How To Not Go Nuts While Writing
I’m often asked by other writers how I get my work done.
I ask them the same thing, looking for the same guidance. For all of us, it’s a constant challenge. We need all the fairy dust we can find.
Because — truth be told — we each stare daily into a terrifying abyss. Technique may supply the sticks for a rickety one-person suspension bridge swaying over a chasm two thousand feet down, but we writers know in the pits of our hungry stomachs that we must build every bridge all alone. We also know that each span can start from only one side, from a single cliff face outward — into mid-air. Where that bridge will ultimately attach to the opposite wall — if it ever does — can’t be known until our story’s end, after we say in shock at least once, “Huh. Not a romance after all. A flipping tragedy. I have to rip down this flowery wrought-iron I’ve spent six months on and rebuild this whole thing in Brutalist cement.”
In my experience a novel is always a prerequisite for itself, forever circling back and beginning again, unable to support its full weight until it’s all constructed and foot-tested. At least for me, there are no incremental milestones of success, nothing before the final finish line because anything I do today I might decide to chuck wholesale tomorrow. I live a life of deferred, delayed, and sometimes never-arriving gratification. So what I’m really asking other writers is “How do you not go insane in the endless meantime?” That’s also the real, naked question I believe they are asking me.
FWIW, here’s what I try to do:
- Choose an extra-curricular activity with a short-term payback. For me it’s art. I’m a nature painter. In a couple of weeks I can produce a canvas that’s done done. Hold it in my hands. Pronounce it adequate and move on.
- Exercise. Same point as above. A workout is of finite duration and content. Additionally, exercise flushes the over-thinking mind like water. Which reminds me:
- Water. Plus I find my exhausted, end-of-day sugar cravings evaporate as soon as I drink.
- Plot out loud. To avoid mental cycling, I try to plot while walking. (Aldous Huxley used to plot as he hiked Mulholland Highway beneath the Hollywood sign, where he lived in a house under the first “O.”) Also, starting a sentence out loud means I have to finish it, and hear it, and then say another. Hellooo linearity, the blessed hobgoblin of cycling minds.
- Laugh. It’s something to pursue consciously, especially when it seems like forever will be spent on writing a dramatic novel. I have learned from my elder daughter, who is a philosopher, purposefully to seek “the happy” every day. To identify it and calendar it each morning.
- Daily reward. Even if it’s only a hot shower, choose your attagirl in the morning too so you can look forward to it during the day. Setting a reward also obliges me to define the specific task that will earn it. Et voila! A quantifiable deliverable. A thousand words, a morning of research — which in turn solves the pesky revving-but-not-going-anywhere mental pretzeling.
- No internet surfing. I love ya, CNN, but you can’t get my work done. Joyce Carol Oates observed that “constant interruptions are the destruction of the imagination.” You said it, sister.
- The same daily work schedule, enforced. My mind yearns to know for sure when it must be “on,” plus a schedule that’s already set is a relief, lowering stress by eliminating choice. Enforcing that schedule, whatever schedule works for you, then becomes an exercise in delicious self-respect.
- A full daily schedule. I find that when I plan my whole day in advance, I don’t have time for flailing. I don’t sit wondering what to do next. I may not finish every task I breathlessly assign myself in the morning, but I tackle most of them and more than I would have if I had not pre-gamed. (Oops, I think “pre-game” means something different.)
- Hemingway was right. He famously recommended that a writer stop for the day only after he knows what he will write tomorrow. This advice has done great things for the continuity of my flow.
Now, of course, the issue is following all this advice. Now that I’ve written it, I can’t act like I don’t know.
If anyone has any other good tips, I would be delighted to receive them via email and to update this post.
Happy New Year!