On the process

One of the challenges this summer—and the challenge, really, that any writer faces—is getting the writing process started. That’s 99 percent of the obstacle. Once you get started it’s easy to continue writing, but one of the worst feelings in the world is staring at the blank page with a vague feeling of failure. I’ve gone through many days where I felt my sense of self-worth shrivel because I meant to write something and instead accomplished a lot of fishing, reading, or scrolling through inane pictures.

There are a number of things that I’ve found that help with this. The most boring way is to make an outline, but for me that takes all the joy out of the written expression of thought. Organization is necessary to a point, but in excess quantities it kills originality. Still, it’s important to get the major topics down on the paper or to map out the general narrative flow.

I’ve also found that some sort of liquid helps to get the wheels going—tea or coffee in the morning, or scotch or beer in the evening. Obviously, it’s important not to overdo it on either. Tea is great because it’s more hydrating and less jitter-producing than coffee, but having it after dinner makes me unable to sleep. I find that scotch or whiskey helps me write, but having it before dinner has the opposite effect of caffeine, and you don’t want to nap the evening away. Alcohol is a disinhibiting drug; a small amount banishes writer’s block, gets the process started, and increases the flow of words, although it affects everybody differently.

It also sometimes helps to write about a different subject—any subject. Write about what happened on the weekend. Write about a trip you took recently. Write a to-do list for the week. I recently started to keep a dream journal as an experiment. It’s believed that writing down your dreams from the previous night helps to remember progressively more details. Some claim that it helps you learn to control your dreams and experience what’s called lucid dreaming. I’m not sure if I believe that it helps with this, and it’s not that I give any significance to the meaning of my dreams. Most of them are pretty inane, although common subjects tend to reveal themselves. There are two reasons that I’ve been recording the dreams that I remember. The first is that, since we spend a third of our lives in sleep, anything that I can do to improve my experience and recall effectively lengthens my lifespan. The second is that if the first thing I do upon waking is to start writing, it primes me to be able to write first thing in the morning. The extra benefit of this is that it gets my mind going and helps me to wake up quickly. In the past I’ve had trouble fighting the urge to reach for the snooze button. Not so if I’ve already written a paragraph or two. It takes five minutes and is well worth the time.

At a typical job, you can be continuously productive. Not so much for writing. Some days there is nothing in my head; some days it is all that’s in my head, and I’ll work continuously from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep. I write better in large chunks than in small, steady groups. It’s best to embrace this, but it’s also important to remember the most important thing about writing: start writing. Even if it isn’t good, it’s better to write and to get the process going. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Perfection is what the editing process is for. The writing process itself is about quantity produced. It’s easier to take a long stream of mediocre writing and turn it into a better, shorter piece than it is to produce a masterpiece out of thin air.

The thing that I love about writing is that it is, by definition, productive when you do it. All the time that you, or I, spending watching movies, playing video games, or reading 50 Shades of Gray Game of Thrones is time spent benefiting from someone else’s writing. Next time that you find yourself caught up in one of these, think how great you’d feel if it’s your work that other people are filling their heads with.


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