Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Overcoming the Inertial Hump: Settling Down to Write

It often seems to me that we writers walk a high wire tightrope (or is that a redundant phrase?) On the one hand, the world is filled with excuses not to write, diversions and distractions. The would-be writer who does nothing beyond researching his novel and never writes a word is an object lesson here. Life is full of things that "need" our attention. On the other hand, we're told over and over, directly and indirectly, that professional writers sit down and write. They put in their page or word quotas, come rain or shine. I've read how-to books that contain specific instructions on how to "train" yourself to write at the same time every day, no matter what else is going on or how you feel.

Sometimes, I feel like a ping-pong ball, bouncing between two "shoulds." I should attend to my inner muse, let her lead me, write only when I'm inspired. Or I should approach my writing day in a professional and craftsmanlike manner, applying fanny to chair at precisely 9 am and immediately pouring forth the next scene. The fact is, neither works for me.

It took me years to realize that I don't have to worry about being unproductive. I start beating myself up the moment I'm working at less than full-out crash-burn capacity. That's not everyone, that's just me. Maybe it's you, too. So the challenge then becomes, how do I find "cruising speed," a pace I can sustain, one that allows me to come up with new ideas, to ferment and cogitate and mull things around, not to mention have a life outside of writing.

The second thing I realized about my own working style is that almost always, once I get started, I'm fine. I regularly achieve my word or page goals, or if I do not, I've accomplished at least that much in creative or structural work. (For example, finding a misstep, taking apart the last couple of chapters and putting them back together so they work, might not add any pages but definitely is a good and productive thing!)

Sometimes, it takes me a while to apply fanny to chair. I call this process "settling." The reminds me that preparing to write is as important as the writing itself. More often than not, the reason I'm not ready is that my "back brain" is chewing over some point, either in the work to come or the work I've just done. Something's not quite right or I don't see the next step clearly. Words and images aren't popping into my mind. So I go off, play Chopin, scrub bathrooms, balance my checkbook, walk the dog, sew on a button...and at some point, I'll either know exactly how to proceed or I'll be sitting down with the Magic Notebook; either way, I'm ready to work...almost.

The "almost" is the inertial hump, that final action of sitting down, email server and internet browser closed, hands on keys. This is yet another opportunity for me to castigate myself with accusations that range from laziness to incompetency. But it's just a hump. It's like those times when I want to call someone and the phone suddenly weighs 250 lbs and I pick it up and call anyway. I want to be anywhere but sitting at my desk, but it's an idle want. My real want, my true desire, is to get past it into the joyful state of writing. So instead of being an occasion of self-flagellation, I try to look at the hump as a funny little quirk of mine. It's annoying, true, but it has no power over me unless I grant it.

It's just a hump.

Come on, hump. Let's get to work.

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