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Writing when you feel like it

This is the most dangerous concept in writing. It’s an approach which has sunk more writers than self-doubt or poor daily discipline, I believe. If you only write when you feel like it, you’ll never complete anything substantive, and even if you do, it won’t be any good.

In Patricia Highsmith’s excellent novel The Talented Mister Ripley, one of the main characters (Marge) is writing a book, though she keeps up an active social life as well. One day, she is absent from the group, and one of the other characters explains that Marge is in the middle of a “streak” on her book.

The book must stink, thought Tom. He had known writers. You didn’t write a book with your little finger, lolling on a beach half the day, wondering what to eat for dinner.

Indeed not. Writing when you don’t feel like it is an especially valuable exercise. It helps eliminate the romantic notion that writing a book is an easy or glamorous process; it instils the notion that writing is a job, like carpentry, that has to be done, and it provides a writer with direct and vivid insight into themselves and their way of working.

As Garrison Keillor said: “You can write comedy when you’re sick, when you’re lonely as a barn owl and your head hurts and your friends are mad at you. It’s just work, that’s all, and you go do it if you need to.

As you sit there, saying to yourself “I don’t feel like writing today”, and you hear the disciplinarian voice that says “You will write today.”, examine the thoughts that tumble through your mind. Often they will be of the self-doubting kind, “I’m no good at this”, “I can’t do this”, and so on.

Following the disciplinary voice, you go and do it anyway, and gradually those awful self-doubting fears subside, you do your 1,000 words, and end up feeling better than before. You’re a stronger writer for having overcome your doubt and unwillingness.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing dross, that’s what first drafts are for. In fact, some of your best writing can emerge from these sessions when your brain doesn’t want to cooperate and every word is dragged out of you like a decayed tooth. It gives you a different perspective on writing, and on the project you’re working on.

The famous tennis player Martina Navratilova was once asked about her philosopy of the game, and is said to have replied: “What matters is not how well you’re playing when you’re playing well, but how well you’re playing when you’re playing badly.

The same, of course, applies to writing. Anyone can write when they feel like it.

What separates the professional from the amateur, the successful from the failures, is the guts to push ahead when you would rather be doing almost anything else.

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Categories: Attitude Tags: , , ,