Some Whining

Some Whining

“You have to write every day. You just have to. If you aren’t always thinking about your story, you’re not getting anywhere. If you get away from the thing you’re working on, it takes a long time to settle back into the immersion.” –Chad Harbach while speaking at Lakeland College

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  Just write — all you have to do is write. As if it’s that simple. As if there are no consequences when you don’t grade the research papers or you skip that task force meeting or cancel class or decide that you’re going to conduct academic advising by email only. As if I wouldn’t rather be writing than doing whatever it is that I’m doing at just about any given moment. As if not writing is really and truly a choice.

When I say these things, people generally tell me that I need to stop complaining and get to work. My husband says this, my friends say this, my colleagues say this, my parents say this. For the past six years, I’ve done a fairly decent job of keeping my whining to a minimum, but as my frustration grows — no, as my anxiety over not writing grows — it is becoming increasingly difficult to shut up and stuff it all down.

Everyone advocates five minutes here, an hour there, an entire Sunday afternoon. People seem to think this hasn’t occurred to me, but it has. I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work. It’s just not productive — the words don’t simply accrue and become something all on their own, independent of the thought or energy or momentum that comes when a writer actually takes the the time to inhabit her words.

People don’t seem to realize that writing isn’t just putting words on a page. That part is easy. The hard part is interrogating those words to figure out what they’re trying to say, and then shaping them in such a way as to make other people understand, too. To borrow from Harbach, that requires “immersion.” Not just five minutes here and a Sunday afternoon there.  Chad Harbach gets it, but nobody else seems to. Everyone else seems to think I’m a spoiled, whiny little girl who isn’t grateful for what she’s got and who can’t ever just allow herself to be content.

There’s some element of truth to that.  But there’s also some element of truth to my anxiety. There’s a reason all the big league writers dispense the same advice. It’s because it works. It’s because you can’t get better at anything without constant practice. Imagine a violinist thinking she can master “Flight of the Bumblebee” just by rosining the bow every once in a while, just by halfheartedly practicing the fingerings every couple of weeks or months. It’s absurd.

If I could work on my craft every day, and practice every day, and get a little better every day, and truly step get outside of my “job” brain and into my “writer” brain, I know I wouldn’t feel the way I do. I’d have a lot more publications, for one thing. I’d have a project to think about and work on. I’d have a lot less self-loathing over my failure to actually write, and a lot less guilt over falsely calling myself a writer.

All the big league writers say “write every day.” It’s good advice if you can execute it. Unfortunately, they’re never able to offer advice on the mechanics of execution — and that’s probably because it’s not easy; for some of us, it’s simply inconceivable. They don’t ever say how to push out the mental clutter, how to reserve some energy for your writing, how to give yourself permission to let obligations slide in service of writing.

Instead of another craft book covering topics like “voice” and “point of view,” someone should write a craft book that starts at the point before facing the blank page. Someone should write a craft book that begins with carving out a life that allows for facing the blank page. Just imagine the exercises…

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