The Luck & Obligation of Writing October 26, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Serendipity
Are we lucky? Or are we obligated?
We’ve been thinking a lot lately about this these questions as writers together, writers separately, and in terms of our larger professional and personal lives.
Last month on her Work-in-Progress blog, novelist Leslie Pietrzyk wrote about whether writing is fun: “‘Fun’—it seemed such a curious word for the constant, endless, soul-sucking struggles with the muse, with the marketplace, with the self. It struck me that no matter how long the list I was asked to give to describe writing, ‘fun’ would never be a word I would choose.” It’s not that she doesn’t want to write, to spend her time writing. It’s not that writing isn’t rewarding and enthralling. But Leslie argues that fun implies mindlessness, and writing is all about mindfulness.
We’ll admit that, by many definitions, we have fun writing. But just because we get a rush from writing and the related activities doesn’t mean we don’t work really hard. In fact, whatever fun there is in writing makes a writer work harder. If writing is easy, you’re probably not doing it right. And doing it easy isn’t much fun, once you’ve done it the hard way. As Richard Bausch says in “Letter to a Young Writer,” “You are trying to do something that is harder than just about anything there is to do, even when it feels easy.”
Over the last year of travel to follow the end of the space shuttle program, we faced a few moments at the Space Coast in which one of us was on the verge of tears and the other was about to pass out, but then something amazing would happen. We’d finish a good post, or we’d talk with an astronaut. Writing may not be as demanding as mountain climbing, but we, like many writers engrossed by large projects, come up to the edge of our interwoven intellectual and physical limits every now and then. And at times, the day-to-day writing feels like trudging uphill with no end in view.
Richard Bausch puts this idea another way: “The thing that separates the amateur writer from the professional, often enough, is simply the amount of time spent working the craft. You know that if you really want to write, if you hope to produce something that will stand up to the winds of criticism and scrutiny of strangers, you’re going to have to work harder than you have ever worked on anything else in your life hour upon hour upon hour, with nothing in the way of encouragement, no good feeling, except the sense that you have been true to the silently admonishing examples of the writers who came before you—the ones whose company you would like to be in and of whose respect you would like to be worthy.” In writing, working hard pays off not with mastery per se but, rather, with new challenges that demand additional effort. Really, there’s no end in sight.
Figuring out the plot arc for a novel and how characters develop in relation to that arc is rarely easy for any writer. But it’s harder if you work on the novel—or any large project—only once a week or once a month. Writing a novel is a little like “the slow hunch” Steven Johnson describes in Where Good Ideas Come From: “Most slow hunches never last long enough to turn into something useful, because they pass in and out of memory too quickly, precisely because they possess a certain murkiness. You get a feeling that there’s an interesting avenue to explore, a problem that might someday lead you to a solution, but then you get distracted by more pressing matter and the hunch disappears.” (See Steven Johnson’s TED Talk HERE.) A lot of people want to write a novel, but the idea slips away. Even when you’re in the midst of a draft, if your plot sequence or a character’s motivation is murky, if your doubts mount and your pages don’t, distractions become especially distracting.
If distraction feeds distraction, then attention feeds attention. Daily writing practice—even if that’s rereading, note-taking, outlining, and not actually drafting or revising pages—keeps your mind attentive and also makes your mind more attentive. In other words, if you skip a day of writing, you lose that mindfulness carrying over from the day before, and you don’t move forward. If Doug has worked on his novel four days in a row, he’s likely to say, during our evening walk on the fifth day, “Do you think it would work if I—?” And he can talk through whether that change would because the novel isn’t a murky memory from a week ago.
Let’s say one writer puts in seven hours, one hour every day for a week. Another writer puts in seven hours, but all in one day, then doesn’t look at the novel again for a week. Either way, it’s seven hours, and adding up hours matters. As Malcolm Gladwell claims in Outliers, “[R]esearchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” (See Gladwell’s TED Talk HERE.) If you look at the writing life from that viewpoint, it’s certainly important to rack up hours as quickly as possible in hopes of reaching expertise before it’s too late.
But a project is about more than the sum of those writing hours. It’s also about a given timeframe. We’re spending hours on the blog week to week, but that doesn’t get our novels finished. We need to keep our minds on our separate projects too. The writer working daily on a large project becomes attuned, cultivating serendipity, happening upon lucky accidents and connections, finding a useful tidbit of information for which she wasn’t even aware of looking. Yesterday, in fact, as we were editing this blog post, the new issue of Poets & Writers arrived and, in it, “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity.” One of the four steps Ellen Sussman recommends is daily writing: “If I’m writing every day, four pages a day, then the novel stays in my mind during the hours I’m not writing.”
Of the two writers—the daily writer and the one-long-stretch-when-the-mood-strikes writer—who will get the most accomplished the next time she sits down to work on the project? Will that eighth hour feel different to each writer, depending upon whether the last session was yesterday or a week ago? Momentum, in addition to number of hours, matters. Diane Ackerman says in The Alchemy of Mind, “Inheriting a talent doesn’t insure [sic] that one will use it, but it does raise the likelihood. […] What we like to do becomes the thing we do often, and the thing we do often becomes the thing we do best.” Doing the thing often—writing the blog together, writing our novels separately—makes us better at doing the thing.
Of course, we really like long stretches of writing time, those rare weekend days in which hours of writing are bracketed by pancakes and a DVD. And we don’t pretend that we’re really able to work on our individual book projects every single day. Some days, too many other things must be accomplished. We have other jobs obligations, and then there’s doing laundry and dishes.
We also understand the difference between actual work on “the big thing,” as Cathy Day calls it on her blog, and talking about the large project. We’ve heard about writers who over-talk their novels from start to finish with friends and never bother to write much. Instead of that wheel-spinning aboutness, which might feel like being a writer, we work toward mindfulness, which seems possible only with near-daily hands-on—literal hands, if possible, metaphorical hands when necessary—effort.
As writers, we lean toward thinking of ourselves as obligated, perhaps because that fosters or forces responsibility to our collaborate and individual projects. It fits the way our writing process works, or the way we want it to work. We’ve come to this stance together, though we might have come to it separately, because it makes sense for the way we want to balance our collaborative and separate projects. Sometimes the writing mood descends upon one of us, but neither of us tends to wait for inspiration, which seems akin to luck, instead believing such a thing can be cultivated. Whatever luck or inspiration we have obligates us to earn it. Whatever obligation we feel makes us appreciate a stroke of luck or good will or seemingly perfect timing.