Inspired vs. Prompted Writing
May 6, 2009 7:29 PM   Subscribe

I can only write well when I'm inspired, and even then it's only at blog-post length. Any time I set out do something larger, my brain shuts down.

I've tried at least 100 different approaches to move beyond random, spur-of-the-moment blogging to something I could get published.

One Saturday morning, I followed the advice to just keep putting words on paper. What followed was a 10-page piece of short-story fiction written in about 2 hours. However, the rest of my weekend was shot. My eyesight was blurry, and I felt off when socializing. I had to spend the rest of the weekend playing video games and watching TV to recover.

I then showed the piece to some friends and they thought it was good but needed some corrections. I tried to revise my work, but then came this nagging sense in my mind like, "what's the point??" I hated my work. I felt no connection to it at all. I forced myself to keep revising though, and then I submitted it to a couple magazines. One replied back saying it needed some minor technical work. I could have made the fixes, but I hated the process so much I just gave up.

Without fail, any time I set out to write, rather than have it come to me, I hate it.

The bursts of steam I get only manifest into 1-5 paragraph length blog posts. I want to make articles and books that get published.

After 6 years of pinning my hopes on becoming a writer, I'm now at the point where I'm ready to give up.

Part of me is suspicious because I never saw any potential for me as a writer until I was 20 and started blogging. I feel like I should have at least evinced some early talent or interest. Also, I think there may just be something so categorically different between blogging and other writing mediums. My blogging feels very much like conversations with my friends. Often we'll just go off on some deep tangent or burst.
posted by pauldonato to Writing & Language (43 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
Spend less time on the internet, playing video games, or watching TV. Seriously. Try to go a week or more at a time without logging on to any of these things. During that week, when you would be logged on, try writing. I know the view is derided around here, for obvious reasons, but I actually think the internet is bad for the kind of sustained attention that good reading and writing require. The internet is killing our attention spans. Spend less time online. It will do wonders for your concentration.
posted by ornate insect at 7:34 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Just realized I didn't put a question in here. Here's my question: How do I move beyond random bursty inspired blog-writing to something I could get published? Or should I not take these bursts of inspiration to indicate that I can become a writer?
posted by pauldonato at 7:36 PM on May 6, 2009


I second ornate insects' comments! I will add this: Find out what time of the day you best do focused work. Sorry to say, but it's probably going to be early! Start by getting up 1 hour before you usually would get up to get ready for school, work, whatnot, even if it means missing a little sleep. Second, try mediating daily. Don't just sit there with your eyes closed, letting all your troubles run through your head; google and find instructions for a simple meditation and give it a try. Can't hurt.
posted by bobbyno at 7:42 PM on May 6, 2009


I forced myself to keep revising though, and then I submitted it to a couple magazines. One replied back saying it needed some minor technical work. I could have made the fixes, but I hated the process so much I just gave up.

Based on this, it sounds like yeah, you have the raw talent to be a successful writer. If I'm reading it right, the first piece of real fiction you ever wrote basically got accepted by a magazine.

Here's what you need to do, and sorry if it sounds harsh:

take that word "inspiration" you keep mentioning, and throw it in the trash. Professional writers work at it. Like all work, sometimes it's fun, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it feels good, sometimes it feels shitty. But you go to work every day either way.

It sounds to me like maybe you overworked yourself on your story. There's no need to write so much in one fell swoop- I think that's more the exception than the norm, outside of heavy drug users. Most writers I know or know of just do an hour or to a day- but they do it consistently.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:44 PM on May 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


Welcome to my world. Don't you feel like somebody just bled your brain after you write?????? Perhaps you are destined to be a short-story writer or blogger. There is no shame in any of those vocations. I am on legal narcotics, and I find that vicodin has a strange effect on the clarity of my writing, and the quality of the work. I certainly do not recommend that you take narcotics or opiates illegally, but it sure works for me. I did your zombie thing one day and wrote my life story, with only bathroom and water breaks. If you got as far as an editor even LOOKING at your work, you are talented. Keep going, you just may have to re-frame your long term goals. Good luck!
posted by ~Sushma~ at 7:46 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


And don't worry about your "concentration" - that's ridiculous. Anyone who writes something magazine-worthy in two hours flat has no problem with concentration- if anything he has too much.

For me, and maybe this is just be, but a big part of feeling good or bad about writing is about feeling good or bad period, in life. Some days I feel like it's such a struggle, and I hate the process, and it's nothing to do with writing- it's just me being in a bad mood, or depressed.

Be good to yourself, don't push yourself too hard, and keep doing the things that relax you- be that TV, internet, meditation, whatever. There's no glory in burning yourself out trying to write every free minute of the day.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:48 PM on May 6, 2009


I thought my attention span was shot from Metafilter, too, but then I actually published a book...

The idea that you have to wait for "inspiration" to strike can be harmful to actually getting words on the page. There have been a lot of convincing arguments made that the whole idea of the "Muse" has been overrated at the expense of discipline and practice. The guy who does 43Folders.com talks about this.

If you sit your ass in a chair, run a Net-blocking program like Freedom, and make yourself put words on the page, the bursts of inspiration can follow. I feel you on the "why do I bother with this shit" feelings of shame. I finally got over that by remembering to do it for fun and possibility, as if I'm writing a long e-mail to a friend, and not trying to do some self-important writer thing.

I'm gonna go run Freedom and stop dicking around...
posted by Kirklander at 7:49 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you want to be a writer you've just got to so that- write.

I wonder if you need some validation- if a magazine returned your article with some suggestions- then work on it and get it done- it will get puvlished and you will receive an enormous confidence boost- and validation that you can do this stuff. The more you do this, the less time you will have for the internet and video games.
posted by mattoxic at 7:54 PM on May 6, 2009


What I do to write (although I don't write for the purposes of publishing written pieces) is I have a digital timer. I put 30 to 90 minutes on it depending on how writeful I am feeling, and focus 100% on writing for the entire time. No email, etc.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 8:05 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


One Saturday morning, I followed the advice to just keep putting words on paper. What followed was a 10-page piece of short-story fiction written in about 2 hours. However, the rest of my weekend was shot. My eyesight was blurry, and I felt off when socializing. I had to spend the rest of the weekend playing video games and watching TV to recover.

That's an insane pace. While people exist, I'm sure, who can write that much, I don't know any.

Try writing, instead, a little bit each day. I'd recommend 500 words a day. This often won't feel like a lot--sometimes you'll stop in the middle of a scene. This is a good thing! It will make it easier to get started the next day.

But yeah, writing (and even more, editing) is hard work. I've just finished up an MFA program in writing, and I'm skeptical about the use of "talent." To me, that's something that non-writers talk about it make it seem like writers have it easy--like they pluck the words, magically, out of the sky. The truth is that you get things written by working very hard at them. Talent helps, but not much.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:20 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you don't enjoy writing.

I'm going to give you the same advice that I give everyone who hates their job. Find another career. Just because you can do something well, doesn't mean you must. Yes, you've invested as few years in this dream. Those are sunk costs. Lots of people invest years in a career that turns out to be a mistake. No biggie, you just move on to the next dream.
posted by 26.2 at 8:28 PM on May 6, 2009


Well, you don't need to make it your job. It's a bad job, the pay is terrible unless you're Roberto Orci.
posted by Kirklander at 8:41 PM on May 6, 2009


Well-intentioned ideas such as NaNoWriMo aside, if you're looking to get published as a professional writer, the inspiration for what you're writing needs to come first. If you're writing just to get to a page number, of course you're going to hate your work. Really, however, the fact that people reading your work critically (including a magazine intent on publishing it!) simply thought it needed another draft means that your writing must be pretty solid. Remember, "The first draft of anything is shit."

Your first draft, like mine Hemmingway's and anyone else's, was shit, but it was shit that others saw promise in, and you've got to leanr that revisions are not a sign of defeat but rather an unavoidable and, in fact, fantastic part of the process, once you get used to them.

Writing professionally has to be more than just using up your bursts of inspiration and then leaving it at that. A lot of the time it sucks. It's hard. Your problem isn't that you aren't inspired enough for the long haul, but that you're not (YET!) disciplined enough to keep going over the uninspired patches, and then to go back again and revise. But it sounds like you've got the talent, so now you need the discipline.

As someone who finds (or found, anyway, I'm on a sort of writing hiatus of late) a lot of fuel in structure, I'd suggest that once you find a subject or story worth writing as a long project (think: short novel) that you structure it in a way that allows for short chapters that your creative bursts can sustain. Outline how these fit together into the broader theme when you don't have the mental energy required for creation, and tell enough people (okay, this is a NaNoWriMo trick, but it works) that you'll have them asking how the project is going, so that you won't just shove it in a drawer once you get discouraged.

Take a step back when reading your own work critically. Read it as you would a friend's work. Don't think, "I don't like this, I shouldn't have written this." Think, "This doesn't work. Let me tell that friend why it doesn't work and what could make it better."

I'll probably stop back in here when more ideas come to me. Good luck!
posted by Navelgazer at 9:12 PM on May 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


I wrote a novel. It took me three years, about two to write the first draft (that includes plotting, false starts, style-development and such) and another year of revision. I write slowly, so you may not need to take that long. My favorite way to write was to go to a café, most often alone but sometimes with someone else who needed to get work done too. I'd write long-hand on paper and then later that day or the next day I'd enter it into a word processor. Besides getting shit done it meant that I wasn't at the computer, I was far away from the other temptations of home and it gave me a feeling of 'doing something' just by going.

What I'm saying is that there's no need to rush. Take your time. Find a rhythm that works for you and keep at it.

Oh, and a lot of writers can't stand what they've written. William Gibson once said something along the lines of he knows a book is finished when he finds himself telling his wife in a state of panic that it's the worst novel that anyone has written ever and that he should throw it in the trash.
posted by Kattullus at 9:27 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Okay, I've got something else already. I am one of those who tends to write at the same pace that you mentioned. However, that's only if the circumstances are right. I only attempted to ever write one novel in any serious capacity (it was lost in a foolish computer disaster after the first 200 pages, which was a tragedy, as it was truly very good by all accounts of those who'd been reading it as it progressed) but most of my work has been writing feature-length screenplays.

Once I've got an idea down for a screenplay (which can take years of incubation, mind you, but thankfully I always have a dozen or so knocking around in my brain) I can write the first act (roughly 30 pages) in a day. Later, I can write the last 45-60 pages in a furious night. And I'll be happy with all of that. What takes weeks or months of bloodletting is the 30-45 pages in between those sections. But you get it done because you have to get it done.

I'm going to recommend something to you, but understand that if I were there with you personally I'd actually take over your computer and credit card and forcefully demand it: Find a copy of Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. It's a book by an editor that's not about how to write - there are too many of those books already, and a good many of them are shit - but about how specifically to deal with the many different forms that writer's angst can take. The chapters on "The Ambivalent Writer" and "The Natural" should be particularly helpful. Thankfully, they are also the first two chapters.

I'm not kidding, that book contains a couple hundred pages of better advice than even AskMe can give you.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:29 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well, I was going to advise you to commit to writing some small amount every day, because sitting down and trying to write an entire article, short story, or book at once generally doesn't happen. (Well, some articles and short stories may come to you out of nowhere, but anyway.) What is possible is writing a page or two, something so easy that if you don't do it, you feel ridiculous about it. If you're sitting down and writing an amount that requires days worth of recovery time for you, that's not sustainable. It doesn't matter what the amount is, or if someone else's amount is higher, or whatever. All that matters is what you are capable of doing without getting burnt out.

But I'm hesitant to continue on with that advise because you don't sound like you enjoy anything about writing, and I don't feel quite right encouraging someone to do something they simply don't enjoy. Perhaps that's just how it came across though.

I think the first thing you should ask yourself is why you want to write at all. Write this out to refer back to. If your only answer is "to be published," then ask yourself why you want to be published. What would it do for you, or mean to you, how would your life be more fulfilling? If you have no desires aside from wanting to be published, then yes, you're not going to feel any connection to your work. To have that connection, you need to identify something you want badly to express.

So figure out what you want to express. Put publication out of your mind for now; if you're worrying about what other people find valuable and worth publishing, then you're not writing what it is you find valuable. You worry about publication when you edit, and you can't edit if you haven't written. Right now you need to shut the door and focus on yourself and what you want to say. A good place to start is with something that you find uncomfortable to talk about. Sit down and confront whatever that is. Write out your feelings just for your own benefit; it's nothing you have to show anyone else. Give the topic a lot of thought. You will figure out a way to get across whatever it is you want to say. whether it be in a story or article. The actual writing is always hard work, but if you ever lose sight of why you're writing it, you'll have your private writings about why it's important to you to refer back to.

For me, at least, writing is where I go to sublimate things. Anything irrational or cruel or pathetic that I don't act on in real life goes there. Any paths I didn't take goes into the writing. It's a crucial outlet so the connection I feel to what I write is strong and inevitable. Writing anything else is a chore.

And if you realize that you simply don't like writing, that it doesn't provide any sort of meaningful outlet that makes you connect with it, then there's no shame in quitting.
posted by Nattie at 9:32 PM on May 6, 2009


And here's today's suspiciously applicable Cat & Girl comic.

The point is that while chasing anything worth pursuing there are going to be some pretty bad days. That's all that they are, bad days.

Also, writing fiction, like anything else, takes practice. The more you write the less exhausted you are afterwards and the longer you can just sit and stare at a piece of paper.
posted by Kattullus at 9:39 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


@Nattie that's an interesting take. The thing is, I really enjoy my inspired bursts of blog-sized insight. It feels like heroin (never done heroin actually), and the writing I produce under those auspices looks soo good (to me at least) that I feel great revising it to perfection and telling everybody about it. It's when I try to alter my process and write when I'm uninspired that I lose a weekend.
posted by pauldonato at 9:58 PM on May 6, 2009


@drjimmy11 I think that's a really clever take on it. It's led me to other ideas, that maybe I can substitute the word "inspired" for "excited" because that more generalizes the state I'm under when I have those bursts of the writing-that-I-want.
posted by pauldonato at 9:59 PM on May 6, 2009


Two books you should read:

1. Stephen King's On Writing. I cringe a tiny bit whenever I recommend this, because I'm never sure where someone is going to be on the "Stephen King: Hack/Stephen King: Genius" continuum, but whatever you may think of his output, this has some very, very good advice about writing and the writing process. He also gets into editing, polishing, and whatnot. Reading what he wrote about his own process flicked on a light in my brain of, "...Okay, huh, that makes sense." (For the record, he suggests a target of 2,000 words a day when you're writing something -- you can of course go for more if you're on a roll, but trying to get that much down per day gets your ass in a chair and working. He also said something in there that I personally found very encouraging, about talent: "If you write something, and someone pays you for it, and their paycheck does not bounce, and you are able to pay a utility bill with it, you are officially talented.")

2. Anne Lamont's Bird By Bird. Another writer writing about writing. Lamont is candidly and amusingly open about how much of a total mess she feels when she writes, about her self-doubt, anxiety, and all the screaming "oh I hate this why did I write this I just want to throw it in a drawer because it sucks and what's the point" demons that plague you. She has good advice for it, too, but she writes so amusingly and candidly about the actual states themselves that you instantly recognize them all in yourself, and -- more importantly -- can laugh about them. And that makes you feel a bit better...which makes you think "...you know, wait, let me try looking at that last page again..." It gets you over the self-doubt hump.

You've identified the very problem -- writing's easy when you're inspired. It's what you do when you're not inspired that really makes you a writer, and those books may help with that. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:12 PM on May 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


@EmpressCallipygos I hadn't heard of Bird By Bird before, I'll check it out..
posted by pauldonato at 10:19 PM on May 6, 2009


Here's a blog for you to check out, called Daily Routines. They collect stories about all the genius writers and artists and how they literally go about their days. Some of it, too, goes into when they started writing. For me, this blog is affirming because it really shows you how everyone's approach is different.
posted by world b free at 10:49 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


One other thing: I wouldn't presume to offer this as advice, because it only pertains to how my own brain works. But what works for me is, when I absolutely fucking hate getting started, I journal for half an hour to an hour. It really kick starts my brain. And, since my brain likes to make weird associations with things, journaling is a pretty good stimulant.
posted by world b free at 10:55 PM on May 6, 2009


Loved the Daily Routines blog.

This is how I feel about my writing: I'm all over the place when I write, which is all the time. (I write for a living). I should be in a routine, but I start every project as though I've never written before. I'm so disorganized. My ideas are all over the place. I skip all around, or I start back at the beginning again and edit all the way through before adding something new. I wonder how I'll ever finish. As I finish, I wonder what took me so long. This was easy. Why was it so hard? Why did it take so long? Why do people think I'm so organized? I'm not. Next project. . .

In reality I have a routine, but I want to write "all at once." I force myself to stay in a given order for a while, but then reward myself by allowing some skipping around, some writing in the middle, a little out-of-order extra research, and so on. The language is important and must be precise, edit, edit, edit. Edit again. The completed product takes time to finish. This is reality. I have to remind myself of this because I get so frustrated during the process. And, without exception, at the end, I look at my product and wonder why it took so long to finish.

But I love to write. I love to edit. Really, if you don't love it, find something else to do. Also, nth King's book "On writing." Excellent!
posted by inkyr2 at 12:03 AM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I tried "500 words a day" and it didn't do the trick for me, but now we have Writing Hour which for some reason works much better. The idea of both methods is to accumulate some text and then some more. Very few people who write articles or books write large bits of text at a time.
So that should take care of the minor of the problems: the writing of words.

The editing is a whole 'nother problem. As you describe it, your self-criticism kicks in big time here. The only activity that helps me out of there is to structure. Sit back and analyze what you wrote like it's the text of someone else. Fight the impulse to find fault with the content before you actually have understood how the text is composed. Then try to compose it better (begin with looking at the order of things - we tend to write down first what we find most compelling. Often it is rhetorically stronger to build up things instead and wait a little with the 'real good stuff'). Only if the structure is sound, you can go edit words and style or correct content. (I admit that I work a little more like "everything simultaneously" but that's only me).

Whenever you work on your text like this, take good breaks every 45 minutes or so, check it with the kitchen timer and just leave your desk for half an hour or so to do something else.
posted by Namlit at 12:10 AM on May 7, 2009


If you figure roughly 300 words per either a novel page or a blog post, if you write just one page every day you'll have enough for a novel within a year. Then again, you won't find a finished novel on my hard drive either.

Jerry Pournelle, however, has finished quite a few novels. He gives some practical advice on the How To Get My Job page on his website. The entire page is worth reading, but this quote sums it up nicely:
The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don't learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

posted by ob1quixote at 1:00 AM on May 7, 2009


Feels like there's the creative side, something in or near the realm of inspiration, which a whole lot of people say can flow like water or half-frozen molasses from a tap, and the editing-and-revision side, which feels like it takes a different kind of thinking.

Hard to overstate the value of self-editing, revision. When I started reading writers writing about writing, I was (perhaps naively) surprised by the width and breadth of their comments in those regards.

I have some personal experience with this and the revision process is worthwhile about 99.9999999999 percent of the time. A couple family members have gone a lot further with publishing books and articles, looked bewildered by the thought that anyone would not revise/self-edit.

Battle on.
posted by ambient2 at 1:14 AM on May 7, 2009


Ah and: On submitting texts and revising after an editor's request...

It may help if you check out the chapter about "editing" in Howard S. Becker's book Art Worlds. (Apart from the tons of advice in the many above-recommended Books-on-writing, most of which are excellent). Even in scholarly writing (where one would assume that it's all about facts, so why bother about styles), editing is just common practice; Becker's large-scale analysis shows that both the author's revisions and non-author editing are in fact essential even in the most celebrated utterances of art. It is the very essence of why some stuff turns out better than other.

And yes: It is very discouraging for a self-conscious being (as we all are) if an editor (who actually accepted the article/book, for Pete's sake!) comes back with a bunch of requests. Every single one of these, down to issues of caps and colons, spontaneously feels like an attack on the substance of the text, and hence on oneself.
Writing blog posts is - in this respect - easier. You write, publish, and then you watch how many hits you get on your post, and answer the comments; everyone who doesn't share your opinion can be shoved aside. Real publishing isn't like that, and it does require some soul-digging to get friends with the process (which Will Not Change). It seems like your original question is much more about that than about writing.
posted by Namlit at 3:10 AM on May 7, 2009


I haven't read through all of these replies, so sorry if I'm just repeating. I too harbored some dreams of becoming a writer, and I mostly can only write well in short spurts in a blog medium. Over the years I've had the fortune to become friends with a couple of professional, novel-publishing writers. I gotta say, they are a different breed. And the bleeding brain feeling you experienced is their whole life, in a sense. It's an intense, independently driven career that is in many ways on par with all of the rest of the mentally exhausting careers: research scientist, owning your own successful business, being an MD. What I mean to say is that from what I've seen, to truly be successful at it requires almost all of your person.

If you're beginning to come to that same realization and then draw the conclusion that you hate giving all of your person to it, then it is not right for you. I mean, I suppose over time you could learn to hate it less, but life is short. Seems like you could spend that time finding the thing that you don't have giving your all to. Or you could even spend the time working a job that pays the bills that doesn't fuel your passions and use your free time to enjoy your life to the fullest.
posted by sickinthehead at 5:31 AM on May 7, 2009


I'm like you. I find that if I write simply because I "should" in order to meet a quota or something, my writing feels forced and sounds forced on the page. (Playwright here, concepts still apply.)

So instead of sitting down and saying "I will write no matter what..." and see what happens, I trick myself into being inspired. There are multiple ways of doing this. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten is "You can't have writers' block while dancing." I often dance until exhaustion and then plop my (sweaty) body down to they keyboard. When you're physically tired, you can't overthink what you're creating. I've also done other visualization exercises, improv exercises, acting exercises, and used them as jumping points for my work. For me, it's all about by-passing the "writer" who will force words onto a page and force a play into being, to allowing the play to expose itself.

It does mean that I have a lot of short pieces. It also means that I don't write my longer work in order. I create a lot of material and then find where the play is inside of it. The conscious writer comes out then, and I do spend a lot of time rewriting. It takes me at least a year to get a play to a point were I feel it could be production worthy. That process involves lots of rewriting and readings with actors. It also produces an organic piece of work, where action comes out of character motivation, not just because I wanted this event to happen at this time.

And EmpressCallipygos recommended both of the books I would have recommended. I find Bird by Bird particularly useful when I feel like beating myself up for not writing, but both are insightful and have some really funny and charming pieces of advice. Like the Stephen King sentiment on talent that EmpressCallipygos shared. Or Anne Lamont's chapters on Jealousy and Radio FCKD (the frequency of crazy in a writer's head).
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 6:22 AM on May 7, 2009


The thing is, I really enjoy my inspired bursts of blog-sized insight. It feels like heroin (never done heroin actually), and the writing I produce under those auspices looks soo good (to me at least) that I feel great revising it to perfection and telling everybody about it. It's when I try to alter my process and write when I'm uninspired that I lose a weekend.

Then . . . why are you trying to alter your process?

You don't need to write long form fiction or non-fiction in order to be a "real" writer. Many magazine articles are quite short and I know plenty of writers who write flash-fiction/short-shorts. And, as many of us have said, you can write a whole longer worker by writing in small bursts daily. Really, if you've found a process that works for you, why mess with it?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:00 AM on May 7, 2009


I tried to revise my work, but then came this nagging sense in my mind like, "what's the point??" I hated my work. I felt no connection to it at all. I forced myself to keep revising though, and then I submitted it to a couple magazines. One replied back saying it needed some minor technical work. I could have made the fixes, but I hated the process so much I just gave up.

Also, it's unclear whether you had this feeling in connection with this piece alone or generally, but if you want to publish, you need to learn to take the criticism of others in stride. It's what publishing is all about.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:04 AM on May 7, 2009


I tried turning off the internet to write. Didn't work. I ended up pacing the apartment or doing 100 jumping jacks or running through the same 4 bars on the piano. Almost anything seemed better than writing or editing. ANYTHING. I cleaned the bathrooms top to bottom. I alphabetized the library. I've spent an hour just wandering around looking for things to do that wasn't finishing my story.

I've never found a process that worked. While writing, I'm overcome with the fear that's terrible and I should just stop wasting everyone's time, while editing I'm struck by the futility of human action. I've tried writing while walking, writing outside, writing only when inspired, planing out everything behind before hand, meditating, exercising, drinking less, drinking more, eating right, eating nothing, ... and ..nope, nothing works. You sit at the goddamn fucking stupid fucking screen or paper and you feel completely worthless. A pussy. A punk. A no-talent hack who took an entire hour to get one shitty paragraph of his shitty little story done. And then you have to kinda slink by when your SO comes home and you better make damn well sure the house is clean enough to justify why you're still in your underpants in the afternoon and you haven't written a single word you don't loathe with all your being. And then you feel extra-special secret sauce bad cause boo-hoo the sensitive creative type is whining again about his totally easy job and you pray for someone to shove a spike in your head.

Oddly enough, I have never had trouble taking criticism. I work faster in collaborate environments but all my cool friends live in cool parts of town and not near me. and I hate talking on the phone and IM.

So, I don't have any answers, just commiseration. I hate hate hate hate hate writing. And I've got two books out and plans for another.

actually writing it down did make me feel better. huh.
posted by The Whelk at 9:39 AM on May 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


PhoBWanKenobi caught a segment of your post that I had missed.

Wow, you must really be scared.
posted by BringaYelve at 9:59 AM on May 7, 2009


Sit back and analyze what you wrote like it's the text of someone else.

It's also a lot easier to do this if you wait a sizeable amount of time before beginning revisions. You need to gain a little distance from the piece (a month works for me - YMMV) before retackling it, otherwise your internal editor is still too close to the process and you can't evaluate without prejudice. Rewriting is inevitable, though, so tough it out until it becomes an acquired taste.

To write longer pieces, first spend a bit of time plotting out skeletally what's going to happen and then flesh it out. If you want to write a novel, write a sentence about what each chapter is going to be about so you know the overall shape of the thing - there's still plenty of room for discovering new things during the writing process, and if you really need to make drastic changes as a result of what's come out, nobody will stop you. Plus you can jump around to other bits if you get stuck on a section. It is, however, very unlikely that you will write a novel starting with 'Once upon a time' and arriving at 'happily ever after.' in one smooth, continuous stream of perfect words and unplanned plot structures.
posted by Sparx at 10:03 AM on May 7, 2009


I'm making a second post intentionally, rather than continue my previous one, in the hopes that you'll pay attention to my initial comment. Perhaps it doesn't apply to you, but it's something that plagues many writers, myself included. Personally, I'm flabbergasted that you were on the verge of publication (or so it sounds) and you chickened out. "Some minor technical work" doesn't sound in the same league as writing or revising, yet you say you hated the process so much you couldn't continue.

You were at the easiest stage of the process and you gave up. I suggest you ask yourself what's the worst thing that could happen if you had revised or, for that matter, if you sat down to write more frequently. You may find that "I could get published" is the answer.

If that is the answer, then you may begin to work through your feelings and your self-imposed obstacles. Being a writer often - usually? always? - means being a self-therapist.
posted by BringaYelve at 10:16 AM on May 7, 2009


How come I didn't do the minor technical work to get published? Because the process ceased to be meaningful. I feel that when I write under bad or tainted conditions, I don't trust my work. I knew I could've gotten published, and I felt that I could've proved a point by doing so, but only so.

I'm looking for a reliable method to get both enjoyment and productivity out of my writing instrument.

So far this thread has been helpful! One main takeaway I'm finding is that everybody invents their own process to suit their understanding of how their writing instrument works. Another common takeaway is to always be writing.
posted by pauldonato at 11:42 AM on May 7, 2009


How come I didn't do the minor technical work to get published? Because the process ceased to be meaningful. I feel that when I write under bad or tainted conditions, I don't trust my work. I knew I could've gotten published, and I felt that I could've proved a point by doing so, but only so.

No one said that the process of writing has to be meaningful. Let me say again: writing and editing are hard work. Prove that you can get published by doing the work necessary to get published. Quite frankly--and speaking as someone with some meager publication credits behind me (and a whole anthology of rejections)--when I hear other writers, or my students, say things like "Of course I could get published. But what's the point?/I don't need other peoples' validation/I only want to write meaningful or inspired things and editing taints that," I take that to mean that the writer in question is so terrified of rejection--so terrified of finding out that their view of their writing as perfect and immutable is incorrect--that they won't even expend the effort necessary to try. If you're earnest about wanting to be a professional, published writer, earnestly edit. It won't always be enjoyable. It will often not be meaningful. And sending your work out will be often terrifying. But if you don't grit your teeth and figure out a way through that, you're not going to be able to hack it. Sorry. Harsh, I know. But you need to be the best defender of your work--you do that by improving it, constantly, and exposing yourself to the threat of rejection (constantly) in order to put it out there and find an audience.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:58 AM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I write differently to fulfill something spiritual versus writing something that I want to be published. Prose I'm completely mercenary about. The fiction I write I want published, but poetry I write to fulfill an inner need that I can't fulfill in any other way. Even though I'm an atheist I find the act of writing a poem very spiritual, for lack of a better word. While I could go on forever about how writing poetry feels to me, the point is that there are different kinds of writing for different purposes. I sent the novel I wrote off to the publisher but I have no real drive to publish poetry. When I'm asked to submit poems somewhere I do that but the day-to-day poems I write I put up on my poetry blog and am done with them.

Writing fiction is also fulfilling to me, but in an intellectual & emotional way, as opposed to poetry which is more spiritual & personal. One has different ways of communicating with loved ones, depending on mood and what is being said. The same goes for creative writing. Not all writing has the same effect on the writer. You can cherish writing equally but differently.
posted by Kattullus at 2:00 PM on May 7, 2009


How come I didn't do the minor technical work to get published? Because the process ceased to be meaningful. I feel that when I write under bad or tainted conditions, I don't trust my work. I knew I could've gotten published, and I felt that I could've proved a point by doing so, but only so.

....can you clarify what you mean by this?....

Because to me, it sounds like you're expecting the process of, like, eliminating excess comma placement to be transcendant, and it just plain isn't. But it's also not supposed to be. And that's the whole point.

But that's true of just about everything we do in life. Everything we pursue -- writing, developing a business, sailing a yacht, building a treehouse, cooking a dinner, performing a heart transplant, playing jump rope, having sex, anything - is a process, and there is always some element of that process that is mundane and boring and technical and dull -- and vitally important to the process anyway. Chopping the onions is the boring part of making dinner -- you really want to jump ahead to the part where you're tasting the soup and deciding whether it needs more tarragon -- but chopping those onions is important. Sewing up the incision after you've performed the heart transplant may be a pain in the damn butt, but -- damn, it's important. And you're just plain not going to get the same emotional charge out of checking that the condom didn't rip as you're going to have from actual orgasm. But -- checking that condom? Pretty necessary.

But those things are empirically dull. And it's okay for them to be dull. Just so long as you understand that it is dullness in the service of a larger thing.

If you were to make the soup without the onions, the soup would be missing something vital. If you didn't sew the incision after the heart transplant just because it was the boring part, the heart transplant wouldn't be finished -- and if that's the case, why the hell did you even start it in the first place?

So if what you mean is that checking the technical stuff didn't feel the same as it did when you were writing your ideas and they were flowing and yadda yadda....it's not supposed to feel the same. It's a totally different part of your brain being engaged. But -- it's a part of your brain that is doing something in service to the larger thing. It's not all supposed to feel like you're scaling Parnassus with your words all the time, some if it is technical grunt work that feels boring as hell. But that's true of everything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:04 PM on May 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if others can relate to it, but I didn't want to make the revisions because the original drafts were written under bad auspices. I have no problems revising something that was created in the midst of passion. Anything that I had to force, like I did that weekend, doesn't seem like my writing.
posted by pauldonato at 7:19 PM on May 7, 2009


I....sort of see what you mean? But I'm still not sure.

1. Do you mean that you just plain don't like it, and never did? And reading it again, even after you put it away for a few weeks, doesn't help? Even if you put it away for a few weeks, and even after everyone says they like it, you still cannot personally find even one little scene or phrase in there somehwere that makes you say, "okay, THIS bit isn't bad...."?

That's a tough one, and I don't know what to tell you other than maybe put it away and give it even MORE time.

2. Or do you mean that if you try to read it, all you can think about is how awful a time you had while writing it, and you can't concentrate on actually reading it? That may also be a sign that you need to put it away for a bit more.

Rereading your initial post, I also have to ask why you made this marathon attempt. You find a means that works well for you, the short-burst. If that's the way your brain's wired, why mess with success? Maybe you can tell a full story by just putting a whole bunch of short-burst sessions together.

The "keep writing and don't stop for anything" advice applies more so to writing PRACTICE exercises than actual writing, I've found, unless you really get caught up in something. I'm more like what Stephen King suggested in my approach -- get that set number of words down (these days, since I get paid by the word, I kind of have to), and...however long it takes me to get those words is however long it takes me. Even if I only type one word per minute.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:25 PM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if others can relate to it, but I didn't want to make the revisions because the original drafts were written under bad auspices. I have no problems revising something that was created in the midst of passion. Anything that I had to force, like I did that weekend, doesn't seem like my writing.

If you can't make revisions to a piece that has been nominally accepted by a magazine because you didn't write the first draft under conditions of sufficient passion, I'd suggest that writing for a living is not for you. Delivery, under any conditions, to deadline, is what matters in magazine writing and novel writing. It is possible to create great art within those conditions. It is also possible to create great art without publishing, but no-one will ever see it.

If you have a process that works, stick with it. Write and write again. But you need to learn to revise, rewrite and edit (and accept criticism that will assist those tasks) if you're going to produce work that can be sold and published.

Trust me, man, no-one is going to swoop down and recognise the genius in your work if you aren't continually writing, submitting, editing and rewriting it. All of this focus on your passion and whether you felt good or inspired or whatever during the process matters not a whit. No-one cares, least of all the publishers and editors. They care about how good the end product is, and they care that you can produce it on time and work with them to make it better.

I'll say it again, if you don't want to deal with that, then just write for yourself or don't write at all.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:32 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


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