What do you do when you don’t want to do anything at all? I don’t know about you, but lethargy is my Achilles heel – it’s the obstacle that’s so difficult to overcome in part because you can’t even muster enthusiasm for the task at hand: I don’t feel like doing it so why should I try?
When it comes to writing, lethargy and lack of feeling are not just twin buzz kills; they are actually lethal to your work. If you feel disconnected or ambivalent, then the motivation is gone, the payoff is hard to come by, and more often than not you’ll just skip the page altogether.
That’s certainly how I felt today; stuck deep in a pit of summer doldrums and dreaming of the mini holiday I’ll be setting off on in less than 24 hours. The whole world seems to be stuck in molasses – somnambulant and unaffected. The temps rise and the pool and beach beckon – why sit down with a pen and pencil, or hack away on keyboard when it’s so much more fun to just sit in the sun and think of nothing.
So how did I get here today? Well, I have a hard time breaking promises to myself, and at the beginning of the year I committed to daily writing. Sometimes Morning Pages are enough – especially on the weekends – but most of the time when I skip an appointment with my writing I feel guilty and morose: I’ve sacrificed momentum and let myself down.
I’m also lucky enough – or savvy enough – to be surrounded by a stack of books that serve as ad hoc mentors and fonts of inspiration. Today I picked up Writers [on Writing] – again – and while paging though it at random I came across an article by Allegra Goodman addresses the question – “Why bother. Why even begin?”
In a piece entitled “Calming the Inner Critic and Getting to Work,” Goodman discusses the pitfalls of listening to inner doubts and avoiding the page. Her first tip, ditch comparisons and contemplations of the masters, they’re dead and gone and your potential masterpieces are still possible.
“Forget the past,” she says. “Nothing stops the creative juices like thoughts of literary tradition.”
“Think about it,” she continues. “The idea should give you hope. Past masters are done. Their achievements are finite, known, measurable. Present writers, on the other hand, live in possibility. Your masterpiece could be just around the corner. Genius could befall you at any moment.”
I love the idea of happening upon some previously unknown genius – perhaps I’m actually working towards something instead of just screaming in the wind and sending random essays out into cyberspace. Of course, I do love writing for writing’s sake – otherwise I probably wouldn’t do it at all. Goodman agrees that love is the essential element.
“Love your material,” she advises. Nothing frightens the inner critic more than a writer who loves her work. The writer who is enamored of her material forgets all about censoring herself. She doesn’t stop to wonder if her book is any good, or who will publish it, or what people will think. She writers in a trance, losing track of time, hearing only her characters in her head.”
I’m not going to lie; I could use one of those transcendent moments right now. I love writing, but affection is no guarantee. As far as Goodman is concerned, a real emotion attachment to the written word manifests itself in an unquenchable desire to write. Desperate love can create a fugue state – a trance where plot and dialogue flow freely, almost as if your taking dictation from somewhere else.
“This is a state of grace possible only when you are truly desperate to tell a story,” she explains. “Suddenly you are so full of voices, ideas and events that it is as if you were rushing from the scene of a crime.”
I’m quite familiar with that sense of being spellbound, entranced by the story and the characters who populate it. But familiarity does not breed contempt or comfort in my case, it’s just something to aspire to and feel melancholy about: I felt that way once, why can’t I recreate it?
The solution, of course, is to write yourself right back into that mystical state of being. Just keep pounding out those words and try to cultivate a faith that you’re headed somewhere. And when nothing is happening, an interlude – or Artist’s Date – might be just the thing to get you started again.
“Do not sit and mope,” advises Goodman. “Do not throw up your hands and give up on the whole project. Do not go back to the drawing board. There is nothing more depressing than an empty drawing board. No, go back to the world, which is where all characters originally come from.”
And when all else fails, stop and recognize that while you may denounce it, gnash your teeth and rail against it, hold it up as an apostate and announce you’re going to burn it in effigy – despite all that – the truth is you secretly love the block. You are secretly enamored of your inner critic.
It’s not a case of Stockholm syndrome. We all love our rationalizations and our excuses. “Recognize deep down you love your inner critic,” recommends Goodman. “How sad, how sordid. How cheap.”
“Secretly writers do love the censor within. We say we hate that sanctimonious inner voice, but there is no better excuse for procrastination, lethargy and despair. There is no better excuse for getting nothing done than to lock yourself in battle with the famous inner demons of self-criticism and doubt.”
Today, tell your inner critic that you need a break. It’s not them…it’s you. You need your space. You’d like to stay friends, but right now this love affair is tearing you apart.
And once you’ve made a clean break of it – at least for now, that inner voice is nothing if not a persistent suitor – take a walk, have some tea and get back to the business of writing. And if you still can’t do it, then read a little…doodle…make some soup…stare at the trees outside your window and pet a cat.
Then try writing again. And keep on trying. The stories are out there waiting for you, but they’re not going to jump freely into your bucket like brainwashed fish…you’re going to have to cast a net and bait a hook and pray to the writing gods that eventually you’ll need a bigger boat.
A note on the image at the top of this post. I found this painting while conducting a Google search for images related to the phrase “casting a net.” I think it’s beautiful and – as with any visuals I use that are not my own creation – I’ve embedded the link in the photo. If you get a chance, check out Maria’s Libraries – a blog about books and adventures in Africa.
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- It’s Okay Not to Read Me (whatever.scalzi.com)
- The New 3 “Rs” – Readin’, ‘Ritin’ and Rewritin’ (arnnarn.com)
- What is a Healed Writer? (thehealedwriter.com)