Having now submitted my short stories to the contests and having little else to do (in a writing sense) than to sit a wait I’ve gone back to the completed manuscript of my novel ‘Exile‘ and started filtering through my drafts for my urban weird novel project.
Not a lot of progress to report per se, but it got me thinking about the rules I try to follow when writing. Many of these are quotations, aphorisms or apophthegms which I have, for better or worse, committed to memory and practice.
Whenever I am struggling with the muses, or more likely their absence, I call to mind William Faulkner saying “I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know what inspiration is; I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.” He also said “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” These quotes remind me that if I am to seriously consider myself a writer it must be a craft at which I work, not a whim I indulge in the name of inspiration. ‘Writer’s Block’ is, paradoxically, both a nonsense and a default state.
I haven’t actually read any of E.L. Doctorow’s work, and I usually shy from quoting authors with whom I’m unfamiliar, but this sums it up quite well: “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining–researching–talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” It is as if he knows me, or perhaps as if my procrastination is not unique – nor even uncommon.
I know a lot of writers advocate a daily routine of writing several hundred, or thousand, words each day regardless of circumstances. I’m not quite there yet, but I am thinking it likely has merit. Routines often do. Leonardo Da Vinci warned that “Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity, and in cold weather becomes frozen, even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind.” To be a writer then is to write. That ‘writer’ is a noun is just a semantic or syntactic necessity. The writer can no more be removed from the act of writing than Nietzche’s lightning can be removed from its flash.
So once something’s down and it’s not at the standard I like to flatter myself I am capable of, what then? Margaret Atwood has said “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Jung believed that “perfection belongs to the Gods…” I think of this and Nick Hornby‘s advice about accepting one’s own ‘badness’ when I go back over something that last night was brilliant and now is utter drudge. It is these quotes which convince me to work through my horror at what a terrible writer I am and to remember that only by creating material can it be polished and refined until it is a thing of beauty (or perhaps just a thing of minimal ‘badness’). Sometimes of course it can be too tempting to hold on to a particularly fine turn-of-phrase or lyrical waxing, and in overcoming the temptation to keep it at all costs I loop back to Faulkner’s advice. “Kill your darlings…”
And when it is done I generally find that I have an overwhelming urge to hide it away where no other person will ever see it or submit it to judgment, and simultaneously a completely contradictory urge to have someone, anyone, read it and validate it with praise. The fear is paralysis. For years I was under its power, and at times I still am. In those times I turn to a certain professor of biochemistry who has published 500 titles and has works in all ten categories of the Dewey Decimal system, arguably the biggest of Golden Age Sci-Fi’s ‘Big Three’
“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.” Isaac Asimov