“If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”
– Anne Tyler
I am constantly confronted with this dilemma. I work full time, because, you know, bills don’t pay themselves. Usually, by the time I get home of an evening, the last thing I want to do is start writing. Even though I am a night owl, and evenings are usually my most productive times, after a full day in the office, I find it difficult to motivate myself. It is so much easier to curl up in front of the TV and binge watch Game of Thrones while the world passes by around me.
Unfortunately, that sort of thinking leads to a downward spiral that carries you further and further from that creative spark that can be elusive even at the best of times. Yes, I am talking from experience. No, I do not have a quick fix solution. I don’t think there is one.
This is where Anne Tyler’s words of wisdom come into play, and why I find them so encouraging. Because, from what she says, it seems I am not alone in this.
Here’s the thing: Writing is a very lonely pursuit. Ultimately, it boils down to you, your pen (or laptop) and your own train of thought. Yes, you can bounce ideas off other people and ask them to look over what you have written. But no-one can make you sit down to write but you. And there is no-one, but NO-ONE, better at psyching you out than Yourself.
I remember when I first started writing my novel (the one I started about 10 years ago, and am still fighting out the first draft!) I would look over what I had written and read through my notes, and I hated every single word of it. I got to the point that I was so negative about it that I closed my notebooks and didn’t write anything for about five years! I would go back to it every so often, peak under the cover of the notebook to see if it was still there and then run away again. Each time, I looked at it, the worse I felt about my abilities as a writer. I didn’t like it, so why would anyone else?
Then one day, my mum persuaded me to let her read what I had so far and…
She loved it!
Now, sure, you may be thinking, “She’s your mum, of course she loved it,” but I can tell you my mum is a very discerning reader. If she hadn’t liked it, I would have known about it. At length. With notes.
Anyway, the fact that someone outside of my own head was getting excited about what I had written and where the story was going, was enough for me to pick it up again and keep going.
If I can pass on one piece of advice from this: Don’t let yourself get so far into your own head that you lose your story. If you can no longer see the merits of your own work, give it to someone else. Let them find it again for you.
When I was at University (studying Creative Writing with English Literature), I found I was fairly prolific in my writing. Most of what I was working on then was course oriented, and with that came deadlines and the knowledge that missing these deadlines meant no grade and no graduation.
Once I had my degree, these deadlines disappeared overnight and there was suddenly nothing to write towards. It became very easy for me to fall into the trap of “I don’t want to write, therefore I won’t,” (especially given my own dislike towards what I was writing).
At that time, as well, I was very much of the school of thought that writing was a beautiful, spontaneous act that was best undertaken when the Great Hand of Inspiration was shining brightly in the sky and pointing directly at you. I think I had seen one too many National Lottery adverts at that point and had conveniently forgotten the ever important slogan:
But, don’t you just love days like that? When the words just flow and the story unfolds before you as easily as breathing? I wish every writing experience was like that.
But back in the real world, this is simply not the case. Writing is not some organic outpouring of creativity. Writing is a process. It starts with an idea and more often than not ends with tears, or blood. Or both. And just like any other creative form, it is as much about discipline as it is art.
And therein lies the problem.
I want you to try a little experiment. Find a creative person among your acquaintances. Ask them about their work. If you can coax out them more than one or two words on the subject, ask them what they think of discipline when it comes to their work. Then come back here and tell me what they said. Their responses are likely to form an interesting spectrum, but will more than likely fall somewhere in the following:
- “Discipline? What do you mean discipline?”
- “Of course I’m disciplined. It wouldn’t work otherwise!”
- They may burst into tears (prepare yourself).
Discipline is the hardest thing to learn when it comes to creativity. Creative people in general don’t want to be disciplined. They want to be spontaneous, and unpredictable, and somewhat mysterious. They want to believe that every artist/writer/musician/whoever they admire came into the world with their talent fully formed. They don’t want to think about, for example, the hours of practice Yo-Yo Ma has to put in every day to play Bach’s Cello Suites with the grace and ease he shows in public.
When I graduated, I thought writing would come to me as easily as reading someone else’s work. What I didn’t see – what few people ever get to see – is the hours of planning that goes into writing a novel. Not to mention the weeks it takes to bash out a single draft, or the tedious months of editing and re-drafting that come after that.
This is the discipline I found myself having to develop after graduation. My University course taught me how to work towards deadlines set by Lecturers. It did not teach me how to set those deadlines for myself. And it certainly didn’t teach me to stick to them once they were made.
It is a lesson I am still learning.
What I have found in recent years is that setting smaller goals helps a lot. It is no use saying, “My New Year’s Resolution is to write a novel by August!” (yes, I’ve used that one before), if you’re then not going to set yourself a target of a chapter per week, for example.
Writers need discipline in three key areas:
As I said before, other people can only get you so far. They can help with the above to get you started, but it is up to you to maintain your momentum long term. So how do you go about this?
Get out of your own head every once in a while! Let someone else remind you that your work is worth writing; and then (and I can’t stress this enough) consciously choose to believe it. Especially if it is someone you trust staying it, trust their judgement and run with it.
The importance of forward planning cannot be overstated here. Set time aside each day, each week (whatever works for you) that is solely for writing and nothing but writing. Bear in mind that this should include time for more planning or reading or research (anything that helps keep your ideas alive).
Keep going! Trust me, Life will throw EVERYTHING it has at you. In 2016, a week before I was due to immerse myself in NaNoWriMo, my kitchen ceiling nearly fell in thanks to a leak from the flat above mine. In the space of an evening, I was completely knocked off kilter and it took me months to get back on track (which is still ongoing).
The important thing, when Life gets in the way, is to find a way back no matter how long it takes.
I can guarantee that every single writer you currently look up to will have struggled with all three of these issues at one time or another (maybe even all at once).
If, like me, you have the writing bug and are serious about developing your skills, then an element of discipline needs to be included in your writing regime. It may be as simple as setting aside time to write, or setting yourself word count goals. It may be that you need a fresh pair of eyes to help give you a new perspective on your work. Whatever it is that helps you find your writing rhythm, do it!
And then keep doing it.
Even if you don’t feel like it.
This article was originally published as a Guest Post on Confessions of a Bookworm by Sarah Tanner.