Several weeks ago, I decided to give writing a real shot, professionally.
When I was a kid, I would go grocery shopping with my mom, and I would always get hung up in the stationery aisle. There was something about being around all that blank paper that excited me. Did college-ruled, three-hole-punched paper have that much potential? Maybe it was the smell? I excelled in every English course. It wasn’t very surprising when I took a job at the public library in high school. (Though I’d have given my left eye to work at the local music store instead. Or in addition to.)
But actually writing was always difficult for me. Not journaling, or letter-writing. Jotting down the thoughts in my head was easy. But one day in high school, we were given an assignment: we had to write a sonnet.
Sonnets should be easy, but I took the assignment with the gravity of someone about to perform brain surgery. I took a notebook and went to the park. I would be inspired by nature, like Thoreau. I would commune with the elements. I would bleed the sonnet out onto the page. Laying on a picnic table bench, staring at the sky, I had no idea why artful muses weren’t absolutely dancing around me. Where was the mechanism to extract my soul and transfer it to page?
After at least an hour of utter grief, I decided to write about the sun since it was RIGHT THERE. It didn’t take me long; I wrote a nice sonnet, handed it in, got an “A”. “Very song-like” was the comment from the teacher. I’d written it in iambic pentameter, and rhymed it. I thought I was cheating. I followed a recipe, and there were all the words about the sun. It felt a little ugly. I mean, I produced poetry, but where was the angst? Where were the long nights of staring into my soul?
This kind of drama has probably killed the potential of 80% of the things I ever attempted because of their romantic appeal. (That includes relationships, which I didn’t fully realize were that much work until I was much older, but that is a much longer post.) I’d wanted to try film-making, for instance, or acting, but I already had a sense of the kind of person I had to be in order to attempt it. I had already disqualified myself as someone who doesn’t own “that kind” of inspiration. Which is, of course, utter bullshit; I found that out when I took my first improv class. But it was in my head, so it was a thing I had to get over if I ever wanted it to happen. (Not yet. One risky career at a time.)
Same with writing. I’ve been hopping from story to story lately, like a smoker desperately looking for a light. Finally, it’s not the romanticism getting in the way – well, not much – but now that I’m over that, I’m trying to get an understanding of what a working writer actually does.
I know a few writers who actually do this thing for real, and I’m in awe of them. I have never experienced a crazy solitude like this before, and I like being alone. I try to find ways out of my own head, while forcing myself to go back in. It is the most oxymoronic thing I’ve ever done. But I did learn some stuff, and I’m putting it here for you as for me, to reference in the future:
- Writing is not romantic. It is grueling work that requires every bit of your attention. If you find a tool that helps you write, use it. Improve it or tweak it. Make it your own. You are not cheating.
- Social media is both God and the Devil.
- Sitting down and writing is fine, but if you don’t leave the house, you won’t have much to write about except for the couch.
- Research is a real thing that you have to learn to do, or all your stories will die in outline.
- Every once in a while you have to stand up, do the dishes, and put on a load of laundry. Don’t forget to eat. Coffee shouldn’t be a meal. At least, not all the time. Try to exercise a little.
- Writing at 2am is NOT the same as writing at 11am.
- Even if everyone around you is totally quiet, it’s extremely hard to write with friends/family in your space.
- You’re going to make very big mistakes that will make you lose a week’s worth of work, and that’s ok, because you’re still learning from it, even though you don’t feel like you are.
- Just because you think you know what your story’s about doesn’t mean that you won’t change – entirely – what your story is about.
That’s what I’ve learned so far. And now, I have to go write a political story that I thought of yesterday, outlined, lost the outline due to BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death), recreated, and then realized the utter limitations of my knowledge. Off to research. March 15th deadline, which reminds me:
10. Thank God for deadlines.
If you have any advice for the struggling writer, I would appreciate it. Of course, all the writer friends I have are too busy working their stories to be goofing off on my blog. But maybe if you used to be a writer, and are now a computer programmer? Oh, heck. Feel free to just say hello. I am clearly wasting time.