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On Needing to Write: How to Write When You Really Don’t Want To

This week I’ve been talking about my experience with National Novel Writing Month in 2007. Thursday featured a big bragging story about my 120,000-word month, and yesterday I gave some useful advice about how to handle too much of a good thing.

Nobody’s really coming here looking for advice about that, though, are they? Too much of a good thing is usually still a pretty nice problem to have. As writers, we spend a lot more time worrying about the words that just aren’t there.

And well we should. A writer, by definition, is someone who writes. I spent most of four years not writing, and a lot of that time wondering what that made me. The only answer to the question that ever made me happy was the one that came when I started writing again.

Writer’s Block

What I’m talking about here is what writers mean when they talk about writer’s block. People who aren’t writers sometimes use the phrase, and often imagine complicated, mystical things associated with the mysterious writing practice, but that rarely overlaps much with the real experience.

In reality, writer’s block is a terribly mundane and boring thing. It’s the fundamental desire, when it comes time to work on a story, to do something else. Sometimes that means typing out useless first sentences and building a mountain of crumpled papers around the trash can, but far more often it takes the form of an active social life (or participation in a social network). For me, writer’s block has often meant getting caught up on my newsfeeds and webcomics…or maybe getting a new alt to 80.

It’s insidious, though — a minute wasted here, a half hour squandered there, and a lot of totally reasonable choices to do something useful instead of staring at a blank page for an hour…and the next thing you know, it’s been four years since you last did any meaningful work.

I make a big deal out of my drought from 2003 to 2007, and that’s exactly how it happened. Then I finished 2007 with a quarter-million words written in one year, and four finished books to my name (quite an improvement over one at the end of 2006). I grinned real big, and imagined how much I could get done in 2008.

Turned out, the answer was a lot smaller than I’d anticipated. I got one book written the next year — my NaNo novel. I blame burnout for that one. I did too much in ’07 and had to take a break. But whether it’s because of too much success or too little, eleven months without writing is eleven months wasted.

Pushing Through

Maybe that’s a little bleak, but it only scratches the surface of the invective and guilt you’ll probably find for yourself when you’re really caught up in it. I don’t say any of this by way of accusation, but as a warning.

And with the warning comes a bit of advice. It’s nothing new. You’ve heard it here, and you’ve heard it everywhere writing is discussed: write every day.

But here’s the application: sometimes you really are blocked. Sometimes you really can’t find anywhere to go with the project you need to be working on. And when that day comes, if you can’t find a way to move on, you’re done. Your entire existence as a writer hangs at the mercy of fickle inspiration.

Most of the time, it’s not like that. Most of the time, writer’s block is a temporary distraction. Most of the time, if you wake up on Tuesday and just don’t feel like writing today, there’s absolutely no consequence at all for not writing.

And those are the days when you absolutely must. Those days are practice for the ones that really matter. If you can find the determination and the self-control to write when the sun is shining and you’d rather go play in the grass, you’ll have that to draw on when the thunderstorms of self-doubt have you wondering if you’re really a writer at all.

1,667 Words Right Now (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopUltimately, if you’re going to be successful as a writer, you’ll have to learn to write when you don’t want to. You’ll have to learn to say something even when you’ve got nothing to say. You’ll have to learn to make time when there’s just absolutely no time. That’s why they invented NaNoWriMo, and why November is as good a month for it as any.

I don’t write every day. I’ll admit that right here. This article is as much an admonishment to me as it is to any of you. That doesn’t take anything away from the message, though.

If I did write every day, I wouldn’t have the problems with writer’s block that I have. I have those problems, though.

If I did write every day, I wouldn’t be — once again — sitting on a handful of languishing manuscripts, with nothing new finished since last year’s NaNoWriMo.

I’ve spent a lot of the last year working on it, though, and I give myself a lot of credit for the work I’ve done here, and the work I’ve done for the Creative Copy Challenge. Both projects have driven me, at times I didn’t want to write at all, to just sit down and churn something out. And I’ve always, always, always been glad that I did.

So that’s your assignment this week. But, no, not this week — now. Right now. Write 1,667 words of a story. Put it in a scribblebook or a blog post, in Google Docs or a Word .doc. Wherever you’re writing, whatever you’re working, put in one day’s worth of writing, right now, even if you’ve got absolutely nothing to write.

It might be painful. It will probably tough. It will definitely be magical, though, because there’s a special kind of transformation that happens when you make yourself write.

You turn into a writer.

One Response to “On Needing to Write: How to Write When You Really Don’t Want To”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    Challenge accepted and met! 2280 words for the day! WOOT! Bring on November!