You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.
November 30, 2009 9:21 PM   Subscribe

I really, really want to write creatively but I hate writing creatively. WTF?

All my life, I've really enjoyed telling stories, both in my head and verbally to other people. I come up with elaborate movie plots, novel characters, personal essays, all in my head, where of course they sound brilliant! I never tire of this.

But when I sit down to actually write these things out, it is absolute torture. I hate it! The images, dialog and characters that are so clear and interesting in my head come out wooden and flat on the page. And it feels like such excruciating drudgery to type out in detail the action that goes wooshing by in my head.

Occasionally, I'll get into it, and will really enjoy writing for an hour or so. Man, there is nothing like that awesome high of starting your story out in one place and then having the act of writing it down take it in a completely new direction! But then when I try to come back to it later, I'm always disappointed with how awful it seems on review.

I understand that part of this is just the fact that I need to embrace my shitty first drafts, and I am trying. And there's a part of me that says if this is such a miserable experience, I should just stop. It's not like I'm such a genius that the world will suffer from me not writing! But that feels like stifling myself and is also frustrating.

Oddly, I write a lot for work and never have this problem there. In fact, the writing projects I do at work are some of my favorite parts of the job. But that is a completely different kind of writing - totally impersonal, and not in my "voice."

I understand that this is pretty universal among writers. So how do I get past this? Is it worth it to try, or is the fact that I'm getting so easily discouraged mean I'm not meant to be a writer?
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you're not meant to be that kind of writer. I write; when I was younger, I wrote and published personal essays and performed original stories as a storyteller. Now, I write a blog about interracial adoption and long e-mails/journal entries to a small mailing list, full of funny stories about what's happening in my life with my kids.

I used to try really hard to write fiction. And it seems like I should, because, like you, I have novels in my head. Sometimes I live with a certain story for weeks, telling it to myself before bed or when I'm driving in the car, and I really enjoy this. But over and over, when I have tried to write even short fiction, the writing is dead on the page and the process is torture in a way that none of the non-fiction writing I've ever done has been.

Right now in my life, I am happy with the other writing I do--it's good writing, it flows well, I like both the process and the product. As far as fiction goes, I see myself as a person with a rich and satisfying fantasy life. Maybe that will change someday, but I'd be surprised.
posted by not that girl at 9:29 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try storyboarding or mindmapping. Draw the story. Make a recording. Video yourself. Draw a comic book. Record a podcast. Record an old time radio show.

See what works for you. You can brainstorm this way and commit to paper later.
posted by acoutu at 9:33 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Tell really, really awesome bedtime stories to someone you love.

Best case, it'll let you work this stuff out in front of a nice, enthusiastic audience instead of your asshole inner censor, and that'll make it easier to write later. And worst case, hey, you're telling really, really awesome bedtime stories to someone you love.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:37 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Telling stories is easier (in a way) because the audience reaction is right there in front of you and the story takes on a life of its own in reaction to their reactions. Writing such stories down at the lonely writer's desk is less rewarding, in the immediate, because of the lack of reaction.

My advice, for what it is worth, is to just jot down the basic concepts, bits of dialogue, character descriptions, plot outlines etc on index cards. Then, using the cards, flesh out the story when you feel in the mood.

Bird by Bird is a good book that explains this method and how to get your good stories down on paper.
posted by Kerasia at 9:42 PM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

my $.02 from my experience:

The act of writing something down gives gravity to what was before a burst of creative inspiration in the form of loose ideas in your head or a great story told at the bar. Writing makes something final, it makes it permanent and this makes writing it down really stressful and full of pressure - at least for me.

There is also a huge difference between conceiving of stories and the like as ideas and concepts in the brain and translating them into a form that can be absorbed and understood by others, i.e into writing. Creating ideas and writing them down as a work of literature, insofar as we don't think, per se, strictly in neat sentences in our head (and tabling, for pragmatic purposes, stuff about Wittgenstein and whatnot here) are two relatively different skills.

This is why, I think, writing for writers has notoriety as being torturous to some degree. David Foster Wallace once said when asked about what he does all day, "I spend about one hour writing and the rest of the day worrying about not writing." The reason so many people want to write a novel in their lives as some sort of goal but never do is because it's hard, it takes work. You gotta keep at that shit. I mean, you can't learn to play a fucking bassoon by just picking the damn thing up and pulling out a concerto, amirite.

My advice is this - and IAN(Really)AW - but try writing really really fast. Don't worry about filling in all the details nor fretting over pedantic bits in the language. Don't worry about how it looks at first, at don't worry about any sort of continuity or time line. Don't try to start at the beginning and work straight through. Just try to amass, without putting pressure on yourself. Just go.

Lastly, write for yourself. Whether or not it becomes a best seller is of no consequence; I doubt you'll look back and say, "damn I shouldn't have written so much stuff when I was younger."
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:01 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Bird by Bird is a good book that explains this method and how to get your good stories down on paper.

As someone not usually a fan of these sorts of how-too-ish meta-writing books, I have to totally second Bird by Bird. Anne Lammot is really cool and it's a great book.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:05 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

You're right about the shitty first drafts thing. And you're right that having ideas is fun and easy, and executing them is just the opposite.

But there's also this:

Some writer in an interview said the way you tell a real novelist is that he is never happy when he is in the process of writing. He may be happy before he starts or when he's finished, but not during. I never put much stock in writers who say they "enjoy" writing. My opinion of someone who says they write because they "enjoy" it is that they will never accomplish much, because they will stop working the minute they stop having fun.

You should try finishing something. Really do a lot of drafts, get it where you know it's good and where others think it's good. Feel that satisfaction of having finished, which is the only real enjoyment most professional writers get from writing. Then decide if you want to repeat this process over and over, starting from the beginning each time.

I've frequently ranted against people who try to talk others out of following their dreams. If you want to be a writer, be a writer! The world needs as many serious writers as it can get. Just don't think you're "doing it wrong" if the process isn't much fun. Sure there are moments of enjoyment and satisfaction, but be a serious writer you really have to throw all that shit about "inspiration" and "muses" out the window. At the end of the day it's hard work like any other hard work..
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:14 PM on November 30, 2009

Also, an hour or so writing in a day is fine. I rarely write more then 2 hours or so per day. If you do one hour every single day, you will write a hell of a lot.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:18 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Why don't you try recording them first and go from there? At least then you have it flow as a natural structure, you can then type it up and tweak it as you see fit? It's a start...
posted by Jubey at 10:21 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had this problem (I probably still do) but I got it to go away during NaNoWriMo. Being forced to sit down and just write without the possibility of revision is a very good way to turn off that pesky internal editor that tells you "It's not good enough! Re-write it!", because it sounds to me that your little internal editor is the problem. You've got to concentrate on what you DO have rather than getting worked up about what you DON'T. I used to get several pages into something and then think "Oh, this isn't working how I wanted" and I'd get so fixated on how crap everything was that I'd end up abandoning what I'd started. To date, I have the beginnings and middles of about a half-dozen novels sitting around in various doc files on my PC.

NaNoWriMo is over, but why not do your own version? Aim to hammer out a certain number of words each day- WITHOUT FAIL - and forbid yourself from re-reading it or editing it and just aim to get it all down. If you finish one scene and you're not sure where to go next, start on the next scene you do have an idea about - even if it's not in sequence. Bogged down in detail? Finish that sentence and go straight into the action. All these things can be fixed later, just like spelling, grammar and plot holes the size of trucks. :)

You may find, like I did, that the pressure to complete the target will allow you to concentrate on just letting the story flow and that's the fun part - watching stuff spooling out the ends of your fingers and onto the page in front of you. I had a blast watching the story roll up on the screen. It made me feel like an actual writer for the first time in my life.

Is it going to be good? Probably not. But hidden inside every novel you've ever read is at least one editor and a lot of painful rewriting. Don't kid yourself that you're going to turn out stellar stuff on your very first draft. Just aim to get the draft down and THEN you can start polishing it.

Sorry for the lengthy post...I blame the lack of internal editor. :)
posted by ninazer0 at 10:56 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding jubey. Those thoughts in your head that flow so well, just let them flow out loud.

You can type it up later, or even get a computer program that will do it automatically.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:57 PM on November 30, 2009

A page a day (250 words) worked wonders for me. Some days it only takes 10 minutes, some days it takes an hour, but in three months you have nearly 100 pages. In a year you have a novel. I find that every 100 pages I need to regroup and plan a bit more, but that's not everyone's style.
posted by Nattie at 10:58 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think this is super typical, in other words it doesn't mean you're "not cut out" or "not meant" to be a writer. People are rightly advocating Bird By Bird (but apparently missing that you already know about it because you linked to a quote from it - but if you haven't read the whole book you might as well) because it goes directly at this problem: how to confront feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly vast and ungovernable task of capturing ideas in words and break it down into a series of somethings you can wrap your head around and deal with.

You could also just immediately start banging your head against it on an ongoing and consistent basis and find out if you're genuinely interested in solving the problem: it ain't rocket science. You try to finish something and then rewrite it until it stops making you cringe or you give up in despair.

Writing always reminded me of when I got really into working with clay in school, for a while. It seems so perfectly and infinitely malleable that you could do absolutely anything with it, and when you watch a real artist work on the wheel, for example, it honestly seems like some sort of magic substance and can it really be that hard? But when you try it yourself it is the most cussed, perverse, frustrating material, apparently possessed of its own will and that will is to be an amorphous blob. I can't imagine anyone starting in on working clay on the wheel and not finding a lot of the work tedious and unsatisfying. You finally get something halfway decent and you can't even just enjoy it for its simple self, you have to cut it in half and inspect what you really did and figure out where it went wrong. The thing is, is that all that great stuff in your head isn't real. I'm not putting it down but it is completely ephemeral, it can't breath air in the real world. Nobody else can experience it. There's no way to proficiency except through the path of frustrating learning from failure. The "this is torture, I'm torturing myself" feeling becomes much less prevalent if you keep at it regularly, although it will be a regular visitor. But I doubt it ever stops being hard. Is anything worthwhile easy?

I wrestle with the same questions you are wrestling with, I suppose a lot of people do, and probably most of them will never amount to much as writers, which is tough. I often read successful writers talk about how writing is something they just do and they would continue to do it even if they weren't paid for it, and I think, yeah, well, but do you think much about those of us who are equally compelled to do it and do not and will probably never get paid for it? But what are you going to do? I try to hold on to the hope that going after anything with all the persistence and dedication you can muster has got to be an enriching learning experience (and if that sounds like the consolation prize to you, well, join the club). But one thing that has always been clear to me is that, all other considerations aside, the first and perhaps one of the higher hurdles that separate those who eventually come to do something of worth with writing is that they start writing, they keep writing, and they take that supremely essential next step to take something they aren't happy with and rather than let it stop them they take another whack at it and try to make it better. Doing that might not make you a Real Writer but not doing it will sure as hell stop you from ever being one.
posted by nanojath at 11:25 PM on November 30, 2009 [6 favorites]

My opinion of someone who says they write because they "enjoy" it is that they will never accomplish much, because they will stop working the minute they stop having fun.

drjimmy--I think Isaac Asimov and Stephen King are examples of two writers who definitely did and do love to write, and are probably the most prolific by far.

They might not be your favorite writers, and people may definitely debate the quality of their writing...but they DID accomplish much, and both admitted to utterly enjoying the process.

I know it's not that relevant to this askme, but I thought your comment might give people false ideas (that all writers think writing feels like work.)
posted by thisperon at 11:25 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think it is an inherent part of the creative writing process to, at some point, take a look at the words you've put on the page and feel disappointed that they don't match up to the fantastic idea you had for your story. Part of this is realism: the great idea was the highlights reel, the trailer for the movie with all the best lines and most exciting scenes, and once you write it you have to get through all the middle bits as well, which is a bit of a let down.

But another part of this, I think, may be mistaken objectivity. Think about Shakespeare as read aloud by some idiot jock in your high school English class: pretty hard to get excited about. What creates a gripping story is only partly the words as they're written - it's also partly what you as a reader invest in it. I think the writer-as-self-editor can get into a mode of "objective," stripped-down reading, trying to see the draft as it "really" is on its own, which is naturally kind of disappointing. Read your own work with the charity and suspension of disbelief you would grant a novel on a bookstore shelf, and see how you feel.

This, of course, is if your problem is mainly psychological. If your degree of skill is really disappointing you, and if you really want to be a writer, the only thing to do about it is to write, a lot. Just like pottery or painting or any other craft, creative writing takes a great deal of practice. I think people sometimes feel like this can be skipped because they've been literate for ages, and can write a perfectly competent proposal or letter. But getting a feel for the shape and texture of a novel or screenplay is its own process, and it takes time and a lot of shitty first drafts, and second drafts, and third drafts. For most writers, it isn't a matter of just sitting down at a desk one day out of the blue and pounding out the Novel of the Century. So as to the question of whether it's "worth it to try," the answer entirely depends on how much you want to write, and how much time and effort you want to put into the project, which isn't something any one else can decide for you.
posted by unsub at 12:34 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, you could go into screen writing, where what matters is what the final image looks like, not the quality of the text itself (as long as it's not horrible)

But, the way to get better at writing is to write a lot. When I was in high school I kept a journal on an old computer. I probably updated every couple days. This was back when the internet was on dial up, and my mom kept the computer in the living room, so at night I really had nothing else to do and I would just type away on this old 386 with DOS and hardly anything else.

The improvement in my writing was amazing. Going back to read the old entries and then looking at the later ones was really surprising.

And now, of course, I post tons of comments on metafilter :)


If you want to improve your writing, write. Just sit down at your computer, maybe using something like writemonkey which is a free PC clone of the mac software writeroom. A full screen with nothing but your text.

And just type away. Type away about your day, and describe all the images you see in your head.

One thing you could do would be to, every day, sit down and just type out something creative. Don't worry about a plot or making it into a good story. The point is just to improve your prose and make interesting text.

Also read a lot of books to you can have an example of what good writing should be.

I feel like my prose is pretty good, but I end up getting stymied when I try to actually put together a plot. I think up all these cool images and scenes, but then I can't figure out a way to weave them into a coherent plot.
posted by delmoi at 1:01 AM on December 1, 2009

There's some great advice above already, but here's some stuff I've found helpful.

1) RE: NaNoWriMo (which is well worth doing), the best thing to come out of that is the principle of write first, edit later. Don't even read what you've written. If you're a storyteller type writer, which it sounds like you are, then the most important thing is to tell a good story. A good story will shine through a bad telling, and bad writing. So worry first about capturing a good story, second about telling it well, and only after that worry about writing it well.

2) Writing is easier if you're not so worried about finding a unique voice for yourself. If you just want to capture a story in a good style, then pick two or three writers you admire, read them until you can imagine them telling your story, and then write like that. By the process of filtering their voice through your own creativity you're likely to end up with something much more original than you'd think. And then over the course of writing your story (especially if it's novel length), you'll probably find your own voice by the end.

3) One thing that worked for me is that if you're writing your story notes in any kind of detail, you might find that rather than turn these notes into fully formed prose (i.e. adding in all the bits you think ought to be there to flesh it out), these notes actually are your work. Why not? It'll have a concise, staccato style, but hey that's probably better than an overblown wordy style these days.
posted by iivix at 2:36 AM on December 1, 2009

2 things I found helpful:

1. My suggestion is to give yourself a break from your ongoing project and say "I'm going to write 500 words about x without adverbs" (or something) and then just do it. It's good to shake things up a little for the creative muscles. I found this really helpful recently when I broke off from my project to write a short review of a play I'd seen. For some reason this really "unlocked" me.

2. And it feels like such excruciating drudgery to type out in detail the action that goes wooshing by in my head.

I know exactly what you mean. My suggestion is to "dab it in" like impressionists. Don't feel you need to detail; the odd scene-setting sentence every now and then will help fill in the scene for your readers. It helps to think of scenes as envelopes - an idea I cam across in the only "How To Write" book I ever read, Solutions for Writers by Sol Stein. You're not filling the envelope, the readers do that... give them just enough information to create the outlines of the envelope for themselves and let them do the rest of the work.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:39 AM on December 1, 2009

Two quotes. Hemingway said "writing is rewriting". He rewrote the conclusion to A Farewell to Arms many times. So keep at what you're doing. Which leads to the second quote by Oliver Stone:

"Writing equals ass in chair." It's work and should be treated as such.
posted by zardoz at 4:32 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Make a recording.

This. Just go back and transcribe it later, editing as needed. The fact that you don't find the writing process a natural way to tell your stories should not stop you from being a writer.
posted by sophist at 4:32 AM on December 1, 2009

Some writer in an interview said the way you tell a real novelist is that he is never happy when he is in the process of writing. He may be happy before he starts or when he's finished, but not during. I never put much stock in writers who say they "enjoy" writing. My opinion of someone who says they write because they "enjoy" it is that they will never accomplish much, because they will stop working the minute they stop having fun.

Hmm. Don't know if I agree with this. Sure, writing's not always a party--it's work, and in many ways not so different from any other kind of meaningful, challenging work. Which is to say, some days it is excruciating and some days it's awesome. There are many jobs I'd like much, much less than writing. This isn't, I don't know, euthanizing puppies for a living.

Which is how I've managed to stop just generating ideas and actually write. No, not by euthanizing puppies. By treating it like it's a job. zardoz is right--you have to get your butt in a chair and just write, every day, ideally building on what you've written before, because it's easy to write thousand-page novel starts but much harder, and more involved, and a more skill-demanding task, to see something through to completion. Through that, you'll learn skills (slowly) that will make writing easier for you. And that's the thing--all of those handbooks on writing contain great advice on writing--for that writer. But in order to learn how to be a writer yourself, you really just have to put yourself through the paces and do it.

It's not like I'm such a genius that the world will suffer from me not writing!

This, by the way, shows that you're still mythologizing writers. This isn't helping anything. The people who are successful at writing aren't necessarily the most brilliant--but they are usually the hardest working.

I used to argue with friends that bad writers weren't necessarily writers, because I felt the same way. Now I know that that's hogwash. A writer is one who writes--and good ideas are next-to-worthless. What matters is the prose, and getting it down. A writer is one who writes.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:07 AM on December 1, 2009

Also, an hour or so writing in a day is fine. I rarely write more then 2 hours or so per day. If you do one hour every single day, you will write a hell of a lot.

Oh, and this really depends on how fast you write and if you procrastinate during that time. I've always found word count goals to be more productive than time goals.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:11 AM on December 1, 2009

But when I sit down to actually write these things out, it is absolute torture. I hate it! The images, dialog and characters that are so clear and interesting in my head come out wooden and flat on the page. And it feels like such excruciating drudgery to type out in detail the action that goes wooshing by in my head. Occasionally, I'll get into it, and will really enjoy writing for an hour or so. ...But then when I try to come back to it later, I'm always disappointed with how awful it seems on review.

Oh, honey, don't worry -- this is exactly the way it goes for just about every writer in the history of ever. About the only example I can think of of someone who maybe didn't feel like this while writing was Kerouac when he wrote ON THE ROAD, and that may be because he was under the influence of controlled substances anyway.

Writing is like any kind of craft -- it's WORK. It takes skill, and it can be hard and annoying and drudgery sometimes. There are always days when you're in the groove, but then there are also annoying days when you feel like it's all crap and wonder what you're doing. But every writer has that -- hell, every PERSON has that. There are surgeons who have the occasional fantastic surgery, and then they have the days when they're tired, their back hurts, their fingers itch but they can't scratch them because they're operating, they're just sick of the routine of always having to follow the same technique all the time...

Writing is work. And just like any kind of hard work, sometimes it sucks. That's just the way it goes. That doesn't mean you're not cut out for it, that just means that you're trying your utmost -- which is exactly what you should be doing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:51 AM on December 1, 2009

It's not like I'm such a genius that the world will suffer from me not writing!

The world will never know till you've written ;] Don't talk yourself out of it before you've begun.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:45 AM on December 1, 2009

Seconding not that girl above. I got tons of praise for my fiction and creative writing in high school, figured that if I had a talent for words I should definitely be a fiction writer, took one fiction class in college, got an A, realized that writing fiction is torture for me, and haven't written a word of fiction since. I found that I really enjoy writing nonfiction (history, in my case), and that having a creative mind helps me both to map out the true "stories" that I want to tell and to keep my prose interesting. Maybe try writing some essays about something non-fictional that you know a lot about? Fiction's so very far from being the only way to write.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:50 AM on December 1, 2009

There's some author out there who said "A writer is someone who hates writing," thought I can't find the source now. I first heard that quote in high school and continue to find it useful when in the midst of a miserable project.
posted by Miko at 7:22 AM on December 1, 2009

I don't know - I get what everyone is saying about writing being work but it's not awful all the time, at least for me. There is the disappointment of "what is this shit I wrote yesterday?" and the frustration of not being able to write at all, but there's also the buzz of getting into a good flow and writing a full scene in one go, character dialogue that comes out of nowhere onto the page and punches you in the stomach or makes you tear up, and the satisfaction at the end of a really productive day. I'm not saying that you should give up if writing isn't like this for you right away - struggling with productivity can zap all the fun out of it right quick - but I wouldn't write if it didn't make me feel good at least sometimes.
posted by shaun uh at 7:30 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

No one is "meant" to be a writer.

There is a huge mythos around writers, talent, being born to it, etc.

Writing, all the creative writers I know who have been published and are seen as professional writers (okay, I only know like 5 so grain of salt time) write. That's what they have in common. That's it. It's like the old joke:

Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
A: Practice.

And that's what you do. You practice. You get better at it over time and you hate what you write less. Of course you're not liking what you're writing now because it probably sucks because you never write. There's no such thing as being a born writer and if there is, you're not it. Do you still want to write, if it's hard and takes a lot of practice? No? Fine, I'm not going to think less of you. Just like I don't think less of you for not taking up the trombone.

Why do it? What's your goal? Would it be better served by doing something else? If it's not fun (or at least satisfying), what's the point?
posted by kathrineg at 8:10 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not saying that you should give up if writing isn't like this for you right away - struggling with productivity can zap all the fun out of it right quick - but I wouldn't write if it didn't make me feel good at least sometimes.

The OP does report, though, that s/he does indeed feel good at least sometimes. It's just not all the time, and that's the source of the concern (at least as far as I read it).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 AM on December 1, 2009

Oh, and to actually be helpful, some ideas for making writing easier:

This is maybe going to sound kind of silly, but you might want to try fanfic or text-based roleplaying as a way of bridging the gap between verbal storytelling and solitary writing. A text RP especially (and there are some original ones out there, although fandom-based ones seem more common) gives you several of the things that verbal storytelling does - namely, quick feedback from others and the motivation to just put words down quickly without polishing and fretting over them. If you RP, you get really good at pushing past writers block or simple indecision and just getting shit down.

You could also try using an automated transcription service (either people or a computer program, or even you, yourself, later) to take down your stories, and then go back and edit them and polish them later. I don't know if this is a long term solution, but again, it could help you transition.
posted by shaun uh at 8:16 AM on December 1, 2009

Here's the thing.

Some writers hate writing SOOOO MUCH. Flaubert and Stendhal, for instance.

Other writers love writing SOOOO MUCH. Proust and Joyce, for instance.

The writers who hate writing are seen by some people as more emblematic of writers in general. This is probably false. The writers who love writing as seen by some people as facile hacks. This is demonstrably false.

You might hate writing right now, and you might hate writing later. But you might also learn to love writing just as much as Proust did.

Try some different things to shake yourself up: write in different locations; do some timed free-writing where you just brainstorm as fast as you can; find someone else who's stuck and do some experiments in collaboration; write some sonnets or sestinas or limericks or some other verse form; write an imaginary transcript of one of your characters' appearance on a TV chat show, etc., etc.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:16 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wait, let me amend my last answer --

I'm not saying that you should give up if writing isn't like this for you right away - struggling with productivity can zap all the fun out of it right quick - but I wouldn't write if it didn't make me feel good at least sometimes.

I think the trick to knowing when to give up anything is whether there is enough fun to make it something you still want to stick to. Nothing we do will be a constant source of frivolity -- but we all have an inner measure of how much fun makes the work worth it. The fun may be rare, but if it's really REALLY fun, it may be worth it for you.

I faced a similar decision twice in my life so far. I wanted to be an actress, largely because the school plays were a complete and total blast, and I did pretty damn good at it -- for that production level. When I got to college and started conservatory training, though, it very quickly became clear that I would have had to work a hell of a lot harder to play in the big leagues. I joke that "acting classes taught me that I can't act" -- but the truth of it is that I actually can, it's just that in order to act well enough to sustain a PROFESSIONAL career I would have had to work myself raw, to the point that there would no longer have been any joy in it for me whatsoever. It would have been all work and no fun at all. And that's not a balance I want to strike, so .... that was that.

Instead, I went into stage management for ten years. And at the outset, that was fun. A hell of a lot of work, but I was VERY good at it, and it was indeed fun. And then....gradually it stopped being as much fun. I noticed after about ten years that even though I was still as good as ever, the joy of it had ebbed to the point that it wasn't a good enough tradeoff. So...I've semi-retired. (I can still tackle an occasional show, but...I'm really okay with not being on call.)

No matter what we do, there will be days when it's a lot of work and we are cranky and we hate it -- but there will also be days when the stars align and everything goes great and it's a blast, and we feel great. The trick isn't eliminating the bad days, or making them suck less -- the trick is knowing when the bad days have come to outweigh the good ones. Just because the bad days exist it doesn't mean that you've run into trouble, is all. But if the good days don't bring you enough joy to make up for the bad ones, that's something to consider.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:24 AM on December 1, 2009

The images, dialog and characters that are so clear and interesting in my head come out wooden and flat on the page. And it feels like such excruciating drudgery to type out in detail the action that goes wooshing by in my head.

The main problem you are running into here is that your ideas are abstract, whereas you need concrete details to actually write a story. This isn't just a problem with writing, it's a problem with any kind of design project. For example, you could probably map out a relatively detailed idea for a house in your head, but if you sat down to draw the blueprints you would end up lost and frustrated with all of the work that goes into actually specifying the design for that house. Architects can do it because they spend years learning the principles involved and studying the work of others, but even they can't magically turn a an idea for a house into a finished design without working through a lot of tough design issues.

So part of it is just writing a lot, and reading a lot, so that you know all of the mechanics involved in writing and all of the tricks you can use along with what they are useful for. But part of it is also being more detailed in your mental construction of the story. Instead of having a vague idea of a piece of dialog, really think about the exact words that the characters will say. Think in terms of paragraphs, phrases, and words rather than indistinct images or plot points. The closer you can get to writing the story in your head, the easier it will be to transfer that story from your head to the page.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:25 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you can give up writing, please do so. For yourself and for others. Every writer I know does it because they're more miserable when they're not writing. I fucking hate writing. Hate hate hate it. But when I don't do it, I want to jump in front of a train. Writing is the lesser of two evils for me.

You mention that you enjoy letting the story take hold of you and tell you where it's going to go but when you have stories in your head you have no interest in writing them to completion. This is not uncommon. David Milch (one of the greatest of contemporary writers, imo) doesn't outline anything at all and insists that it's the best way to write. In fact, he thinks that you should "not trust anything you think about writing when you're not writing." It is very difficult to come to accept this and follow/do it, but if you can, it is incredible.

His way of writing is "simple":

- never write for less than 20 minutes
- never write for more than 50 minutes
- use just two voices, labeled voice 1 and voice 2
- no scene description/action
- never think about what you're writing when you're not writing
- when you're finished writing, put it aside and do not look at it again (presumably until your draft is finished)

He talks about writing (and many other fascinating things) extensively in these lectures.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 10:36 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have the exact opposite problem. I enjoy writing immensely but can't come up with interesting ideas for stories to save my life, and that becomes the frustrating part. I don't think this has been suggested yet, and might not be the advice you're looking for, but have you considered collaboration? There's no rule that says a story has to be written by one person. You could find someone (like me, who actually considered asking metafilter if there was such a thing as a person like you) to tell your story to who could write in all the details and dialogue you wanted to include. Maybe seeing it written by someone else would be encouraging because you'd see your story from a different perspective. And if there were any details you wanted to add or change then it could be revised. It could be a collaborative effort, or you could be in a strict sort of ghost-writer relationship where you are completely in charge.

I also think the advice about writing screenplays is helpful for your situation.
posted by a.steele at 10:37 AM on December 1, 2009

Here's an unorthodox suggestion: Why not try and draw it as a comic? You might have the same problem as me, which is an absolute hatred of providing scenery and exposition. When I sit down, I feel like things are going wrong if I don't describe where the characters are and a bit of backstory. I just want that part to be over, so I can get to the story.

So, what I started doing was getting out some notebook paper and drawing the stories out. Don't get me wrong, my drawings are basically stick figures, but it helps me get the story out in a satisfying way. Instead of having to write about what the characters are doing or where they are, I draw the scenery.

That's my two cents.
posted by reenum at 11:54 AM on December 1, 2009

The quote Miko referenced above is by Thomas Mann and goes (in translation): "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I'm not entirely sure that it's true, but it's a nice story to tell oneself as one is writing.

I have some thoughts on this matter. First, to lay out my credentials, I do have a novel that's coming out in May (in Icelandic). It took me three years of writing to get it to where I thought it was submissable. When I started writing it I gave myself exactly that, three years, to write it. It took me a little bit more than two years to get a first draft and then I got some comments, rewrote it and submitted to a publisher.

My main advice is to give yourself time. Not everyone writes quickly. On an excellent day I get down about a page of prose, handwritten, and there were a few days when I got more done, but most days I only managed to write a handful of words. My average writing speed on my first draft, I once worked out, was 55 words per day. The point is that if you keep at something you'll eventually finish it. Your brain will always move along faster than your hand. Don't worry unduly about getting things down quickly so much as getting things down at all. Set yourself a deadline that's far in the future, based on what you feel your average writing speed is. For a novel I'd advise a minimum of two years, including rewrites, before submitting it anywhere.

My secondary advice is to figure out where and how you get the most done. For me it's writing with pen on paper in a café. Having something to ignore (background noise) helps me focus. For other writers I know it can be libraries, their rooms, a sofa, in bed, outside, etc. Once you found something you like, keep returning to similar places. It helps me to have a routine. I would stop in a café almost every day after work and sit down to write and though it was slow going it eventually got me to the end.

Oh, and carry a notebook to jot down random ideas that have nothing to do with what your writing in the moment. For me few things are more distracting than the insistent idea. For me, once it's written down I can stop thinking about it.
posted by Kattullus at 9:23 PM on December 1, 2009

A little more advice. Do you actually like reading fiction? Do you like reading stories?

It absolutely helps your writing if you love reading.

If you don't love reading already, or don't care for it much, you might want to do what others suggest and explore a different medium for your storytelling.
posted by thisperon at 11:51 PM on December 1, 2009

"The images, dialog and characters that are so clear and interesting in my head come out wooden and flat on the page. And it feels like such excruciating drudgery to type out in detail the action that goes wooshing by in my head."

(1) Yes. Difference between fantasy and reality.

(2) Good writing (or any other art form) is not a transcription of everything you're thinking. It's as much about what you leave out as what you put in. Think of the difference between a good painting of a landscape (e.g. Cezanne, Van Gogh) and one that might be in one of those "Art Expos" where the landscape is literally rendered.

There is a selection process.

What you select and don't select and how you do it is called your "style." You need to keep writing in order to develop a style. You're putting it all down on paper because you're a beginner. You haven't developed your writing style yet.

What's frustrating is that you have developed your storytelling style, which is apparently much more engaging and satisfying than your writing style (so far). So you have a decision to make: put in the time to develop your writing style, *with no guarantee that it's going to turn out to be your "thing", or continue with your storytelling.

It's a hard choice, because you don't know the ending (true of virtually all hard choices, like getting married, choosing a field of study, etc.).

I've been through this. After being a funny and engaging storyteller (and doing a little stand-up comedy) I wrote a novel. It took me 12+ years. I had the same excruciating experience you had. Now I'm submitting it to agents, and have received two out of two rejections.

Sometimes I think there are entertaining things about my novel and sometimes I think it just plain sucks and is flat, dead on the page. I've gotten comments from friends in both directions (I have honest friends, and some are professional writers, so they don't bullshit me).

I will never write another novel. I'm writing songs now, and it's much more gratifying (although not always as gratifying as telling that novel-length story with all its character development (although I hate character development), description (although I hate description), etc. (probably other things I hate).

But enough about me. Here are some things to think about:

(1) a novel can be written in any style you want. That is, you are not obligated to have ANY description, any character development, any anything. You can do anything. It's pomo, man! or any po you want. You can start a new po, your own po.

(2) sometimes to make myself feel better about my novel I tell myself, "Take Jerry Seinfeld [please]. He's a great comedian, a great describer of certain things (I think). But imagine him writing a novel. Do you think it would be a great novel? No, of course, it wouldn't be. And that's: okay [tm a United State Senator]."

You may be a terrific storyteller to yourself and your pals but maybe not a "great" novelist.

Anyway who cares. Novels are dead. I agree with the person who said draw stick figures.
Or a graphic novel. Or write a screenplay and act it out with stuffed animals. (Todd Haynes made his first notable movie, the famous Karen Carpenter/Barbie movie, by using Barbie dolls to play his characters)

Don't get stuck in the novel form because of some old-fashioned ideas you have about it.

Don't twist your nice stories into distorted versions of themselves so that you can say you're a "novelist."

You could record yourself telling your stories as if your friends were there and put them on You Tube.

I think trying to write novels is a big trap unless you really "have" to.

But if you want to try, I agree with the NaNoWriMo idea. I did that once, and it turned out pretty good, except once I edited out all the crap, I had very little material left. So I turned it into a screenplay. Which turned out to be boring. Etc ETc ad nauseum.
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:59 AM on December 2, 2009

When I get stuck I watch this: (NSFW) Patton Oswalt: Death Bed
posted by hifimofo at 9:45 PM on December 5, 2009

"The images, dialog and characters that are so clear and interesting in my head come out wooden and flat on the page. And it feels like such excruciating drudgery to type out in detail the action that goes wooshing by in my head."

Yeah. Words on paper don't have the emotional resonance of an imagined character speaking a dramatic line in a scene that you have imagined. You have to get used to that. It's the artist's curse. You may end up feeling relief, satisfaction or pride upon completing a story or novel, but you will never feel the thrill and excitement that your readers will.

If things are coming out wooden and flat then either slow down or compress. Slow down enough that you have time to think about what and how you're writing. Don't worry about the details that go wooshing by in your head. They will either come back when you need them or you will come up with new ones.

If a scene is drudgery then compress. Replace a conversation with a single line summary - "They argued.". Make your dialogues pure dialogue. Don't worry about what they do or how they say it, just get it out.

When you get to the end and everyone is dead and/or living happily ever after, then you can go back through and tidy up and add details/scenes or remove details/scenes.

And write every day, seven days a week. After a while, after a bunch of good days and bad days, you will feel more confident about the process.
posted by hifimofo at 10:23 PM on December 5, 2009

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