Finding Your Writing Rhythm
[Pictured: Legendary drummer Neil Peart]
The question was to be expected. It's asked almost every time you put a group of authors in front of an audience. "How do you become a writer?"
The student who asked the question was younger than the four us on the science fiction panel at Comic Con Portland. It usually works that way. I gave the obvious answer. "Write," I said. Then I followed up by saying, "and make sure you call yourself a writer."
Although it might sound like it, I truly didn't mean to be flippant or disrespectful toward the asker. After all, not that long ago, I was asking the same question. I mean, like an hour before the panel when I was sitting with New York Times best selling author Daniel Wilson asking how many words he writes per day. I was genuinely relieved to hear that he doesn't get to 2000 words. The fact that he usually puts down around 1000 made me think "Whew! I guess I am a writer after all." There is another writer I know (Ahem, Matt Forbeck) who regularly tweets that he writes 3000 words on a given day. I have seen him tweet numbers as high as 5,000 words. It was making me feel a little inadequate. (Who knew that the number of words a writer does per day was the equivalent to comparing the size of a guys… truck?)
Insecurity can be deadly to a writer and to the writing process. Perhaps you have met the person who has been working on their first novel for a decade, or who will never share any of their short stories with the world? Sometimes this can be a fabulous decision, and when they finally do share the product it can be well worth the wait. But more often then not, these writers aren't displaying a fastidious concern for their work. Instead, many of these people are still waiting for someone else to give them permission to call themselves a writer. When you compliment them on their work, they take great pains to dismiss your compliment. More importantly, they refuse to take any practical steps to sharing their work with an audience.
The truth is almost all writers are convinced they aren't truly qualified to do what they love and that there is some secret sauce which they lack. They wait for someone else to give them the secret ingredient. In truth, the most important secret to being a writer is to label yourself a writer. So many of the frustrations and missteps melt away once new writers make the internal transition from seeing themselves as a wannabe to seeing themselves as an actual bona fide writer.
Once this transition takes place, a new writer's job changes. Instead of spending their mental energy trying to figure out if they are qualified to write, they need to spend their energy cultivating the attitudes and activities which help them produce their best work.They need to find their own rhythm, and it won't feel like any other.
I hope you won't think me condescending if I state the obvious. A writer's job is to write. With that in mind, it is a good practice for writers to regularly ask themselves whether or not the activities they are currently engaged in help or hinder their ability to create the best writing they are capable of producing.
The difficulty is that there are as many ways to be a writer as there are writers in the world. Yet, human beings, and writers in particular, seem to have a difficult time allowing themselves to enjoy their own work process. We are so used to having someone else tell us what to do that we forget to give ourselves permission to learn our own way of being in the world. Newly minted writers often waste inordinate amounts of time worrying about what other writers are doing. They spend copious hours reading blog postings—like this one—instead of writing. They go to seminars and take online classes—like those offered here—instead of writing.
I should make clear that I am not arguing for some kind of solipsistic writing process in which no feedback from outside can ever be helpful. There is nothing wrong per se with reading blogs like this, and in taking online seminars, like those we offer at LitReactor. Both of these can serve a very useful purpose if approached in the right manner.
However, too many writers look to blogs, seminars, and books to tell them how to do their job, instead of using them as a means by which they explore their own work process. In other words, if you are still reading this post to figure out the right system for becoming a writer, you have missed the point. The right system is your system, whatever that may be.
If you are a writer, you should examine everything you read or learn in the cold hard light of whether or not it helps you produce great work. When examined in that light you will usually find most seminars, blog posts, and books to be a mixed bag, somewhat helpful but not the answer you've been looking for. Perhaps it is time to quit looking for the answer. Once a young writer grasps the concept of finding their own process, they are ready to absorb all sorts of really useful information from their seminar teachers and the books they read.
Along the way try to remember that you are going to make mistakes. I have seen people cut off intimate friendships and even marriages in the name of becoming better at their chosen profession only to find out later that the stability which these provided was also something which helped support their work. Sometimes we need to have enough grace and self-acceptance to see when we have ignored the things we truly need to do our work.
When considering what it is that helps you be great at what you want to do, make sure you are casting a broad enough net to remain a whole person. Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist's Way, is quite good at debunking the notion of the suffering artist. It isn't much use to be a writer if you're miserable all the time. Cameron makes a strong case that, in the end, suffering of the self-imposed sort doesn't actually lead to the kind of creativity which produces great work.
As helpful as I found it, Cameron's book also provides and excellent case study for the kind of advice which I believe hinders most new writers as they seek to find their own work process. Cameron specifically wrote her book for artists struggling to find a path forward in their creativity. If Cameron's system has a weakness, it is in her insistence that her readers doggedly follow her process as they work themselves out of their funk. While she argues forcefully for self-exploration for the artist, she undermines her own argument by offering a ridged set of exercises which must be followed for her system to work.
If a writer or artist is prone to thinking that someone else has the answer to their own lack of productivity, Cameron's work is likely to feel wonderful. "Here is the answer I've been looking for," they will think. On the other hand, unless the reader filters what Cameron has to say through their own work process, Cameron's system is unlikely to help in the long term because the writer is still allowing someone else to define for them the right way to be a writer. I think this dilemma explains the continued popularity of Cameron's system and why it doesn't stick long term for almost everyone who tries it.
However, a writer who analyzes all systems offered by other artists to see if they actually help or hinder their own work can find great benefit from Cameron's book and others like it. For instance, I follow Cameron's command to write three pages of thoughts down every morning… on occasion. I only do it when I don't already have something percolating in my head for the tasks at hand. Otherwise I am wasting valuable time which could be spent being the creative person I am meant to be. I might even do them in the afternoon when I get stuck after lunch. Your writing process is your own and no one can tell you how to do it right. People like Cameron or myself can make helpful suggestions, but we can't make you more productive. Only you can find the activities and patterns which help you write.
There is an extremely irritating national sports talk show host who used to have the habit of interrupting his callers in the middle of their complaining about the referees in a given match and simply say, "scoreboard." His point was: It didn't matter what else happened in the game; the team which lost had not put up the points to win. (It was one of the few things he said which I found useful.)
I would argue that we as writers could use taking the same attitude with our daily activities, the things we read, and the seminars we take. Do they help us write better? Do they help us put more useful words on paper more frequently? Do they make us the kind of person who can create more on a regular basis? If not, maybe it's time to do a little housecleaning and put in their place activities which help you better express the writer trapped inside. As your body and mind try to complain and demand that you ask someone else for permission before you make a change, simply reply "scoreboard." It's all the permission you need.
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