I once read a major author’s comments on writer’s block and the work of writing. This author advised that you should just write anyway: Write three pages on a “good” day when the words are flowing and everything’s perfect; write three pages on a “bad” day when you can’t put two words together to save life or limb. Look back at the bulk of it a couple weeks later, you won’t be able to tell which bits were written on the “good” day and which on the “bad” day. I don’t remember now where I read it, or who wrote it, but it stuck with me, and I suppose that’s the first important thing about it. The second important thing about it is that I learned and feel I finally understood the true meaning of it this week.
Tuesday was a “bad” day. I couldn’t figure out how words formed sentences at all. Someone snuck into my house while I was asleep and replaced my brain with that of a crackhead. It took me like 7 hours to write a 700-word piece that I even felt comfortable submitting. And by “felt comfortable submitting” I mean “made any sort of sense and was remotely intelligible.” Because at that point I was ready to commit arson, or murder, or both. It wasn’t writer’s block. Writer’s block is a pretty myth we writers haul out because it sounds better than saying we’re bored and unmotivated. This was something far more fundamental. I was making basic grammar and syntax errors I haven’t made in two decades.
I submitted the piece, not knowing really what else to do, assuming it would come back for a rewrite — hopefully on a day when I wasn’t struck with acute-onset illiteracy. But last night the editor sent it straight through to publication, with the note “great work” attached to it.
In the end, it didn’t matter how hard it was to get those words out. They came out, and that’s all that matters, and in the end, you couldn’t tell the difference.
I see this odd fixation with things being “forced.” People telling other people not to “force” writing, not to push it. But if you want your writing to go anywhere, pushing it and forcing it is exactly what you need to do.
If you write as a hobby, and you never intend to go anywhere with it, then you should absolutely only do it when it’s fun and easy for you. That’s what hobbies are all about, and that’s why the only reason you’ll ever catch me bowling is if there are people I like and plenty of free beer. But if you’re serious about writing — whether as a side pursuit or a potential career — you can’t just write when it’s fun and easy. You have to force yourself to write even when the words are water-boarding you.
We force writing because we are passionate about it, because we strive to bend language to our will. We push writing — even when it doesn’t come with ease — because we want to move further in pursuit of the craft.
And this is the truth behind writing even when you’re not feeling it. The undercurrent of your passion still pulls your words even when the surface is full of chop, and your readers won’t know if you spent 3 hours writing 2,000 words or trying to write ten (mixed metaphors involving water to the side).
Too often we say something feels forced when in fact the opposite was true: No writer forced those words; they gave up and settled for them. As writers, we settle for something “good enough” when we’ve lost interest and given up on it. This is the third important thing about that bit I mentioned at the start. When I set out to write this essay, I wanted to find the author’s words so I could quote directly. When I hadn’t found anything after about ten minutes, I gave up and wrote around it (parentheticals are a good indication I’ve given up on something, as well).
Writing is work. Sometimes the words come easy; other times they refuse to cooperate and you have to exhaust yourself wrangling them into submission. But in the end, the outcome’s the same and no one knows the difference. If a piece of writing is lackluster, it’s not because it was forced, it’s because the writer gave up on it.
Never give up.