Or, Follow Me Down the Rabbit Hole to the Writer’s Hellish Wonderland
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but something always seems to get in the way. And that’s sort of the point: No matter how committed to writing I am, there are always a thousand crazy distractions and excuses that keep me from doing the writing I want to do. Some are internal; some are external; all are unwelcome.
I’m not one who really believes in writer’s block. It might just be a different way of looking at the same problem, but I prefer to consider the causes for why I can’t get down to the task of writing. Of course, my problems might not be the same as yours, although I suspect many of them are. So, here’s my list of top 10 reasons for not writing, in no particular order.
1. Being Distracted
This is the problem where you fall down the rabbit hole. For instance, I’m writing along happily when I realize I need to look something up. For accuracy, you know. Fire up the browser, do a quick search, which might or might not reveal the information I need. I search again. Then I remember something else I’ve been meaning to look up—which might not even be related to what I’m writing, but, you know, as long as I’m searching . . .
An hour later, I realize I’ve been watching stupid YouTube videos about people falling off roofs or cats riding vacuum cleaners. How did I get here? That’s right: I fell down the rabbit hole to the writer’s hellish Wonderland. Every distraction imaginable is out there waiting for you if you once open that door. Or browser.
2. Fear of Failure
Your story or your novel is a beautiful thing. You know that when you finish writing it, it’s going to be your big break. Everyone will see its genius and hail you as the next literary giant in whatever genre you prefer.
. . . Except, what if the story you write down doesn’t match the lofty expectations you have in your imagination? What if it just doesn’t come together like you expect? What if it isn’t any good when you finally do write it? Isn’t it better if you live with the ideal than ruin it by setting down on the page something that’s imperfect? Yeah, fear of failure is a killer.
3. Fear of Success
And the opposite, what if it is good? What if people like it? How and where do you sell it so people can read it? What do you do next? Is there another story idea behind this one or are you a one-trick pony? Are you ready to really be a writer? How do you even define success? Maybe it’s best not to think about it since you’re so unlikely to achieve it anyway.
Should I work on a story today? If so, which one? Maybe I should go for a bike ride first. After some exercise, I’ll be in a good mental state for some serious writing. But of course, I’ll need to take a shower before sitting down at the computer. And after that, it’s getting pretty close to lunch time. So maybe skip the ride. But I do need to answer some email before settling in to my writing. Spend some time reviewing the various messages in my Inbox. No, I guess they don’t actually need responses, or at least not right now. Although I just spent half an hour to decide that. Ugh.
Now should I do some writing? Maybe I need a snack first, and some more coffee (always more coffee). And I can’t type and eat, so maybe I should catch up on Facebook so I won’t have to stop for that later. This cycle can go on just about indefinitely. What do I want to do today, right now? Maybe it’s just that writing is hard and it seems easier to choose to do first all the other things I could possibly do. If you don’t choose to put writing first, funny this is, it won’t be.
5. Computer Games
You can substitute here whatever your particular addiction might be. In my case, I crave the thrill of competition, the chance of bettering my last score, and yes, sometimes just the violence of destroying my enemies. Unfortunately, these opportunities are often presented through the same interface on which I should be doing my writing, i.e., my computer. How many times have I sat down with the express intention of writing only to find myself 10 minutes later enmeshed in some game, with no memory of making a conscious decision to do so?
Your addictions might be something like hanging out at the bar and drinking too much, with the requisite next-day hangover. Or going out shopping for things you don’t need (which could also take place on your computer). Or maybe it’s watching movies, or sports, or reading. Whatever it is, you know it isn’t serving anything but entertainment (not bad in moderation, of course) and that time might be more profitably spent writing, yet you can’t say no. That’s why I call it an addiction.
6. Work (Or Something Else) Is More Important
Why is it I’m always in the best mood to write and have the best ideas when I know I have no ability to actually do the writing? I’m stuck at work (which in my case means working from home, on the same computer I use for my personal writing—even more galling). So I think, that’s fine, I’ll finish the work that has to get done, then do the writing. And by that time, I’m too tired, or I’ve lost the inspiration.
It’s not just the jobs we get paid for (because, let’s face it: few people have the luxury of being full-time writers). Maybe you’ve set aside Saturday morning for a good chunk of writing, but your wife reminds you that the lawn needs mowed and the weeds pulled. Or the kids have some thing you have to take them to (if you have kids). Maybe it’s the grocery shopping, or the dishes are piling up, or you need a haircut. All these responsibilities of life that we can’t avoid get in the way of writing—because writing just isn’t as important, right?
7. The Business of Writing
If you’re lucky enough—or dedicated enough—to finish some piece of writing, your next step is to market it. That business of writing side of things, however, relies on completely different skills than the writing itself. And what’s more, it requires a lot of time. You’ve got to research: Who’s publishing stuff like what you wrote? Do you need an agent? How do you submit it?
If you only have a limited amount of time carved out of your schedule for your writing life as it is, how are you going to perform the business of writing except to do it instead of writing? Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all had personal assistants to handle the business side of things? Yeah, dream on, rookie.
8. Over or Under Plotting
This problem is one that might traditionally get labeled as writer’s block. Maybe you haven’t really figured out where your story is going so you write yourself into a corner and get stuck. Or maybe you’ve plotted the whole thing out in detail, predetermined every plot point and character transition such that actually writing it becomes boring.
Maybe there was never a story there to begin with. How do you know? Keep writing and find out. Or give it up and start something new. Really, what could go wrong?
This is kind of the same as distractions, except that interruptions are external instead of internal. Oh look, I got a new email! What a lovely sound it makes. And next the phone is ringing. Woops, coffee mug’s empty—gotta go for a refill (because, remember: coffee). No, cat, I don’t think you should sit in my lap right now, but OK, well, there you are. Uh-oh, forgot to take the trash out this morning and I hear the trash truck coming down the street . . .
You’re in the zone—the writing zone—and you’re out of the zone. Blessed are they who hear not the chirp of the smartphone, nor the pull of the outside world.
10. The Boring Bits
It’s always fun to start a new story. And there’s an excitement that builds as you near the end and draw all your story elements to a satisfying close. However, in between those two points, you’ve got to fill your story with the story. Stuff happens. You get bogged down in the boring bits.
Yeah, who wants to write boring stuff? More importantly, who wants to read boring stuff? Maybe you can just skip over all that middle stuff and go straight for the killer ending. OK, probably not, but it does beg the question of how much of that middle stuff you really need.
Just Keep Writing
It seems to me that each of these problems has a built-in solution. In fact, the solution is always the same: Just keep writing! A true case of easier said than done, however.
I went to a weekend writing workshop over twenty years ago given by science fiction writer David Gerrold. At the time, I was probably too young and inexperienced to understand and appreciate much of the great content he presented. However, some stuff has stuck with me over the years. Most particularly, Gerrold told his audience that as writers, we are self-employed. Therefore, to be a writer, you must write. It’s really as simple as that.
Even though it isn’t always simple.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins