Writers are legendary for trying to avoid sitting down to work, and once we’re there, keeping our butts in the seat is like being chained. When we’re done, we leap up like joyous gazelles (in my case, more of a joyous water buffalo, but you get the idea).
Murray, the news writer character on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, said something like “I like starting my writing, and I like finishing my writing, but I don’t like the writing part of my writing.” Lawrence Block gets into this, too, in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, when he talks about how writers are the only artists who seem to have a level of, if not aversion, a sort of nagging unwillingness to do their work.
Not all writers are the same, of course, and I’m sure they vary widely in the level and manner in which they experience the phenomenon. Isaac Asimov would happily write from dawn to dusk, even on vacation, while Mr. Block, at the time of writing his book, stated his preferred stint at the keyboard was about three hours.
To paraphrase Block again, a musician will work all day in a studio, say, and then go out to play for free in a jazz combo for half the night. Visual artists are always picking up the brush, chisel, mouse or whatever, in their off hours. Performing artists like actors and dancers pick up extra work or take extra classes just for the sheer enjoyment of it.
So why aren’t writers more often the same way about plying their craft? I had an idea about this the other day, and having an idea for me is so rare a thing I thought I’d share it.
The other arts I mentioned all provide the practitioner with some kind of concrete object to work with. For example, when a visual artist is working, she first conceives the idea to, say, put a stroke of red paint on the canvas. At that point, the stroke is right in front of her, a concrete object. She can look at it and think, “That’s perfect,” or “That should be longer.” Musicians can hear their notes. Performers can get feedback from directors, fellow performers and audiences.
Writers, on the other hand, are never dealing with concrete objects. Instead, we are always dealing with symbols for objects (and everything else): words.
Let’s say a writer is composing a sentence describing a sunset.
- He starts with the sunset in his imagination. Nothing concrete there.
- He writes the sentence. Nothing concrete here, just a string of symbols. It has meaning, but it’s still just symbols.
- To react to the sentence the writer reads the symbols and reconstructs the sunset in his imagination from there.
- Once the written sunset is reconstructed, the writer compares it to the original, which is even less than symbols, a tissue woven of thought.
- The comparison results in an adjustment to the original imaginary image, the image symbolized by the words, or both.
- The writer adjusts the symbols (words) on the page to reflect the adjustments.
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
What the writer is doing here is recreating the object for herself, over and over, as many times as necessary, to get the desired results. Several of these reflections and reconstructions may take place in the span of a second, often not even perceived by the writer as they are taking place.
All this is stressful on the writer’s poor little noggin! The feedback loop, without anything concrete to support it, is simply tough to maintain. A rare few writers appear to do it without much effort, but most of us get near the keyboard and an unconscious alarm bell goes off: “Not that again!”
Is there anything to do about it? The only thing I can think of is to self-edit as little as possible while you’re drafting, but even then, the feedback loop is going on at a subconscious level—that’s my hypothesis, at least. Aside from that, just practice good work habits and give yourself every advantage you can. The stress of the abstract feedback loop comes with the territory. It’s the price we pay for creating worlds all our own.