The other day, a new friend of mine asked me how I became a writer. I gave him the usual spiel.
Just now, I happened by chance onto an old Tumblr post in which I answer that same question, asked by an anonymous reader. It came in through the asking machine.
I shouldn’t tell you this. It’s bad for business. But here we are.
Yeah, I’m stymied. I’m at the bottom of a embankment in my work. It’s a bit of writing I’ve been wrestling with for a week or more. I’ve outlined it, I’ve written a draft or two of it already and proceeded to delete or type over a bunch of it—I’ve surveyed the turf and plotted my course. Still, stymied.
Sometimes, when this happens, I think about the writers and dramatists who say they just “skip the boring parts.” (It might’ve been Elmore Leonard or Alfred Hitchcock who said it most famously.) I do that sometimes—skip ahead and then see if I really need to come back and write the bit that got me stuck. Sometimes it works. Just skipping ahead helps me find a way to convey the beat I skipped without having to chart it precisely. The drive to the place is sometimes less interesting than what happens at the place.
This isn’t one of those times. This is exciting material I’m working with and, honestly, I don’t think that it’s the material being boring that’s holding me up. This material is important.
The problem is it’s just difficult. I keep thinking, “What I wrote today is okay but I’ll be sharper tomorrow and then I’ll revise and hone this stuff until it’s the best it can be.” Every day is some day’s tomorrow. Most days I am only as sharp as I usually am and so all these revisions and preparations and drafts aren’t getting the actual writing finished. So I’ve written this thing six or seven times now and it’s still not where I want it.
Sometimes I try to use the fact that something is hard to write well as an excuse to skip it and come back to it. That’s bending the old advice to “skip the boring parts” out of shape, though. Not every challenge is a fun puzzle to be solved. Some challenges are bent-knee trudges through dirty, weedy mires that leave your feet cold and your knuckles scraped to hell.
These are worthy challenges. Some of these must be overcome to get to the remote valleys and hidden temples. Don’t confuse what’s stymying for what’s boring.
I’m finding it tedious to not be good at this one thing that I’m writing but that just means it’s not fun right now. When I get good—at this scene, at this essay, at this character—things that might otherwise be boring can become intriguing,enticing, thrilling. In the hands of a great actor or storyteller, for example, the conversation in the car can be as captivating as the adventure at the destination.
In other words: Sucking at kung-fu sucks but get the moves down and I hear it’s fun to be a master.
Make the boring part a fun part worth reading, right? Even if it’s not easy.
Can we talk about commas for a minute?
Here’s something writerly (yay?) and brief (yay!). While I was out in South Carolina teaching creative writing a few years ago, I listened as a professor lamented the proliferation of needless commas in so much of the text he read from students and pros of all ages. I leaned back, happily skeptical. I thought about all the power and punch, mystery and mood that lay in the delicate pause of a cunningly placed comma. I thought about how it alters dialogue and how maybe all writing is essentially dialogue.
He was right. I was wrong. Too many commas.
Commas are great. I love commas. Commas, people, seriously.
Yet I’ve stopped installing them in so many sentences. I’ve stopped thinking of them as turn signals letting the reader know that an and or a but is coming up. Let the conjunctions do their jobs and let the reader find some of the rhythms on their own.
Sometimes, yes, sometimes commas add the right curve or swerve to a sentence, giving it that serpentine glide that entrances, that lures, that adds fatty coils, that gives the bedspread its menacing topography hinting at the asp beneath the sheets. Sometimes the comma is the venomous bite, sometimes the tangling constrictor.
That thing you’re writing now? That sentence you’re typing into the email you’re procrastinating even as you read this post? That tweet that needs just two more characters to go from molten gold to solid gold? Try scrubbing it free of commas. Put them back in the hopper for future use. See what happens when you trade in the twirling swordplay for a single jab with a sturdy spear. Sometimes it’s best to drive the point straight to the heart.
All this weekend, people have been setting off fireworks outside my building. They whistle and pop, crackle and boom. They’re fireworks—some of them explode in the sky like proper celebratory blooms, like someone hit a homer down the block. The dog has not been sleeping well.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to get my Internet access working properly. This involves a mixture of technical troubleshooting, for the technical issues, and social tinkering, for my social issues. I make too big a deal out of stuff that people write on the Internet sometimes. Sometimes they’re writing to me, sometimes about me, sometimes it has little or nothing to do with me—I can still blow it out of proportion, no problem.
Except, wait, it is a problem.
I fret and fidget and dwell and obsess. I mistake a forum post for, pardon me, actual writing. I sometimes spend time trying to get the language and nuance of a forum post right, to reward a deep reading for context and subtext and what I didn’t say in addition to what I did. I craft tweets to work in little series, to counterbalance my doldrums with my guffaws, to modulate the ups and downs in a way that convey my mood that day. I open the browser and I fiddle. These may have been hours misspent—nobody’s putting half the damn into reading my forum post that I’m putting into writing it or dissecting the response to it—but there I’ve gone, misspending.
Without steady and reliable Internet access, though, I’ve been spending less time reading and writing that stuff and more time breaking stories, building up game adventures, designing games, and outlining books. I’ve been putting more of what I want to say into writing that maybe—just maybe—will last longer or be better regarded than a forum post or a tweet. Writing that has a chance of doing that, at least.
For a few days, I was really dreading what was happening on the Internet without me. What gags and dramas passed by? What glimpses into other people’s lives? Was I falling out of the conversation, falling behind the discourse?
Outside, a firework went boom.
“A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
“Write drunk, edit sober.”
It’s true that I sometimes consider a piece of writing released online to be a modest failure if it doesn’t get enough comments or appreciation from readers. This is a failing not of the writing, however, but of me. The thing exists where before it did not exist. That’s the prize. Being created is the start, being read is fulfillment, being liked is a bonus. Not all of these are under my control. On with the next thing and the next and the next.
Sometimes I think that if I don’t write stuff for me during the week, I’ll get edgy and frustrated. Thing is, it should all be for me on some level. Otherwise, how the hell can I tell if it’s any good or not?