The last couple of months have been some of the most productive in my life in terms of creative writing. I changed jobs, and planned to get back into writing for National Novel Writing Month. I’d had an idea for a book I was kicking around for a while—sort of a Cormac McCarthy-meets-Gabriel Garcia Marquez set in the Old American West—and I planned the whole thing out and started writing my masterpiece.
I washed out of NaNoWriMo well short of my word count. Before Christmas, I stared at my 36,000 words and tried to find the motivation to keep going.
Then I had an idea for a story. A “wouldn’t it be cool if?” sort of thing, much more wacky action movie than Great American Novel. But I wrote a scene, then another, then realized the story was there just waiting to come out.
This last weekend, I finished at a little more than 62,000 words, all written between January 8 and February 2 (although I officially wrapped Draft 1 on January 31.)
In the last several weeks, I’ve realized a few things about how I write. These may apply to how you write or the might not—I don’t know. This may be Universal Truths for me, or they may only apply to my life such as it is in February of 2013—I don’t know. But here we go.
1. Write what you want to write. For a long time, I was hung up on being some strange combination of Stephen King, Vladimir Nabokov, and Cormac McCarthy. On some level this is natural. Artists see other people’s work and sometimes think one of two (polar opposite) things:
- “Holy fuck this is fantastic and I want to do something of this level of brilliance.”
- “Holy fuck this is awful, and I could do so much better!”
We take something away from the first, and the second gives us a threshold to aim above.
Part of my realization was that I wanted financial independence or security (I ought to be paid to make art full time! Also I hate sweating the bills each month!), but I also wanted recognition (I want people to feel the exact same way about something I wrote, that I feel about Nabokov or Rushdie or McCarthy!) Add to that the middle-class feeling that if recognition of brilliance, then financial security. In other words, if I’m so amazing, people ought to see that and of course give me moneys.
It took ten years to realize how wrong that is on so many levels. The world just doesn’t work that way. It never has, and it never will, and I’m not sure where this myth even comes from.
My rambling point here is that I kept trying to write something that fulfilled one or both of these two things. It had to be brilliant. It had to make a difference. If someone didn’t read what I wrote and come away feeling motivated, inspired, or changed, it was failure. And if I wasn’t making enough money to be financially secure doing it, it was a failure. Whenever I felt like I wasn’t doing that, I felt like my writing was failing.
Even the book I started for NaNoWriMo fell into this category. It was going to be a brilliant piece of Magical Realistic Western literature, like 100 Years of Solitude meets Lonesome Dove.
I realized I didn’t want to write that book. I wanted to write something fun.
So I started a story about two cowboy con-artists who resurrect the recently-deceased from town graveyards with a zombie serum developed by the Russians during the Napoleonic invasion, and used in the final days of the Confederacy as a last-ditch effort to try to win the civil war. The cowboys then kill the zombies in exchange for a payout, then move on to the next town.
Who knows? Maybe this will end up being life-changing to someone. I don’t know. Some of the books, games, comics, and so forth that inspired me as a kid weren’t intended to be Great Artistic Statements when they were created. It was just someone doing what they wanted to do, and making the very best thing they could.
So there’s #1. I’m not King or Nabokov or McCarthy. I’m just the very best me I can be. If you want to read what I write, awesome. If not, awesome.
2. The Write Time and Place. It turns out I can’t just write anywhere. I can write in some strange places, but there have to be barriers and boundaries. I don’t mean that I can only write on certain kinds of desks or in total silence or in the woods or anything like that. In fact, my guess would be that I’m way less OCD about this than some other writers. I have learned a couple of particular things about myself though.
I can’t really write in the evening. Anything I produce past 8 or 9pm takes forever and just doesn’t read very well. I’m decent in the early morning, great after 2-3 cups of coffee, decent in the afternoon, but after dinner my mind’s turning off and I want to relax. If I get into the zone late at night, then chances are I’m not going to sleep.
I also can’t write at work. I write for work, so I don’t mean I can’t physically do it—I mean that I’ve mindfully been keeping the actual execution of my creative project separate from my job. On one level this is a conscious choice about keeping my job separate from my personal life (more on that in a minute). On another level, it’s because I’ve worked on creative projects at jobs in the past and it doesn’t really work well, because inevitably your real work suffers.
3. The Write Job. My job (my 9-5) involves a lot of writing. It’s also the first time in about ten years where I work a job that “ends” at the door.
Last October, I realized that my old job had burned me out to the point of ineffectiveness. I was waking up at 6 (if I slept much at all), opening my work computer, checking my email, and more often than not starting Skype conversations with my colleagues on the east coast. I’d then work until 7 or 8 at night, and check email until I went to bed anywhere between 10 and 11. My cellphone was my workphone, and even if I didn’t have my work computer, my email was on my phone.
It never turned off, ever.
I’m not discouraging anyone from this kind of lifestyle, but I had reached my own personal breaking point. Something had to give.
I’m convinced that if I had not left I would not have been writing nearly as much as I have since November. I’d probably still be sitting here frustrated and maybe writing some jerkoff shit that no one was going to read or care about, about social media marketing.
Instead I’m writing about cowboys shooting zombies in the face!
4. Fill your time with good stuff. My wife and I don’t watch much TV. We go out of our way to eat dinner at the table most nights and talk to each other. We manage it 3 or 4 times a work-week most weeks. That has been a very conscious choice on our part, because time is limited, and we’d rather spend it with each other than in each other’s presence when we’re doing something else (IE, watching TV.) We play board games, drink wine, hang out by the fire in the winter and on the back porch in the summer.
My point is that we’ve very mindfully tried to occupy ourselves with good things. Since our time is limited, we’ve tried to spend it doing things that are meaningful. My own time is spent playing games or reading books, and I’ve become very selective about both. I don’t waste hours grinding out achievements anymore. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy that, but it’s just not how I want to spend my time.
This was a big learning for me, because doing things that nourish and stimulate the mind has given me the headspace to start thinking about things more abstractly, and I swear has stimulated the creative process. I’ll admit my evidence is circumstantial, but it certainly makes sense.
5. This should be fun. One last nugget: writing should be fun. Not that it won’t be hard at certain points, but ultimately storytelling should be an enjoyable experience. That was part of the problem with all the other stuff I tried to write: it wasn’t fun. There were elements of fun in it, but when I stopped having fun telling the story and just turned it into a grind, it lost its appeal to me as a writer. As a result, the story suffered, and I eventually abandoned the project.
The great part about the cowboys-killing-zombies project is that it’s been fun to work out front to back. There have been hard elements to write, but for the most part, I’m excited to get back to it each day. I’m looking forward to telling more of the story because I kind of want to know how it turns out, and I have been having a blast coming up with ideas and jokes and fun stuff on the fly.
So that’s what I’ve figured out in the last few weeks about how I work and write.
It’ll be interesting to come back to this in a year and see how much of this still holds true.