Like any form of self-expression, creative writing is a risk. That's because, like any other art form, creative writing necessarily involves the willful self-exposure to share original ideas -- the proverbial placing of the ball into someone else's court in order for them to pass judgment. I don't care who you are: that's a scary concept. Creative writing in any form is an exercise in anxiety, elation, and defeat. For the writer attempting to gain the attention of an agent or a publisher, that process is rinse, lather, repeat; rinse, lather, repeat. For the writer who maintains a blog, he is subject to the internet's worst critics. For the poet who does frequent readings, there is nothing more harsh than the silence of a room that doesn't know how to react to your material. Regardless of the form, sharing your written work is arduous and painful, and rarely does it reap more than another opportunity to revise your already revised final draft.
I've seen a number of articles devoted to "writers' fears" floating around recently, all of them more or less accurate in pinpointing struggles that authors of any genre or media might face, but I think all of these symptoms stem from three major fears that invariably manifest in the heart and mind of a writer. Maybe this is a silly conversation, or maybe it will encourage those of you with aspirations of writing to keep going.
Either way, here we go.
Writers fear writer's block. Contrary to popular opinion, writer's block (or "graphospasm" -- thanks, Snapple facts) is more than simply a hand cramp or an inability to put words on paper, though it is certainly not less than either of those things. In reality, it is a mental impairment -- an inability to connect ideas or imagine a story's progression. Perhaps it begins with nuts-and-bolts details (i.e. "I know where the story is going, but I'm struggling to connect point A to point B"), but it spreads to more comprehensive elements, like character development and significant plot details (i.e. "I have no idea how to make this person change" or "I don't know what I want to happen next, but my thematic idea needs something huge"). Boiled down to its heart, writer's block is the fear of regressing, of having to start over. It's the systemic absence of progress, and it's incredibly disheartening. Furthermore, there is no foolproof cure for this condition: it is something that comes and goes as it wills, and even forcing one's self to just write in order to get past the hump is not a guarantee of recovery.
For most authors, writer's block is the specter of the "one that got away" -- their great masterpiece, left unfinished all these years, because they simply couldn't finish it. Maybe they've had semi-successful careers, churning out a chain of pulp novels or maybe even some quality pieces of literature, but they've never been able to finish that one manuscript that they've dragged like a ball and chain behind them -- unable to let it go, and unable to finish it. No one who aspires to write wants that type of nagging regret. It's a fearful concept, enough to make some writers quit while they're ahead.
As stated, there is no fool-proof remedy for writer's block. It manifests at the most inopportune times and can vanish when you least expect it. However, here are some things I've found helpful (though not everyone's mind works the same way mine does).
First, maintain a healthy reading diet -- especially material that pertains in some way to your subject matter. See how other writers have resolved a similar character's flaws, or how another author described what it is you're struggling to depict. That type of cross-pollination is essential to writing. It's not stealing to borrow method. Figure out how the accomplished writers achieved their final product, incorporate some of their ideas into your own grand scheme, and see if that gets your train of thought moving again. You can't write if you're not reading.
Second, outlining, diagramming, and writing about my current novel, short-story, or article has proven immensely helpful. When I was younger, I only outlined if it was required for a writing assignment, but I've since come to see the value in sketching plot, characters, and themes outside of the text in order to develop reference material for the manuscript itself. If I'm struggling to come up with my next plot point, then I'll work on a character sketch instead, further defining who the individual is and learning how he or she would react to given stimuli, and what types of provocation will be essential to his or her character development. That can be as simple as jotting down notes as to what color his/her hair is, details about the house he/she grew up in, how many cousins he/she has on his/her mother's side. It can be as complex as fears, goals, failures, and character flaws. Sometimes, the next essential plot point develops out of my deepening understanding of my own character.
Maybe that sounds like a waste of time, but I maintain that it is always important for the author to know more about his/her characters than the audience. That's how rich characters with full backstories are developed. Tolkien didn't create Middle Earth without also writing volumes and volumes of history and mythology. Furthermore, possessing an intimate and well-rounded knowledge of your characters not only makes writing them easier, but it also can save you time while you're putting pen to paper because the details have already been fleshed out in your diagram. This method is useful not only to push through writer's block, but is also a means of staying productive even while you're not writing.
|Maybe I've just got a cold?|
Third, don't throw anything away. In a moment of frustration, it's easy to tear out the page you were working on or hit ⌘-A + delete. Don't do that. You simply never know when an old draft might come in handy, either as supplemental material, another angle to consider, or even an emergency backup in case something should happen to your saved file (or notebook). Throwing things away might feel cathartic, but it limits the potential to make anything useful out of the hours spent on that particular draft. I've made it a habit, when eliminating large chunks of text from a draft, to paste them in an "excerpts" document file, just so that I can access it again later -- either during revision or during another period of writer's block, so that I can reflect on where I've been and what I tried last time. You never know when that will spark a new idea. At the very least, it's encouraging to see how far you've come.
Finally, at the most basic level, sometimes you do just need to put words on paper. Even if they don't make sense, even if they jump scenes or contradict earlier chapters, forcing through to the next plot point is sometimes all it takes to get the story rolling again. Find a place where you can be free of distractions. Put on music if that's helpful. Devote an hour to just typing (or scribbling), or set a word goal, and then make the leap. Don't stop or re-read what you've written until you've reached your time limit or word goal. If it's one particular scene you are wrestling through, jot down some notes on what you're trying to accomplish through that section and then move to the next. Details can come later, and sometimes it's easier to develop supporting scenes retrospectively, in light of later events. It's not cheating to write in a non-linear fashion.
Sometimes, this type of nose-to-the-grindstone approach is a good way to figure out what is essential to your draft and what can be eliminated: by only writing in such a way that the most basic ideas are transferred from mind to paper, you can often narrow down your ultimate trajectory. Most ideas are a good percentage fat and can be trimmed significantly during editing in order to solidify the final product. So if a power-writing session results in a few corners being cut, don't be afraid to eliminate scenes or characters that could be deemed redundant.
...but make sure you save them in a separate file, just in case!
Writers fear rejection. Just like the rest of you (we're people too). The truth is, writers fear rejection for the same reason any artist does: the rejection of craft is the rejection of the artist. Someone who doesn't dabble in the arts might not understand that concept ("All I said was, 'It needs work,' and he fell to pieces!"), but for the writer, rejection negates hours of work and creativity, rendering them fruitless. Especially from a publisher or an agent, rejection can feel like a direct challenge to the author's personal writing style, imagination, and sense of aesthetic. It forces a negative comparison: "not good enough to be published" literally means "not as good as what is already published," and frankly, what is already published is often not worthy of being on the opposite side of the comparison.
Of course, all that is not to say that rejection can't be a form of positive criticism, of course. Far too many manuscripts that should see another revision magically make it the shelves at Barnes & Noble. That's the danger in self-publishing, especially with the contemporary ease of e-publishing: there is no need to perfect your work, because there won't be an editor who will reject your grammatical mess of a manuscript unless you hire one yourself. Feedback -- especially from a publisher or an agent -- is one of the most useful things a writer can receive, because it's a powerful sharpening tool. It's the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and fix what didn't work before -- what one wouldn't have realized needed fixing without someone else to point it out.
That being said, "I don't like it" is incredibly unhelpful "feedback." Conversely, "I LOVE IT" isn't much more than a stroke to the ego. Neither of these responses address particulars. The former might as well be a statement of indifference. Neither tells me what I'm doing wrong or right so that I can make the necessary edits. Disliking it or adoring it only means something to the author if there are particular reasons. Maybe the characters were boring and predictable, or maybe they were richly developed and made the reader feel empathetic toward their challenges. Maybe the plot's pace was excellent, or maybe there was too much description for it to even take place. Furthermore, sometimes, you're not supposed to like a piece of writing. Sometimes a writer intends to provoke a negative emotional response to make a point. Some of the most powerful literature has some of the most grotesque elements that make us shudder, but ultimately make such powerful statements about humanity. Therefore, we need to be told why our work is good or bad, and why it makes you accept or reject it.
In sum, writers fear rejection but also need constructive criticism. We need to be told precisely what needs to be fixed, because after staring at the paper or the screen for hundreds of hours, sometimes even the worst of drafts can take on the illusion of a masterpiece. We become biased toward our own work, whether or not we admit it, and sometimes need someone to direct our attention to fatal flaws that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Writers fear sharing their first drafts. You could also say writers hate discussing their current work -- particularly, the novel-in-progress. To some degree, the unfinished draft feels infinitely fragile to its creator. Sharing it before it has fully developed could result in its destruction. Furthermore, the unfinished product could misrepresent the grand vision. If we let someone in on the story before it's complete, it could be missing integral elements of the finished state that could influence the reader's opinion. We fear the work-in-progress becoming not worth the effort to finish.
Tara always wants to look over my shoulder when I'm writing. And while I'm always eager for her to read what I'm working on, there's also the overpowering urge to slam my laptop shut -- lest she see the red underlines or read something that might later be changed. "Wait until I'm done," is my constant plea -- a request she more or less reluctantly heeds.
Of course, I'm an odd combination -- equal parts editor and writer. That means that, for as many pages I move forward, I move backward by twice as much. I want the perfect words and the perfect draft, a tendency that is as much a hindrance to progress as it is a boon. Typically, writers don't care about cleaning up their manuscripts and are content to leave grammatical cleanup to their editors -- as was Oscar Wilde, who famously attached the following note to a manuscript sent to his publisher: "I'll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches." In other words, the importance of correct grammar is typically of less importance to writers than the declaration of their original thought. And frankly, when someone has been writing for some time, they generally possess a solid enough grasp of the language that their typical errors are merely typographical.
In sum, don't ask a writer about a work-in-progress -- that is, unless he or she is that weird sort of writer who wants to converse about his or her novel while writing it (frankly, I do not understand that mindset). For most of us, it's best to wait until the draft is ready to be read to ask about it. At that point, we're [*cough*narcissistically*cough*] thrilled to discuss it.
So why do we do it?
If all of this is true, why subject ones' self to self-generated torture? Why get on the bull if it's only an 8-second ride before the fall?
The simple answer? We enjoy it. It's as challenging as it is rewarding. Writing is what I would consider my greatest strength, so it's what I enjoy doing the most. There are few things so satisfying to me as working on a manuscript or an article. Conversely, there are few things nearly as frustrating as struggling through writer's block or rejection. The writing experience is as cathartic as it is invigorating. It shouldn't be easy: it's a labor and a struggle, but it's also a passion.
The more complex answer is that we do it because there's a story to tell. The imagination or some set of circumstances prompted the idea, and now it must be written. There's simply a need. Maybe it has dragons, and maybe it doesn't. Regardless, it's a story. It's the very nuts and bolts of humanity.
At heart, I believe we're all storytellers, whether we write them on paper or sing them into a microphone or punch them into a time card. The story of grace is written on all our hearts, and so our very beings are comprised of conflict, character development, and resolution.
All our stories are worth telling.
That's why we do it.