What A Writer Lives For

Writing is a tough bag. One must sit for hours on end, bashing away at the unforgiving machine, reworking intractable sentences, marshaling uncooperative characters, and generally beating about the bush with something called a plot. It is a dreadful industry filled with crackpots and dreamers, psychotic failures, and of course a fair share profiteers whose primary purpose in life is to swindle the more sensitive elements of society by making them believe that their feelings are important.

Having dedicated no small percentage of my life to the pursuit of this field, I feel I have earned the privilege of taking a few shots. Of course, this is bound to sound like sour grapes. It can’t be helped any more than the use of that cliche. It is, simply put, the way it is.

My literary process is rather simple. I begin with an idea, a character or scene, and then I twist it around in my head until get myself worked up enough to believe I’ve actually got something. This takes approximately ninety seconds. At which point, I begin the long process of decay which ends with the idea that seemed so radiant and pure reduced to something literary equivalent to a mutilated puppy wrapped in festive paper and topped with a bow. This takes approximately six months to one year, though I reserve the right to revisit the concept every eighteen months so that I can remind myself of how fantastic the idea was while flogging myself for being such a poor writer.

It’s pointless really. I only feel good when I quit. I never feel good when I’m actually working on a story.

Non-fiction is even worse. If I sit down to work on an idea for an article, or a book, I immediately seize up with a crisis of qualifications. Who am I to write article X? Who am I to say anything about the subject?

The only subject of which I am wholly familiar and in fact an undisputed expert is that of unrealized potential. As a professional underachiever, I strive to lower the bar at every turn. And yet, there is always someone who sees something in me and gives me responsibility. Invariably, this leads to some measure of success, though I never accept that success as my own.

Of course, in writing, there is no one else to whom one might point. If the book is a success, then you, the author, are the successful one! At some very primal level, this is completely unacceptable to me. It is terrifying. I actually tremble at the idea of someone saying, “You know, I really liked that story. It touched me.”

[Please feel free to make up your own variations here. No doubt each and every one would fill me with a similar sense of dread.]

In any case, talent and intellect are two dreadful assets for any writer. They are the very things that will keep you from succeeding. Talent will make you over confident in your skills to the point you will not accept criticism. Intellect will cause you to overanalyze your situation, your characters, your plot; it will force you into a stalemate with yourself. Eventually, you’ll get frustrated and quit.

This is what I do.

When I quit writing, I always feel so much better. I feel free. My talent is no longer a threat and my intellect is no longer engaged. I can relax. Of course, at this point, my creative mind kicks in and comes up with a dozen new ideas, each one more tempting than the last. If I give in, just a little, I end up running down the path of destruction once more.

As a young man, this path led to very dark days and nights. I walked around with a brooding scowl. I snapped at everyone and everything. There was no solution either. I felt that I had to continue, that I was trapped in a cycle of creative self-destruction. Predictably, this led to drink which does nothing more than feed into the process. Drinking removes the very barriers that keep talent and intellect intact.

Inevitably though, one burns through. You emerge on the far side and look back on the destruction. You shake your head and wonder exactly what it was you saw in that project or even in the art itself. You move on with the light of a new day before you.

It won’t be long though before the itch begins again. You will see a book in a shop window, or hear some author speak on the radio. You will curse them. The thought comes on so strong that you are wasting your life.

But how, I ask, is living a waste of your life? How much living do you think goes on at the writer’s desk? Writing is the habit of madmen.

I see little point in telling stories about dragons or magicians or detectives or spies. I see little point in describing the fine details of a summer day in the country or the curve of a woman’s back. I see little point in making readers smile or cry or raise their fists in fury. I see little point to any of it, but I an inexorably drawn to it. I crave the moment when the idea first takes hold and I see before me the entire landscape of the book open in one sweeping vision. It is breathtaking and awesome.

This is what a writer lives for. The rest of it is merely trying to recapture that moment with the futile tools given to us by the craft.

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