Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The writer’s defense

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“This book will be the death of me,” the writer Jose Chung broods to himself halfway through my favorite episode of Millennium. “I just can’t write anymore. What possessed me to be a writer anyway? What kind of a life is this? What else can I do now, with no other skills or ability? My life has fizzled away. Only two options left: suicide, or become a television weatherman.” I’ve loved this internal monologue—written by Darin Morgan and delivered by the great Charles Nelson Reilly—ever since I first heard it more than two decades ago. (As an aside, it’s startling for me to realize that just four short years separated the series premiere of The X-Files from “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense,” which was enough time for an entire fictional universe to be born, splinter apart, and reassemble itself into a better, more knowing incarnation.) And I find that I remember Chung’s words every time I sit down to write something new. I’ve been writing for a long time now, and I’m better at it than I am at pretty much anything else, but I still have to endure something like a moment of existential dread whenever I face the blank page for the first time. For the duration of the first draft, I regret all of my decisions, and I wonder whether there’s still a chance to try something else instead. Eventually, it passes. But it always happens. And after spending over a decade doing nothing else but writing, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s always going to be this way.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways of dealing with it. In fact, I’ve come to realize that most of my life choices are designed to minimize the amount of time that I spend writing first drafts. This means nothing else but the physical act of putting down words for the first time, which is when I tend to hit my psychological bottom. Everything else is fine by comparison. As a result, I’ve shunted aspects of my creative process to one side or the other of the rough draft, which persists as a thin slice of effort between two huge continents of preparation and consolidation. I prefer to do as much research in advance as I can, and I spend an ungodly amount of time on outlines, which I’ve elsewhere described as a stealth first draft that I can trick myself into thinking doesn’t matter. My weird, ritualistic use of mind maps and other forms of random brainstorming is another way to generate as many ideas as possible before I need to really start writing. When I finally start the first draft, I make a point of never going back to read it until I’ve physically typed out the entire thing, with my outline at my elbow, as if I’m just transcribing something that already exists. Ideally, I can crank out that part of the day’s work in an hour or less. Once it’s there on the screen, I can begin revising, taking as many passes as possible without worrying too much about any given version. In the end, I somehow end up with a draft that I can stand to read. It isn’t entirely painless, but it involves less pain than any other method that I can imagine.

And these strategies are all just specific instances of my favorite piece of writing advice, which I owe to the playwright David Mamet. I haven’t quoted it here for a while, so here it is again:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

As I’ve noted before, I badly wish that I could somehow send this paragraph back in time to my younger self, because it would have saved me years of wasted effort. But what Mamet doesn’t mention, perhaps because he thought that it was obvious, is that buried in that list of “achievable steps” is a monster of a task that can’t be eliminated, only reduced. There’s no getting around the time that you spend in front of the blank page, and even the best outline in the world can only take away so much of the pain. (An overly detailed outline may even cause problems later, if it leads to a work that seems lifeless and overdetermined—which leaves us with the uncomfortable fact that a certain amount of pain at the writing stage is necessary to avoid even greater trouble in the future.)

Of course, if you’re just looking to minimize the agony of writing that first draft, there are easier ways to anesthetize yourself. Jose Chung pours himself a glass of whiskey, and I’ve elsewhere characterized the widespread use of mind-altering chemicals by writers—particularly caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol—as a pragmatic survival tactic, like the other clichés that we associate with the bohemian life. And I haven’t been immune. For years, I’d often have a drink while working at night, and it certainly didn’t hurt my productivity. (A ring of discolored wood eventually appeared on the surface of my desk from the condensation on the glass, which said more about my habits than I realized at the time.) After I got married, and especially after I became a father, I had to drastically rethink my writing schedule. I was no longer writing long into the evening, but trying to cram as much work as I could into a few daylight hours, leaving me and my wife with a little time to ourselves after our daughter went to bed. As a result, the drinking stopped, and the more obsessive habits that I’ve developed in the meantime are meant to reduce the pain of writing with a clear head. This approach isn’t for everyone, and it may not work for anyone else at all. But it’s worth remembering that when you look at a reasonably productive writer, you’re really seeing a collection of behaviors that have accrued around the need to survive that daily engagement with the empty page. And if they tend to exhibit such an inexplicable range of strategies, vices, and rituals, ultimately, they’re all just forms of defense.

Written by nevalalee

September 12, 2018 at 8:21 am

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