A Writer Writes… Except When They Don’t

An interesting article was pointed my way by J.H. Moncrieff entitled “Writers, We Need to Stop Saying This.” It makes a case for the once-defining advice that “a writer writes.” That’s true in context — you aren’t a writer if you’ve never written — but it can also be a source of frustration for the writer who HAS already written. The reason is obvious:

Writer’s block is a real thing.

Sometimes it’s pressure to perform or succeed, to break in or break out, or to duplicate a previous success. Sometimes it’s intruding external life events or a complete lack of inspiration. But when you’re told a writer writes and you’re not writing, those self-worth doubts begin to creep in — a self-fulfilling prophecy.

BookhouseAs any career writer will tell you, there is a degree of luck involved to being discovered and becoming popular or recommended, but a body of existing work is the best way to not only become successful but to be ready for it. But I offer a counterpoint for the writer who has already written:

A writer THINKS about writing even when they’re not.

When it’s time to write, I write. When it isn’t and I’m not writing, I think about writing…a lot. I take notes. I imagine scenes and let them play out over and over. I entertain myself with ideas. I wait until I’m so ready to write because I haven’t been writing that I can’t wait to write.

Then — and only then — I write.

It’s a form of self-encouragement, anticipating the impending work of the wordsmith. When inspiration is lacking and real life keeps you from escaping into imaginary worlds, screaming at a blank page isn’t therapeutic for everyone, and neither is beating yourself up about it.

One trick I use is writing to an ending — meaning I know my ending before I get there. This keeps me excited to reach that ending and drives my first draft, but I’ve learned that a weak story and a bad ending can also gum up the machinery, and sometimes you have to walk away. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I know when to stop because I know when I’m done. It also doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind over the ending. Good realistic characters can surprise you; let them, but also remember what makes a story work: a beginning, a middle, and an ending that fit together.

Stories need to make sense because, far too often, real life doesn’t.

There’s a fun little 1992 flick with Tom Selleck called Mr. Baseball about an American pro ball player traded to a Japanese team. The new coach recognizes that his player is disenchanted with the sport, seeing that Tom anticipates the worst possible results… and gets them. The coach takes him off the team to make the player hit golf balls with a bat at a driving range (while others are using actual clubs) and to hit other things. After a while, the angry and frustrated Tom finally screams, “I’m sick of this crap! I want to hit a baseball!” After making the player repeat those words until the lesson is learned, the coach replies, “NOW you’re ready.”

Are you ready?

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6 thoughts on “A Writer Writes… Except When They Don’t

  1. Honestly, I always mentally interpreted writing to include all of the mental thinking and planning, and the active *attempt* to create, rather than just words hitting the page. The words on the page part is only about half of what writing actually is. So when you’re talking about a writer, I’m thinking of someone who is actively attempting to creating content.

  2. The problem is and has been that some people ONLY think about writing but never actually do it. The act of writing is required to hone your craft, but the other half is creation through observation, making associations that readers can relate to with the intent of suspending disbelief.

  3. Confession: I come up with my best scenes and the most interesting revelations just letting them play out in my head while physically doing something else: taking a shower, doing yard work, or driving long distance. I imagine the situation, throw the characters together like actors rehearsing a scene, and just keep tweaking it until it works or something new comes about, hoping for an “a-ha!” kind of epiphany to make the scene as good as it can be. Anybody else do this?

  4. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my post this week, Kevin. It was great to “meet” you, and I’m glad that post inspired this one! It’s great that writers are talking about this stuff.

    I agree – our mental processes count as well. Can’t write a book without thinking!

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