Sunday, September 14, 2014

When writers don't write

As I finish my first novel, hoping to end the long process sometime next year, I find myself taking breaks, sometimes weeks at a time, when I do no work.  I feel no compulsion to hurry since I have no deadline, no editor or agent breathing down my neck (fortunately). I can take my time and think.

That's what writers have to do. Too often I suspect less experienced writers feel obligated to finish whatever they start as soon as possible, recalling their school assignments or the deadlines in their past. My wife, Lynn, has finally finished a short story that she began more than ten years ago. It needed time. Like me, Lynn thinks about her work off and on all the time.

Like much of our writing, various pieces of fiction sit on the back burner, simmering. We can lift the pot whenever we wish and when we do, we will invariably add, delete, and polish what we find there. Other pieces of writing are on the front burner: a month or two is enough time for them. (Non-fiction tends to require much less time: there are no characters to worry about, fewer descriptive details to add or delete, etc.)

So I was glad to find on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog a piece by Bill Hayes, advising writers not to write: not only can it be good for one's writing, he says, but it can be good for the writer. Some respondents were surprised at this advice, yet it is in keeping with what I have long been telling my students.

A reader responding today to the post by Hayes says, "I can go for months without writing a single word and then suddenly out of the blue I get inspired and write dialogue. . ." He/she reminds us that writing is about thinking: "To feel good about my writing, I have to spend time away from the keyboard and journal. I have to be curious about the things happening around me. . ."

In other words, a piece of writing, of any length, has to breathe. Horace, or one of the other ancient Roman writers, advised letting any manuscript rest for nine years before finishing and publishing it.

That's a bit extreme. But it's true that the overall process cannot be rushed; the creative-thinking activity comes at odd times and places (that's why I have little pads of paper in most rooms of the house since I never know when I will have an idea that I overlooked, a comment I need to add, a description that's missing in my draft of a novel).

To those who face writer's block, I think the advice here about slowing down, enjoying the process, and not feeling pressured to go public with your work would be helpful. Isn't much fear about the writing process based on worry about being able to complete it "on time"?

Being a writer is more than just writing: it becomes part of your life.  Or I should say your "lives"--the real, everyday world of reality around you and the imagined reality of the story you are creating. I know that my work benefits from multiple revisions, each one coming after a suitable hiatus so I can read what I have composed with a fresh perspective.  None of this can be hurried.

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