My writing community consists of few people, all of whom I rarely see in person. I have tried many times to form or be a part of writing groups, but they end up dissipating before they even really get started. It is true the act of writing is a solo act. It is not like a sports team where you have to get together in order to practice. But I have to admit I miss my grad school workshopping days. I miss the days when I would enter the classroom excited to talk about a beautifully structured sentence, pointing out why and how each word worked. To an outsider, this may seem like the most boring activity in the world, but to a person who writes there is nothing more thrilling than discovering a beautifully written sentence. Grad school has long been over and still I long for these moments. What I discovered after graduating is this:
Writing can often feel lonely.
Writing requires discipline, consistency, accountability and passion. All of these are easily lost when one is no longer faced with deadlines or by the scowl on someone’s face because you failed to critique their work and give them feedback. It is easy to get discouraged when you enter the “real” writing world often consisting of rejection letters and failed projects. This is where the loneliness sets in. At this point you now have few people to vent to. Most of the people you went to grad school with found “real” jobs and are no longer writing or the grad school glue that once made you feel like you had known each other for years has now worn off. You realize that if you are going to have any success as a writer you have to make a go of it on your own.
What does this mean? It means you keep writing because you love to write and you can’t imagine not writing. Make writing a priority and structure your life around it, but make sure that you remember to have fun with it. Taking yourself too seriously, on any level, is never a good idea. And in those moments when you feel all alone in your love for words remember there are many of us feeling the same way at the same moments.
Over the last six months, I’d officially been in a writing slump. The worst I’ve ever had. I won’t call it writer’s block – I started writing this, obviously, so it’s not like my fingers are completely incapable of stringing words together on a screen – but I haven’t written anything worthwhile. My subconscious, which for so long had fought to the forefront of my mind in the middle of meetings, sleep, conversations, meals, drives, workouts, and TV shows with creative ideas about characters and stories, had abandoned me. I felt devoid of writing synergy. I thought about putting in the work and would lock myself in my den with a blank Word document up, but instead decided to check Facebook or how my fantasy sports teams were doing. There are a lot of excuses for this, which I won’t enumerate here, but they mostly had to do with devoting time and energy to things that weren’t writing. I thought maybe I’d been wrong that I could do this. Or that I didn’t have enough of whatever it was I needed (talent, work ethic, creativity, patience, and a million other things). But two nights ago, I was plucked out of my writing funk by the past.
My old notebook from a graduate fiction writing class.
I found it in a drawer in the guest bedroom, completely unaware I had kept it there for safekeeping. I looked at the notebook’s dirty cover, “Sac State” inscribed in gold across the center, and the folded papers sticking out from the pages as though in a hurry to reveal themselves. I sat on the edge of the bed and squinted at my handwriting, consuming each word, arrow, underline, star, scribble on each page before tenderly turning to the next page, to the next revelatory note:
· Henry James: “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind. We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous…”
· meaning design, not theme design – the meaning should flow like a current underneath the plot/narrative design
· trying to prove something always results in bad writing
· Writing is always about revelation, not destination
· a good scene complicates character but reveals something about them at the same time
· stories are shaped by a character’s desire and the obstructions to obtaining that desire
· the story says something; the author keeps quiet
· you must risk approaching sentimentality but you also must never cross that line
· what you read, watch, talk about and who you hang out with will often determine what you write about and how you write without you knowing it, so choose wisely!
· Good stories always have motion towards something that is surprising yet inevitable
· Desire is a word before it’s a thing.
· Be okay with writing crap. Not only will you get to the good stuff, you’ll also have some interesting accidents along the way.
· In dialogue, don’t forget to use silence, actions, and descriptions to add complication, imagery, and rhythm.
· Picasso: “If you want to be an artist, remain a child”
I consumed all the notes with such joy. I had been transported back to my graduate program, when all my time was centered on writing and learning the craft, talking to people with similar interests, my entire being filled with words and images and emotions and finding ways to put them all together. And then, in the middle of a page, my subconscious leapt back into its familiar spot, and an idea for a character and plot rushed through my brain and goosebumps came over me. I was excited again. I grabbed my laptop and wrote stream-of-consciousness style all the ideas pouring out from my head. It was pure light. That heat. That zone that I sometimes used to get when no one - not even the magnetic lure of social media - can stop you.
And then I stopped myself. This had happened before. You have three other novels already in progress, Elison. Remember how excited you were to start those? Yes, but this one is different. THIS IS THE ONE. Calm down, dumbass. You need to finish one of those other ones. What’s the point of half-finished stories? But this is the one begging to be told, can’t you see?
Since I couldn’t decide, I naturally posed the question on Facebook. Almost all of my friends who also write said: it’s not about excitement, it’s about work. Writing is work. Stop complaining and just finish a story already. Almost all of my friends who are not writers said: follow the new story. See how long that excitement can take you. Follow that passion.
The fact that both sides were split so clearly between writers and non-writers was astonishing to me. The writers answered from a state of understanding, and the others from a place of comparison. Writing as basketball. Or writing as everyday work. It occurred to me, then, that the the reason for my slump was I’d been having this exact debate over the past six months in my own head. I had a day job now. A mortgage. A wife. I wasn’t an unemployed graduate student with all the free time and space to let my creativity run wild. I didn’t want to work for 8 plus hours a day and then come home to writing, that thing I loved doing, to feel like work as well. I wanted the excitement. I wanted the passion. But somehow, it had left me, and I was so close to letting it stay lost.
But here's the thing - if this is going to work, for me or for any of us, we have to do both.
There will be days when you can’t get anything down on the page. This is just like any other job. You don’t want to tackle those spreadsheets or write that report or make that presentation, but it’s your job and so you have to do it. Writing is your job, too, and you have to do that as well. But writing is also more than a job. It’s your vocation. Your soul. Your inner voice. And just because it goes away for a while doesn’t mean it’s not going to come back. But you have to fight for it. So unplug your router. Let your phone die. Read. Even then, there will be days when you watch The Walking Dead instead or sleep through your scheduled writing time. This will happen. But no matter what, keep coming back to that blinking cursor. Keep working. Because just when you think that’s it, you're done, that’s when the real story begins.