Your Biggest Challenge as a Writer -and What To Do About It - Part 7
The writer’s biggest enemies (verified by survey) are Lack of Time, accompanied by Procrastination.
I’ve argued that any perceived lack of time can actually worsen the procrastination problem: as Time seems to become scarce, the focussed passion that accompanies the deep-felt need to write can become so intense that many writers back off from it. Rather than ‘take the plunge’ and use the precious hour or two that has become available to unleash their passion, they find themselves checking emails, playing games on social media, or allowing themselves to be distracted by just about anything.
The preciousness of the little time available for writing acts to electrify the whole subject - and so they wander off and do something else, cursing themselves in the same moment for wasting the opportunity to write that was there but has now evaporated into a cloud of pointless activities.
The ultimate remedy? Create more time. Re-arrange one’s life so that Time is plentiful.
Do that, and that multitude of distractions which seem to accumulate around ‘free time’ like moths gathering around a candle gradually seem less daunting: they lose their destructive power, and become just light-hearted distractions. If one has only an hour to get the next chapter of one’s masterpiece novel written, checking the latest posts on Facebook can become perversely magnetic - and once 45 minutes has been wasted doing that, then the guilt of wasted time descends, crushing one psychologically; but if one has seven or eight hours to write, the same posts lose their compulsive attraction to some degree. One can indulge a little in ‘guilty pleasures’ while still being able to get the next chapter written - and perhaps the one after that.
It’s a peculiar feature of human psychology that we tend to do things that we know we shouldn’t. But we seem to do them more, or more compulsively, when we think that we have less freedom to operate.
However, we had gone further than that last week: we had journeyed into the land of Reason and started to look at why we write stories at all.
The unfortunate truth is that one can write and write and write and accumulate thousands and thousands of words without actually communicating anything at all. I’ve read a number of so-called draft ‘novels’ which are nothing but massive conglomerations of sentences leading nowhere and saying nothing to the reader. I'd even go so far as to say that the vast bulk of unpublished 'creative writing' that is done in the world out there (and some that is published) is of this kind.
In trying to resolve this, I’ve suggested that a writer might like to try jotting down, probably in note form, what he or she would like to say to readers: is the message of the work a happy one or a sad one? Does the writer want to make a philosophical point, or convey an emotional mood? In other words, what would you write in a few sentences on a piece of paper which you are instead planning to say through a short story or a novel?
Of course, as we have seen, it’s not really entirely possible to reduce what one wants to say to a scribbled note. But in the attempt to do so, you have begin to activate a different part of yourself - the part that is above the stream of images, ideas, words, scenes, dialogue, emotions and so forth which you normally consider to be ‘writing’.
Stepping back from all of those things, you can begin to see that you are using them to communicate something.
For example, let’s look at the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien for a moment. I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was 15. The teacher had a list of 50 books which he read out to the class. We were each supposed to pick one as the basis of our reading for that year. As he read each title, he gave a brief one or two sentence summary of the book in order to give us an idea of its content so that we could make up our minds whether or not we would want to read it. He came to The Lord of the Rings and said, ‘This is a three volume fantasy epic telling the story of a quest to destroy a magic ring, but none of you will be interested in that’.
I looked around the class - it was composed of outback small town Australians, for most of whom, let's say, literature held few attractions. But I knew immediately that this ‘fantasy’ was the book for me, the exile from England. No one knew back then what a ‘fantasy’ was - the genre hadn’t really hit the culture in the way that it did over the following decades - but there was something about it that instantly attracted me. I rushed to the library to find that they only had the first two volumes and that the map inside had been ripped out, so my first read-through of the story was formulated around a geography that had to be twisted back into shape once I found the map.
In that first read-through, I encountered woods and wizards, rivers and magic rings, fields of grass and fell creatures and everything else that the book’s contents displayed to my young imagination -but more than any of these single elements, I encountered a message. On every page, in every scene, in every conversation between every character, I was hearing something being said. How to sum that up? I suppose I might have said that it was something to do with the England from which I felt exiled at the time, but it was more than that: through the entire trilogy there ran a current of what I would later call ‘numinescence’.
Of course, as soon as I could I began to write my own fantasy epic. But what did I end up with? Woods and wizards, rivers and magic rings, fields of grass and fell creatures and everything else that I could copy laboriously from what I had read while trying not to directly plagiarise, but, when I came to read the thing back to myself, not a smidge of ‘numinescence’ or anything like it.
And this is exactly what happens to many, many writers: they can’t see the wood for the trees. They can’t see what they are trying to say through the paraphernalia they are putting onto the page. The same thing applies no matter what genre.
This is crucially important, if you want to write a 'good book'.
I recently read the beginning chapters of a thriller set in the near future - something about an asteroid approaching Earth and the attempts to deflect it. It had almost everything: stern, heroic characters, knowledgeable scientists, rockets and phone calls to the President, etc. But it had no idea what it was trying to say.
Just as I had been doing with Tolkien, the author had obviously been excited by some thrillers that he had read or more likely seen at the cinema and had decided to write his own. But what he and I had both ended up with was a kind of hollow parody of the original, a badly copied sketch, a disjointed and meaningless pastiche.
Tolkien worked out what he wanted to say while under fire in the trenches of the First World War. Morgoth and the struggles of the First Age, which evolved over decades into a complex and rich history of a sub-created universe, were born in the realities of savage battles in which Tolkien had lost almost all of his closest friends. He had something to communicate. At first it was only to himself, a kind of way of looking at the world which embraced the darkness and made it make sense - but when his invention of the hobbit gave him a mechanism for conveying the realities of his world to others, his message gradually reached millions.
I’m not suggesting that to be successful an author has to endure the front lines of a grisly war. But to write a lasting classic, I suggest that an author has to have something that he or she wants to say and is passionate about saying, whether that thing is fully developed consciously or not. Tolkien wrote later that the whole of Middle-earth was really about Death - the question of human mortality, and all that that entails. Most of the master authors have surprisingly similar messages about life and humanity and the big issues.
But the thing is that they have them. That's largely what makes them master authors.
When you have yours, the logistics of changing your life so that you can write suddenly fall into place. What seems daunting and impossible - perhaps moving house, changing jobs, re-arranging finances, establishing whole new lifestyles - becomes transparent and actionable. Knowing what you want to say ignites a star in the darkness and gives you something to go into orbit around, rather than the mechanical ‘necessities’ of your current existence.
There are about seven levels of progress towards total ‘writerdom’, and they are what we will look at in the next chapter.