Over the weekend I wrote fiction, for the first time in nearly six months. I can’t think of so long a stretch not working on a story in some fashion; even at my most sporadic, I never went longer than two months, maximum, without scratching that particular writing itch even a little. While I was in this most recent slump, I found it fairly easy to rationalize to myself why I wasn’t writing. I’m tired. I can’t think straight. I should be doing X instead. I don’t have enough time. It’s been so long I don’t even remember how anymore.
As true as those sentiments were, they were still at bottom rationalizations. It’s always easier to not write. Writing takes effort and presence of mind in a way that surfing the Internet or watching a television program decidedly does not. In this insightful article, Nebula Award-winning writer Rachel Swirsky says she doesn’t understand the whole “I have to write” mindset many writers have bought in to. I see her point. I hadn’t written fiction—the writing I do that I most care about—since late last year; if I simply had to do it, I’d never have managed so long without.
The living in that span, though, has been…paler somehow. I found myself wondering less, questioning less, distanced from the world and the people in it in a way that was foreign. I often feel like I’m on the fringes in my daily life, but this was a more pronounced alienation. Writing, for as much as it takes me out of the flow of life, paradoxically settles me more fully into it. Writing is how I process my experiences. How I best communicate with others. How I connect with myself.
If it’s so important, then, how did I manage to put it off for so long? Besides the above rationalizations, the greatest paralysis came from fear. Which, honestly, still lurks about, waiting to pounce in a moment of doubt, of psychic vulnerability. According to writers more practiced than I, that fear doesn’t ever completely dissolve. You just get craftier at dealing with it.
Why all that doubt and anxiety now? I’ve identified myself as a writer for years, with a decent amount of experience to draw on. Why should it fail me? I’ve spent years and significant portions of my education, formal and not, enriching my understanding of writing, of stories, of the craft’s tools and techniques. Doesn’t that count for something?
As many writers will tell you, those things do count for something, of course they do, but unfortunately they’re not always enough. The blank page or Word document can feel like a fresh start in so many senses, that no matter what you’ve done in the past, none of it matters now, at this precise moment, for this story. History doesn’t so much repeat itself as it rewrites itself from the very beginning, again and again.
But none of that is new to me and likely to you either. However, bracing for the wave doesn’t guarantee it won’t topple you. Even so, the prevalence of the fear and the sheer probability of succumbing to it, briefly or for a longer duration, are not why I’d been stymied these months past. As I wrote in another post, last year I was lucky enough to read several amazing books, ones I plan to read again, that will stick with me into the future, ones that have carved out a place in my mind. Rearranged some of my neurons—this is what great writing is capable of. My own work seems lacking compared to that standard.
And I want to write fiction that gets people to think and feel differently, maybe not in huge ways, but enough to notice the change. But, so went my rationale, my work wasn’t doing that and I hadn’t the first idea how to go about achieving that goal anyway—assuming I have any say in that matter—so I might as well have quit before I wasted any more time. I’m not mining new possibilities. Not pushing boundaries. Not finding fresh language. Not doing something different enough from the scores of other writers currently working in the field.
Maybe that’s all true. Maybe only some of it is. Maybe none of it. But if I have control over how mind-blowing my writing can be, the solution to accomplishing that is not to simply give up, yes? And if I don’t have that control—if that’s up to other people to determine and my own efforts only go so far—then shouldn’t I be working on doing the best job I possibly can with each story, regardless of any overarching aspirations? In either case, it’s obvious what I have to do: I need to keep writing.
Not every story has to be exceptional. Not every story can be. But they should be as good as you can make them. Do that and you can take pride knowing that you gave it your best rather than some half-hearted attempt.
This is only a portion of my epiphany. More on the other part next time. For now, I have a story to work on.