In my last post, I discussed how the unconscious nature of much of what a writer does can induce fear and insecurity: doubt that one will ever be able to do it again. Now obviously writers are able to do it again and again. That’s why authors’ names are quite often printed larger than the titles of their books. We expect the lightning of inspiration to strike the same spot repeatedly. And the fact that it does is testimony to the reality that writing is not entirely an inspiration-driven enterprise. There are, without a doubt, some tried-and-true methods for producing appealing prose (and poetry, I assume).
The first tried-and-true method for producing good writing is…to write. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But you would be amazed at how many people who want to be writers follow every method but this. And that, of course, is because talking about writing, and reading about writing, and planning to write, are all much easier than actually writing. And a lot less terrifying. (See my previous post.) Everyone’s book is much better in their head than when they actually try to put it down on paper. But if you want to write, you have to string together actual words. And if you want to be good at writing, you have to be bad at it first–not something that comes naturally to the artistic temperament.
The truth is, every writer needs not only a muse but a slave driver. It’s not enough to have grand artistic vision if there’s no execution. You must write, and write, and write some more. You must write when you feel like it and write when you don’t. It’s a persistence game, baby. Or, as Malcolm Gladwell would say, you’ve got to put in your 10,000 hours. You’ve got to sit down at the desk and produce the pages. If they’re bad, that just means you’re a few bad pages closer to something good.
BUT. Yes, there’s a but. I do think it’s possible to work too hard. I think the slave driver can, at times, become a hindrance. Everyone’s heard of the necessity of taking a step back from one’s work: putting a manuscript in a drawer and coming back months later with fresh eyes. Staying away from a favorite project for which we have high and immediate hopes can be excruciating. But it is often in the best interest of the work. And I think that the same can be said for one’s writing in general.
I know there are periods when I’ve been so excited about the prospects of my writing career that I have been writing, on paper or in my head, without pause for days. I lie in bed at night, and I’m either outlining a new essay or revising an old one. This febrility can be fun and often useful. But there comes a point of diminishing returns. I find that, when my mind is too rational and goal-focused (the hallmarks of the slave driver), my creativity begins to suffer. I can churn out some decent pages, but brilliance eludes me. I don’t write anything surprising. And the longer I’m a writer, the more that’s what I want from the words I put down on the page: to be surprised. Taken aback by an insight that seems to arise from nowhere.
Those insights arrive most commonly for me when I am at one of two stages in working on a piece. Either I am just starting out and writing in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, not evaluating or shaping but just putting the bones of some ideas down, or I have finished the bulk of my revisions and I’m just indulging my vanity by rereading what I’ve written. It’s amazing how often a brilliant idea will hit me on the head when I’m in this open, relaxed state of consciousness. I think it’s the same phenomenon that makes it the case that I always get my very best ideas on my days off–for instance, when I’m lazing about on a Sunday afternoon, reading on a blanket in the backyard. I rarely get in a solid hour’s worth of reading before I’m scribbling in my notebook. “I thought you were taking the day off,” my husband will say, as he smiles knowingly from the kitchen window.
The truth is, we writers need both our rational, systematic, workaholic side and our creative, devil-may-care, lay-about side. We need fresh, exciting dreams to which we can then give careful, meticulously honed form. We need both the slave driver and the muse.