Do or Do Not

Writing—there is no way to disguise the fact, so it must be said, and the same is true of any creative pursuit—is hard. But not for the reasons most of us think.

At its core, the writing experience is a fundamental struggle with self. At its worst, it can be as grueling as being in therapy. But although the forms this struggle assumes are legion, I think we can identify three main categories.

For many, probably most of us, the primary challenge comes in the guise of time: work, distractions, responsibilities, the demands of others, all these conspire to leave us without a moment from the bleary-eyed instant we wake till the time we collapse at night. For others, the chief enemy is fear: these are the perfectionists, the people who aim high and can’t bear to fall short, ever. Another huge group struggles with process: these are the people who (think they) can only write in a particular place, on a certain type of paper or keyboard, or on days with an ‘s’ in their name. And finally, there are those who suffer what is generally termed ‘writer’s block’.

Fortunately, the same, simple advice applies in every case: Get Over It.

The reader recoils in hurt at this harsh, unfeeling advice, at not being understood, at—

I’m serious. Moreover, I’ve been there, and watched many, many others struggle; and I’m convinced that in writing, as in any creative endeavour, there is no try. There’s only doing or not doing. And beneath that, there’s only will.

Let’s pick it apart.

Time issues? Stop watching TV; unplug your internet; say ‘no’ more often (you can be nice about it); set the alarm an hour earlier. The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope and our own great fantasist, Gene Wolfe, both wrote unfailingly for a couple of hours every single morning before leaving for their day job, and each produced a huge body of work in the process.

Fear? (I especially get this one, as I’m a perfectionist, just like you.) So many of us come to writing, more than any other pursuit, assuming we can just do it, straight off the bat, though we’d never think of approaching the violin, or a foreign language, or brain surgery with that same expectation. But just as with every other skill, there’s a learning process, and—with the exception of the one-in-a-million prodigy—it involves making mistakes and overcoming obstacles.  The late, great, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story a week, without fail, for years to learn his craft.

Process? Crutches and superstition. These are harmless enough if you actually work with them and produce, but if they stop you from writing, they gotta go—period.

Which leaves us with writer’s block.

This one is tricky, as it seems to take so very many forms… but I’d bet a good deal that for many of us it’s a result, possibly well-disguised, of one or several of the instances above. Still, it’s undeniable that many highly-motivated and disciplined professional writers do hit a wall that can stop them writing for weeks, months, or even years at a time. In these cases, another strategy may be required.

I believe, as C.J. Cherryh has written, that writer’s block often occurs because of a breakdown in communications: your characters have stopped talking to you. In this case the fix must be to dig deeper into them by whatever means necessary. Examine them, cajole them, chat with them, interrogate them, torture them, all the while listening openly and intently—in short, do what you must until they start talking to you again.

In other cases, barring catastrophic life upheavals such as divorce or death, which may justifiably require recovery (though for many writers, writing is itself a tool for recovery), the cause may be simple burnout.

In my former life as a professional colorist and decorative painter, I once worked a full year for a very demanding (and intelligent, and gracious) woman who’d built a 16,000 square-foot home on the California coast. And unlike just about all of my peers, I hand-mixed my own pigments and media for even the largest jobs, rather than relying on store-bought or premixed paints and glazes: before each job, I’d do two or at the most three samples or iterations to ‘dial in’ the colours for the client’s approval; often, I got it in one.

Now, most people with decent colour vision—and mine is excellent—can distinguish around 20,000 different tones (which is one reason that even in a paint manufacturer’s deck of 1,800 colours you often can’t find the one you want). This particular client, though, could see, I’d swear, two steps between every tone I could make out. Day after day, week after week (and I was billing by the hour), I stood at my mixing table, blending pigments and solvents and vehicles, putting up fresh combinations of barely differing base and glaze colours, all the while keeping careful notes; my client would examine each, explain what was working and what wasn’t, which direction to try… and I’d go back to work. And because colours need to be dry to get to a true ‘read,’ we could only do one or two samples a day, depending on the weather and the quality of the daylight.

After some three weeks of this, I hit a wall. I was mixed out, there was no colour left in me. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t! I talked to my client. She sympathised, understood, told me to take a few days off. I did. After a day or two of whimpering, I felt better, squared my shoulders, and went back. I nailed the sample in two more days.

And so it must be with writing. I believe that if you really, truly, want to write, you will, and no power on Earth can stop you—except yourself. To write (or paint, or play the tuba, or learn Latin), you must (i) make the time, stealing it from wherever necessary without shame or remorse: those who love you will learn to deal with it, the rest can go to hell; (ii) accept that you’re going to make mistakes, and always will: but you’ll learn from these, and eventually become good enough that nobody but you notices them; (iii) either settle on the process that works for you, or—like Forrest Gump running till his crutches fall to pieces—discover that you can, at need, actually write anywhere, anytime, on anything; and (iv) rediscover your characters, rest and/or recover until you’re over whatever is causing your block.

Last of all, as Stephen King tells us in his excellent little book, On Writing, it may help to remember that writing is, beneath all the hopes and fears, glitter and magic, just a job like any other. It’s work, and no more mysterious. But for many of us, it’s the most rewarding work we’ll ever do.

So after all that motivational hooey (yeah, I know, I said a few posts ago that I didn’t believe in all that, but, hey, sometimes it helps), the post after next will be about process, and a few things that work for me, and for some other writers I know.



Filed under Writing

8 responses to “Do or Do Not

  1. Aidan Fritz

    On colors: perhaps she could see two steps between every tone. Radio lab had a colors episode with one segment on The Perfect Yellow. Evidently some women may have a fourth cone type that may allow them to see additional colors. Intriguing. (Also the segment on Why Isn’t the Sky Blue is good. But enough of that, I should be writing. 😉

    • Fritz, that’s really interesting–I’d never heard of the fourth cone type, though I do know, and years of working with clients as a colourist bore this out, that women suffer colour vision impairment at a far lower rate than men anyway. So I’m not at all surprised that it’s women that may have this advantage. Heading for your link now. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Lyn

    Great Post Dario. 🙂

  3. Joanna Fay

    Great post! Dario, I suspect that my years as a tapestry weaver were really just training to be a writer….why else indulge in an anachronistic profession that requires large slabs of time, steady will, patience and attention to detail on a regular basis? I suspect you could say the same of your work as a decorative painter…:)

    • Jo, I really do think so. And I believe the converse is true also–that people capable of intense focus, discipline, attention to detail, and projects that go on for month after month naturally gravitate to jobs that require those skills. 🙂

  4. Very inspiring Dario. I’m acquiring a writing habit from blog writing. The more I write, the more I’m addicted to writing. I find blogging to be like piano practice for writing. There are many books that talk about the virtue of practice and how important it is to get 10,000 hours of practice time to get good at anything. I figure I’ve put over 2,000 hours into blogging, writing more than 500 essays. Now I feel bad if I don’t write.

    • Thanks, Jim. Yes, I find the same, and 10,000 hrs (equivalent to 5 working years) sounds about in line. My own rule of thumb is that any reasonably bright person should be able to become competent at anything in 3 to 5 years, very good in 10, and achieve mastery after 15 or 20. But it really does help if the thing hooks you, as you say. I visit your own blog on and off and am always intrigued and often amused and delighted at your musings. You’ve really found your groove there!

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