Martyrdom appeals to me. I grew up with the toxic combination of Irish nuns and Puritan self-sacrifice. I still grab the oldest food in the refrigerator for my lunch. The good news out of this is a strong work ethic and a measure of endurance. But, for the writing itself, it can be bad.
“Productive” writing can overshadow inspiration. I rush pieces that need time. My left brain jumps in with outlines, logical story developments and summary paragraphs when it should just get out of the way. I feel guilty about every unfinished piece and wasted word.
Of course, having no discipline is not the answer. Let people know you’re a writer, and you’ll find out about all the wannabes who have a novel in them that never sees the light of day. Or the obsessive journal keepers and rewriters who will finish a piece “someday.” (Many of these people have real talent, and it is painful to see them caught in webs of distractions, insecurity and sloth.)
But here’s the problem with the suffering artist, those who martyr themselves for their vision: they aren’t much fun. And the work isn’t usually much fun. All work and no play makes everything dull.
When I was in the business world, I used time on planes to whittle down my to-do lists. This lists were epic, covering many pages, and, on each trip, my goal was always to eliminate two thirds of the items forever. It was one of those great time management practices. But it wasn’t very satisfying. And a few years ago, I got the idea to circle the items on the list (at least a half dozen) that were fun and protect them from logic, duty and self-sacrifice. That was one of the best decisions of my life. Everything became more fun. I also believe that the quality of all that I did got better.
Play is a sign of health. Joy is a whisper in your ear that you’re doing the right thing. Fun is a twinkle, a connection and a subversive attack on everything that is stultifying about modern life.
Back to writing… Is it always fun? No. There will be parts of any job that are just necessary. (Isn’t that part of original sin? Or is it just thermodynamics.) I don’t like rewriting. I don’t like writing transitions. I don’t like writing summaries. I don’t like going back (in a long piece) to see what I said earlier. But none of this amounts to ten percent of the investment in writing. (I’m reminded that the part about movies that Hitchcock found tedious was filming them. He had the story and every shot worked out before he ever called “action.” And that was the fun part for him.)
Writing is fun for me most of the time. And I strongly suspect that those for whom it is a chore should not be writing.
A word on what I mean by fun. I don’t mean that the work itself is always giddy and upbeat. I don’t even mean that all the emotions I feel as I write are positive. Things can get creepy and sad and fierce and heartrending. This may not sound like fun, but think of the movies and books that have meant the most to you. Don’t they have strong emotions of all types, both positive and negative? The experience of writing is complex, but (and forgive me if I’m stretching things here), when it is meaningful, it is fun. And the sense of accomplishment — even when I complete a painful scene — provides a rush of endorphins. I’m not an extreme athlete, but I’m willing to bet that the body objects painfully after a triatholon, but the brain provides rewards in terms of chemicals, memories and confidence. I think writing is about the same. Without the cardiovascular benefits.
So how do you keep writing fun? If you are like me, you have a list of projects. Not all of them are fun (though any can grow to be). Hold on to the ones that are, and make sure one of them is worked on every day. Make projects more fun by engaging your curiosity. Plenty of questions and quirky answers — as long as you avoid dry, footnote referencing — will always leave you with lots to write about.
Avoid discounting the work by talking about it before it’s done. With rare exceptions, telling the story rather than handing over a manuscript, provides the rewards prematurely. It makes typing the story in a chore rather than an adventure. (This is why I avoid plotting. I want my muse to surprise me.)
Write at the right time for you. I find it easiest to do creative work in the morning. That’s when my energy is highest and my brain is clearest. Next to writing every day, I think writing at the best time of day is the most powerful advantage for writers.
Don’t be afraid to vary your approach. I write on the computer; I dictate; I scribble things out in longhand. I write sequentially and I jump around. I write scenes as silent movies and I interview my characters to find out what’s on their minds. I don’t do any of these laboriously, as a matter of obligation. I do them as the spirit takes me. I allow myself to be spontaneous. (One author I know acts out everything, even providing distinct voices and accents for each character. It may seem crazy, but it works for him.)
One more thing, and this may sound odd. The best way to make writing fun is to make it honest. It is entirely possible to create pages of counterfeit prose. (I know; I’ve done it.) The first answer and the easy emotion can get you over a hump, but they don’t take you where you need to go. The place they lead to is dull and flat and familiar. Coasting through that landscape is no fun. The specific, the authentic and the real only come with effort. (And, forgive me, a bit of self sacrifice.) When I find myself doing things on the cheap, I actually jump up and pace around. I mutter. My face will twist in weird and frightening ways. The cats will flee.
Sometimes the theatrics get me back on track. Sometimes I need to conjure up emotion or sense memory (see Stanislavski). Often I need to start all over. I don’t push until something breaks. I hop around until I land in the right space.
I believe that having fun creates works that deliver fun. Emotion, meaning and authenticity do not come from elaborate blueprints, blood or clenched teeth. Usually.
Are we having fun yet?