Sometimes I sit down to write and the words come without too much difficulty. Other times it’s incredibly hard going and painful. How can I make sure I have more good days than sucky ones or, even better, how do I avoid the sucky ones altogether?
Sucking in South Dakota
I feel your pain, I really do. I think anyone who has ever tried to write has experienced those days when it feels like the part of the brain responsible for sentence construction has been surgically removed. I know I have. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that sucky writing days are part of the writer’s life, one of the hazards of the job. So the problem isn’t so much that you have them – it’s how frequently you have them, and how you deal with them.
Even one or two sucky days a week, while not ideal, might be OK if you have a few good days too, to balance them out. Writing can often be like that – progress followed by remission. As long as you have the feeling of solid, genuine progress on a semi-regular basis, you’re doing OK.
It’s when the feeling of progress starts to get drowned out by the sucky days that you have to reassess what you are doing. And by reassess, I don’t mean you should go to bed at two in the afternoon while mentally taking a big whip, lashing yourself with it, and wailing “I suck, I suck, I suck! I’m never going to be a writer, I should just have gone to laaaawwwww schooolllll!” That’s not reassessing. That’s giving into the suck.
Instead, try asking what the sucky days are trying to teach you.
Let me share one of my own experiences here, so you can see what I mean. I’m working on a nonfiction book at the moment that is, in part, about what it means to engage in genealogical research. I get to a chapter where I need to address these issues head on, and I’m pulling my hair out trying to make it interesting. Everything I write seems dead and dry. It’s like I have writer’s stutter – I can’t get the words out and when I do, I hate them all and can’t stop myself from hitting the delete key. I spend days like this. I’m about ready to take to my bed and commence with the wailing and the whipping. And then I realize: I don’t have to make genealogy interesting. I can just acknowledge that sometimes, it’s really, really boring. I can start there, with that truth. And then everything started to flow again.
So what I’m saying here is: a succession of sucky writing days can be a signal that you are not acknowledging some truth about your work. If you stop banging your head against the keyboard for a minute and instead think about what that truth might be, you’ll probably be able to get yourself going again.
It’s my own, personal theory that so-called writers block is just an extended form of this: lots and lots of sucky writing days strung together, and a big truth that the writer refuses to acknowledge. Writer’s block is similar to depression that way, and there’s an excellent book about depression, Sunbathing in the Rain by Gwyneth Lewis, which makes just this point. Lewis says that depression is “…sickness of the imagination” and that “Depression happens to people who won’t listen to the messages which their subconscious is sending them.” You can’t will yourself out of it; instead you must submit, be receptive.
I also find validation for my theories in Rainer Maria Rilke, who knew a thing or two about writing advice. He wrote, in Letters to a Young Poet:
Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.
So there you have it. If I might be so bold as to translate what Rilke is saying so elegantly here into the terms of this advice column, I believe it comes out to: Embrace the suck, go towards it, and you will free yourself of the alien ideas you are trying to force on your writing, and it will get better.