When you SHOULDN’T be writing
For a number of years, I Should Be Writing has been both one of my staple podcasts and an inspirational mantra. Personally, I’ve found it useful in re-directing my focus. Facebook’s hold is a lot easier to break when you can exclaim out loud, “Wait a second—I should be writing!”
It’s a principle we hear a lot. Writing every day keeps you writing, every day. A writer is someone who writes. Write or die. Don’t break the chain. The first rule is write. BIC: Bottom In Chair.
Again, all good ideas. If you’re spending your time on the Internet, TV, and random chores that really could wait a few hours, and getting a few hundred words every few days, your chances of finishing that story/novel/script are about nil.
However, this write-at-all-costs mindset overlooks the fact that sometimes, you really shouldn’t be writing.
I learned this the hard way. Looking back through the archives, I realize that I have been blogging about Strix/The Next One for far too long. This book has taken me too long. Partly, this is because I couldn’t find the way into the story. Partly, I realize in hindsight, I was writing when I shouldn’t have been.
Let’s rewind. Exactly one year ago, I was in New Zealand, starting Strix. I was experiencing culture shock. I was homesick. I was adapting to a new university. I was in a somewhat-difficult living situation. Then I was backpacking, never in one place for more than three days, writing in noisy hostels after being outside from sunrise to sunset.
The book I wrote was not very good.
When you look at how it was written, that’s perhaps not terribly surprising. Of course, I don’t want to pin all of Strix’s problems on the circumstances—realistically, I just didn’t do a very good job—but they certainly didn’t help.
While I was editing Strix, a lot of family stuff was happening. At one point, I was overwhelmed enough to stumble into a priest’s office.
A week after that, my dad died unexpectedly.
And yet, I still tried to edit the damn thing. I gave myself an extra month, ignored everyone telling me to take it slow, and churned out a first pass before fleeing to Virginia for a few days.
My first real, slow sinking feeling occurred when I realized I’d forgotten to include chapter twelve…and my first readers hadn’t noticed.
I sent Gabrielle an apology, and worked feverishly on a new first pass. A few weeks later, I got this DM: “I finished Strix. Can we chat?”
End result? I’m all but starting from scratch. And yes, Gabrielle was absolutely right (I cannot stress enough just how fortunate I am to work with her). It will be a much better book this way, and where before Strix felt like an obligation, now I’m actually excited to write it. And yes, she not only gave me permission to share this, she suggested it.
Hindsight is a powerful tool. Again, I take responsibility for Strix’s problems; I chose to keep writing in the face of advice to the contrary. However, it’s possible that if I had waited, I might not have found myself in the current situation.
Sometimes, it seems like we think we can push through anything, write through anything. After all, suffering feeds art, right? We can write through pain, turn it into grist for the mill, and ignore all stress and exhaustion in the name of our art.
There’s a guilt that builds up around not-writing. It can be blessing and curse: it keeps you writing, but sometimes it creates anxiety over “not being a writer” where there really isn’t cause for it. As regards to turning hardship into story…yes, this can be done. Writing is cheaper than therapy. However, there is a caveat. One of the best pieces of advice that I received (which I nodded at, agreed with, and then promptly didn’t act on) came from my ever-wise friend Blythe:
“You shouldn’t use things until you’ve dealt with them.”
Homesickness in Dunedin and grief in Toronto. Both colour Strix—neither did so in terribly effective ways. Mentally, psychologically, spiritually, I wasn’t ready. And that’s ok. If you are not ready, if you are not able, it is ok not to write. In fact, you probably shouldn’t be writing. It is easy to think in absolutes and hold writing above all else, but it can be damaging, and that hurts the quality of your work.
If you are in great physical or emotional pain, you may not write well.
If you are undergoing major life changes, you may not write well.
If your environment lacks stability, you may not write well.
If you have other major upheavals happening—work, family, whatever—that must be dealt with and require a great deal of energy, you may not write well.
Really, it’s ok. It’s natural, it’s human. But it’s worth recognizing. Know your limits, and know that waiting in the short term may save you lots of work in the long run. Sometimes, admitting, “I can’t” is braver than saying, “I’ll try.”
I’m still not functioning at 100%, but I know that I am functioning well enough, and that my current circumstances are peaceful and stable enough, to try Strix again. For reals, this time.
Best wishes to all of you on your own journeys—and remember to rest, if you need to.
Posted on April 27, 2013, in Writing and tagged Advice, awkward, Community, Dragon Moon Press, Dunedin, Edits, fail, fantasy, Gabrielle Harbowy, geek, New Zealand, Personal, Stress, Strix, Sucking, The Next One, Writing, Writing life. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.