With so many many hats and masks and roles, life is complicated. There are responsibilities. There are expectations. There are even expectations of the expectations.
We writers take on an extra set of burdens by hitching ourselves to the multiverse inside our heads. We scribble and plot. We create whole civilizations. We illustrate the fine details of lives of those who have never existed; will never exist, except in our own minds.
And yet, the one thing we probably do more than anything else is futz about with trying to justify our writing in the face of life’s other responsibilities.
Here’s how the process often works:
- Writer has an idea.
- Write can’t stop thinking about the idea.
- Writer messes about sketching or perhaps doing some actual writing.
- Writer tell lots of people they are writing.
- They politely ask about the subject or the story.
- Writer then hisses like a scalded cat exclaiming that They could never understand.1
- Writer is filled with self-doubt and reminded of their deep reserves of self-loathing.
- Writer stops writing altogether.
- Writer expends considerable effort justifying or explaining not writing.
- The formerly polite They now lose all interest because the only thing more boring to listening to someone talk about the writing they are going to do is listening them blame everything under the sun for not writing at all (including the They).
- Writer takes the ambivalence of They as proof of disapproval and lack of support for the writer’s “writing”. This judgement also serves as a fine side dish to another heaping serving of self-loathing.
- Writer decides that taking over the world is really the only option to find the time to write. Plans begin to take shape.
- GOTO 1
 Step 5 usually takes place entirely inside the writer’s mind. In reality, they fumble about with some explanation (usually boring) to which the polite person replies, “That’s nice.” This is the cue for the aforementioned hissing.
After a lifetime of doing this myself, I have a simple bit of advice: Don’t do it.
Don’t defend your right to write. Don’t explain why you need to write. Don’t even both to justify the amount of time you’re going to spend writing. It is a futile effort. As you can see above, you’re mostly fighting against yourself, and that fight takes precious energy and resolve away from the act of writing itself and feeds it to the ever-hungry and impatient Imp of Self-Loathing embedded deep within your writer’s brain. Ultimately, the defense of writing is really your own inability to come to grips with the fact that you are the one who controls what you do. Any argument to the contrary is bullshit and part of #9 above.
I don’t need to point out that is is much easier said than done. Also, if I start to list the reasons why I’m actually gearing up to serve some tasty vittles to the Imp of Self-Loathing.
Really, don’t do it. Just know that life is complicated. It’s complicated for everyone, not just you, but you have choices. Some may say it takes courage to write in the face of this truth, but it really takes something else…
Which is Writing
My least productive writing years (which I would argue that I’m living through right now) were the years where I spent incredible mental energy trying to justify the time I spent sitting in the sun with my laptop or a notebook and a pen, utterly failing, and doing whatever was “expected” of me.
In other words, I was not writing, and this is not how one becomes a writer.
One becomes a writer by writing and one does that by actually writing. If you took my list of steps above and stopped at #3 and looped around and around and around again, you’d eventually find that a sizable amount of writing would pile up. Some of it would be good and some of it would be shit, but that’s the way it works.
I can say that this works because I’ve done it. My most productive writing years have been those where I basically told everyone to fuck off (including myself), that it was none of their business when or how long I spent writing, or even why or what I was writing in the first place. I didn’t think about any of that crap. I just put my butt in the chair, my fingers on the keys, and I wrote. Some days it was good and some days it was shit, but that’s the way it works.
How to Screw Everything and Just Write
I’m going to remind you of one of the most important lessons in writing:
Show Don’t Tell
This is the thing we’ve all heard a hundred times and while the reference is usually about the style of our writing, this time I’m making it about the act of writing itself.
In all your attempts to explain your writing (the work, the need, etc), you are telling. You are not showing. If you kept your mouth shut, sat down, and actually wrote, you’d be writing. If you did that, you’d find that it’s pretty obvious to everyone what you are doing and they couldn’t refute that you are doing it. If you did that, you’d find that your work would begin to pile up. If you did that, you’d find that you were spending a lot of time writing.
If you spent a lot of time writing, you’d be screwing everything else and writing.
This is writing, and writing is not complicated. In fact, writing is utterly ridiculous. It defies logic and all sensible thought. It is wasteful and inefficient. It is impractical and insane. And yet, writing is essential because it produces the bedrock of the human experience.
The product of writing encapsulates ideas and gives meaning to otherwise meaningless drudgery. It is entertainment. It is escape. It is religion and war. It is truth and lies. The product of writing is chronicle of the human race devised one word at a time by untold minds separated by time and space. It is a magical beast and it is yours and mine.
So I’m not going to give you permission to write. You don’t need that. You don’t need courage or the faith of others. You don’t need a reason or any other validation. What you need is to focus on the work and let the rest sort itself out.
Now, show yourself what you’ve got.
5 thoughts on “How to Screw Everything and Just Write”
This is just what I needed to hear today. Thank you for the excellent post!
Jamie, thank you as always for being so transparent about your own challenges as a writer. So much of this struck a chord for me but oddly it was one phrase that really got me “my least productive writing years.” I don’t know why but it flipped a light for me. I am living those years now but had beaten myself up by thinking of them as “non-writing” and other self-flagellating terms which I will not recount here. However, I am still a writer and when it comes to personal writing some years are more productive than others. Somehow your statement freed me from the self loathing and allowed me to embrace that while not ideal to be less productive it does not revoke my lifetime membership to the club. Thanks Jamie for the insight and honesty.
Great post. Had to do post and link to it. Hope you don’t mind.
@Olivia – My pleasure! So many writers spend time looking for the “approval” to write. Far more productive to actually be writing instead.
@Karen – Glad I could help you recognize that. 🙂
I fell off the horse a while ago, shortly after attending the national conference. I think seeing all the successful writers there actually intimidated me, rather than inspire me. I’m successfully published in many areas, just not my favorite area, my novels. But you’ve inspired me to sit back down in the chair and really focus.