what they were).

    Perhaps writing is like baking — the humidity has to be just right.

  10. And even then, if the flour has been sitting around too long, it’ll wind up tasting sour anyway.

    Frankly, I think drugs might help. Or a shot of whiskey. Too bad it’s against the WoW. So unfair…

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