As I approach the final leg of writing my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I feel like I’m finally on the other side of the difficult middle. The central 50% of novels almost always feel like the hardest part to me, and I know I’m not alone. However, I have a big advantage on this project: posting it on the blog gives me deadlines and external accountability.
When I finish writing a chapter, sometimes I feel pretty good about it, and sometimes I’m disappointed. But I set myself a schedule, and I keep writing more chapters and posting them. Sometimes, my only consolation is in telling myself that I can always perform major revisions after the thing is done.
On the good days, writing feels like making art, but on the bad days it feels more like working an assembly line. Clock-in, spend a few hours sticking words together, and clock-out. It’s not glamorous, but it’s often what needs to be done.
Is It A Good Day?
I recently binged through the incredible 32-episode documentary Double Fine PsychOdyssey, which follows the seven-year development of the game Psychonauts 2. Even if you’re not particularly interested in video games, it’s a fantastic study in the complexities and interpersonal challenges of building a creative project with a large group of people.
Tim Schafer, who is something of a game design and writing legend, has a habit of daily writing when he’s working on a project. Over the years he has accumulated piles of old project notebooks that he can look back on. This offers an amazing archaeological view into how these stories grew and changed over the course of development.
Early in the documentary, Schafer flips through a few pages of the notebook for the original game, Psychonauts. These pages contain the first mentions of many of the ideas that became central to the story, although he had no way knowing it at the time. Schafer reads these tentative forays into ideas that now seem predestined, laughs quietly to himself and says, “that was a good day.”
What’s interesting about these “good days” is that they’re often not obvious when we’re living in them. It’s only in retrospect that we can see what works and what doesn’t.
Doing the Work
Cory Doctorow has a great article about this, called Doing the Work: How to Write When You Suck.
In those years, I would sit down at the keyboard, load up my text-editor, and try to think of words to write. Lots of words occurred to me, but they felt stupid and unworthy. I would chase my imagination around my skull, looking for better words, and, after hours, I would give it up, too exhausted to keep chasing and demoralized by not having caught anything.
That feeling of unworthiness and stupidity has never gone away. There are so many days when I sit down to write and everything that occurs to me to commit to the page is just sucks.
Here’s what’s changed: I write anyway. Sometime in my late twenties, I realized that there were days when I felt like everything I wrote sucked, and there were days when I felt really good about what I had written.
Moreover, when I pulled those pages up months later, having attained some emotional distance from them, there were passages that objectively did suck, and others that were objectively great.
But here’s the kicker: the quality of the work was entirely unrelated to the feeling I had while I was producing it. I could have a good day and produce bad work and I could have a bad day and produce good work.
What I realized, gradually, was that the way I felt about my work was about everything except the work. If I felt like I was writing crap, it had more to do with my blood-sugar, my sleep-deficit, and conflicts in my personal life than it did with the work. The work was how I got away from those things, but they crept into the work nonetheless.
This is a profound realization. There is a freedom in just writing (rather than trying to write well) that can be necessary to actually get anything done. The louder your internal editor is, the more important it becomes to be able to turn it off.
What Cory experienced is something I’ve noticed as well. I often don’t feel very good about my writing in the moment. It’s only when I come back to it later that I can take notice of the parts that I like. That’s not to say I don’t need editing. I always find plenty of things to improve. But most of the time my opinion of my writing is higher when I’m reading it back than when I’m in the process of writing it. I just can’t trust my own opinion while I’m writing.
And even if it turns out to be bad, I can always fix it later.
Writing as Manual Labor
As I get older and more experienced, I am more and more drawn to the idea of writing as manual labor. When I treat writing as a simple project of putting one word after another, it takes away the pressure to make those words great. I get the words written faster, and with less anguish.
I don’t always know if what I’m making will be good. I would love to feel constantly inspired—to have the muse always looking over my shoulder and making suggestions—but inspiration comes fitfully.
Sometimes the muse only strikes because I gave her room and did the work.