The Writing Rookie Season 2, #2: Choose to Write! (When a Choice Is Placed Before You…)

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

Every minute of every day, each of us has to choose what he or she will do next.

Okay, maybe not every minute of every day. Practically speaking, most of the time we’re in the middle of tasks we’ve already started, and so not really actively thinking about our options. I suppose that technically, even at those times we’re choosing to continue what we’re doing by not choosing to do something else, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the times when we pause at least briefly between two or more options. So maybe every 15 minutes, or every half-hour if we’re particularly focused or stuck in a meeting or something. Then again, who knows what we’re actually doing mentally while we’re in those meetings? (For the purposes of this paragraph, I’m choosing to ignore all those hours we spend sleeping, in comas, being experimented upon by aliens, etc., on the grounds that they’re not relevant to my point. Not relevant, I tell you! Bad reader! No milk bones for you.)

Ahem.

Anyway, it occurs to me that one very simple definition of a writer is someone who — among all the myriads of other things he or she could be doing — chooses to write often enough to actually produce something. The rest, as Einstein might say, is details. (And don’t you just want to whap Einstein upside the head when he says that? And people like me when they quote him?)

I like this way of thinking, because it puts the emphasis at a level where I find it manageable. I’m not the sort of person who can decide to sit down and write something for four or six or eight or twelve hours, five or six days a week, until I get it done. What I can do is choose to write in this particular moment — sometimes — and see what follows from there.

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Science fiction author Robert Silverberg (so I’ve heard) can produce 25 pages of text a day when he’s in writing mode. (Pause for all the writers and would-be writers to contemplate the pleasant thought of taking out a contract on Robert Silverberg.)

I can’t do that. Okay, maybe I could do that, if I was high on the Mormon equivalent of speed (and when you find out what that is, could you tell me?), but anything I produced would be garbage. And after two days of that, I’d be useless for the next month.

Much of the process of being a writer consists of strategies to increase the likelihood of choosing to write at any particular point in time. The process is illustrated admirably (both literally and figuratively) in Edward Gorey’s very brief story, The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel, which by the way I highly recommend for all the writers on your gift list, assuming that they have the right kind of offbeat sense of humor to appreciate Gorey. (But then, they’re writers, which ups the chances significantly.) I quote: “For writing Mr Earbrass affects an athletic sweater of forgotten origin and unknown significance; it is always worn hind-side-to… Mr Earbrass belongs to the straying, rather than to the sedentary, type of author. He is never to be found at his desk unless actually writing down a sentence. Before this happens he broods over it indefinitely while picking up and putting down again small, loose objects; walking diagonally across rooms; staring out windows; and so forth. He frequently hums, more in his mind than anywhere else, themes from the Poddington Te Deum.”

Some writers have routines. I highly recommend that, if you can pull it off. I have bad habits, which I’m constantly trying to evade for long enough to be at least a marginally useful human being. In the case of writing, rather than trying to write at a set time, what I’m learning to do is try to recognize those moments when story ideas and writing impulses are tapping on the window of my brain, and then go and let them in rather than run screaming into the night.

And then (to push the metaphor a bit) I do my best to jog along with my visitor as far as I can, until he/she/gtst vanishes into thin air or goes off in some crazy direction or leads me on until I drop, exhausted, by the side of the road. Not that crazy directions are necessarily bad, mind you. But it’s important to distinguish between crazy-good directions and crazy-falling-off-cliffs directions. At least, once one has fallen off the cliff, it’s important to be able to recognize that you and your story did just go over a cliff, and maybe it would be a good idea to get back up, climb out, and choose another route.

A certain degree of courage is required. Or, as the common misreading has it: “let no spirit of discretion overcome you in the [writing] hour.” The point is that you move. You do something. You write. Without that, nothing else one says or thinks or does as a writer is really important.

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Story writing (as I believe I may have written in a previous post for this series) requires a variety of self-induced monomania. Unfortunately, in my case at least, the tricks I use for throwing myself into that state are likely as not to backfire. Sitting down to “get to it” increases the pressure, and thus the urge to run away. Easing into it by doing other related things (such as writing a blog post about writing) can quickly become a substitute for the thing itself. At this point in my life, I find advice and experiences from other writers depressing rather than motivating. And the last time I tried to tell my wife and daughter about a story idea, they told me to go away. (The idea, so they informed me, was too embarrassing for them to listen to.)

The best and most productive times, I often find, are those occasions when the impulse to write sneaks up on me en route to doing other things. I can’t quite make myself believe that scribbling story scenes during sacrament meeting is a sign either of my own spirituality or the worth of my stories. (Indeed, logic rather suggests the reverse.) But writing moments are too precious to sacrifice, whenever they come.

It’s my hope that someday, once I’ve proven to the muse (and to myself) that I can be trusted to write at the times I’ve set aside for writing, that it will become possible for me to create and keep a real writing schedule. In the meantime, my goal is simply to find time to write, on a frequent if not regular basis, and see what happens.

4 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie Season 2, #2: Choose to Write! (When a Choice Is Placed Before You…)”

  1. Great post, Jonathan, and I’m very similar to you in the way I approach (avoid?) writing. Sometimes I think I need to pull a Jonathan Franzen and move into a windowless room then disable my computer’s ability for internet connectivity before I can really get anything done. But that ain’t gonna happen.

    One thing I have been doing lately, though, is trying my best to write during my youngest’s preschool, and most of the time I take my laptop and go to Panera to write. I reward myself with a cinnamon crunch bagel and a big Diet Coke, and I’m not distracted by the ringing phone or undone laundry, etc., that always assault me at home. It’s been good.

    I still need to be more disciplined, though, overall. Discipline is huge and is the major difference between being a dilettante and an actual writer.

  2. Excellent article! I think about my options a lot lately, the older I get. I used to write voraciously. It felt like I was driven to write stories and poetry. Now more and more I just want to relax and read some of the beloved literature I once read and would like to read again. A lot of the current books being written leave me cool.

    Anyway, discipline. We don’t get anything done, whatever it is we want to do, without it.

    I always carry a notebook on Sundays, too, just in case the muse smiles during Sacrament meeting!!

  3. So far the library, airplane and bed seem to be the best places for me to work on fiction. There are major barriers to each, though. What I do find is that the desktop computer in the living room just doesn’t work for me much anymore. Not even to write blog posts. My life is just too busy and my energy too drained for me to a) sit down and b) be productive.

    I’m thinking maybe I should get a voice recorder and start taking walks (when it’s a little warmer outside).

  4. It’s true. Choosing to write.

    Why is it so hard to sit down and do it, sometimes? If we love it, why is it hard to make ourselves write that first line? A musician doesn’t have a hard time playing the first chord, does he?

    Anyway. My savior in this matter has been a schedule. My will power is stronger than my self-confidence, and so I made a goal to write, first thing in the morning, and not stop until I’ve got 1100 words (ala Phillip Pullman) and it has been the BEST thing I have ever done. That, more even than joining my critique group, has improved my skill, I think. In a way, having all the kids I think helps me, becuase I feel like I have to get it in, there is no “rest of the day” to find me-time. I don’t know what I’m going to do when they all leave the house.

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