I write all day long. Rarely do I write my own fictions all day long, however. Those I save for sundown, or for when I’m supposed to be rockin the Zs. Responsible civic living has done its number on my head. No doubt.
I’m thinking about this a lot lately.
I was thinking about this back in December, when I asked Laura van den Berg (at ASF’s blog), What has been the hardest lesson–or the best–for you to learn in your writing life?
She hit it so quick it almost didn’t hurt: “Self-doubt.”
“I’m always trying to learn how to keep the self-doubt under control,” she said. “I tend to imagine the worst case scenario. After finishing a new story or a book, I immediately think: what if this is the last thing I ever write? What if this is it? These questions are not especially useful, so I would love to learn how to squash them for good (please feel free to send me your tips!), but I have a feeling it’s going to be an ongoing lesson.”
Then, as if ideas are dice, she rolled again: “One lesson that I did actually learn that has been really important for me,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to organize your life around your work. Sometimes I feel a little petrified that I’ve put all my eggs so completely in one basket, but we’ve all got to do what we love.”
So there it is. Let the dice rip: Give up the day job. Hunt for retreats, fellowships, residencies. House sit. Burn through savings. Let each year, as Laura says, “be something of a gamble.”
No matter what, bills need payin’. And here I am, standing at the table.
11 thoughts on “Writer’s life: dicey life”
“I would recommend entertaining doubts about every word you choose, and enjoy the entertainment of your doubts; live, in fact, to doubt yourself—so that no one else might take your place as the most damning doubter of you and all you do.”
Mike! The entire paragraph, yes:
One piece of advice would be to slow down. It doesn’t matter if it takes you all night or two nights or even longer to write one sentence. Every sentence should feel like the nucleus of the story in which it will eventually appear. Another suggestion is to keep hacking away at your paragraphs, cut as much as possible, but save what you’ve trimmed away: a word or a phrase from the trimmings might be enough to get a fresh sentence started. I would also recommend entertaining doubts about every word you choose, and enjoy the entertainment of your doubts; live, in fact, to doubt yourself—so that no one else might take your place as the most damning doubter of you and all you do.
And thanks for the new(?) WAC read. Wish it showed some publishing data.
Always is the depth of the “damnable doubt” swims belief and disbelief in talent, in quality, in endurance. And always in the end it is time, as the link John provided some time ago to Anne Michaels’ Q&A at The Strand, shows. How much we have, how much we give, how much we spend, how much we waste.
Belief at one end, disbelief at the other. Joy–the needle that rides between. Until the player album ends and the dice have been shuttled away. And every day the play at battle.
Obviously, fellowships and residencies are great things but, I don’t know, I question the notion of being able to devote 100% of your time to writing.
I feel like it’s hard to talk honestly about writing routines. For example, if I said that I wrote for three hours every day, does that mean my pen is being dragged across a piece of paper (or hovering above it) for three straight hours? Does it count if I stare at a blank page for 2 hours and 45 minutes of that three hours? Possibly. Does it count if, after 15 minutes of writing, I go pick a relevant book off the shelf and read that for the rest of my 3 hours? Maybe, maybe not. What I mean is: What counts as writing?
If it takes you two nights to write a sentence, does that mean you’re reading and rereading and writing and rewriting that sentence for 48 hours straight through? If I write a sentence, then go to work and do what I need to do, then return to that sentence the next night and rewrite it, haven’t I spent two days on it?
Does this make any sense? Maybe I’m lazy or maybe I just can’t cut it, but it seems to me that a consistent 8-10 hours per day of writing is a fantasy. I could do it on a really good week, maybe, but I couldn’t maintain it any longer than that, and I’m not sure it would do my writing any good. There’s something to be said for knowing when to step away from a project so that you have some perspective when you return to it.
Perhaps an 8-10 hour writing day is too much for many. But however you cut it, finishing projects (and getting them published), means great amounts of focused attention. And that means “butt in the chair” time. The process, painful though it may be, runs on diligence as much as (more than? hm?) luck or skill.
I sound to myself like I’m regurgitating here what others have said. (Ann Patchett most recently in Washington Post–http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/10/AR2009121003658.html.)
But I’m a believer. Dedication gets results.
And yes, wax lion, I think all the time you spend on that bastard sentence yields something useful, no matter how long it takes, no matter if you throw that sentence out in the end.
On one hand, I 100% agree: we have to sit in the chair. Discipline is essential, and so is time off from “life” to clear your head, let ideas churn, and get the writing done. Regular schedules, sabbaticals, quasi-part-time jobs, writing vacations, retreats, etc. can help set the environment for success, I’ve found.
On the flipside, LIFE — living outside of writing — is mandatory, too. In my experience, not focusing on work, even if only for a weekend, makes focusing on work both more pleasurable and more valuable. Insights come during downtime. Words and images move through the subconscious and are at the ready when it’s time to get back into the writing.
Re: doubt – I think this is the wrong way to approach one’s work and one’s life. First, it will kill you if you’re doing it during the writing. Second, it will kill you with insecurity or anxiety when you’re not writing. I’m not saying we shouldn’t read our own work with a critical eye. We need to — during the revision process — but not otherwise. I guess I’m talking about boundaries: absolutely be critical/skeptical/doubtful when revising — to find the best way to do what you’re doing — but let all of that go otherwise and enjoy life. Insecurity kills.
Finally, I think it’s unwise to quit money-making jobs/careers to focus “full-time” on writing unless you have a crazy book contract or financial cushion that will ensure basic quality of life for an extended period of time. As I understand it, very few writers make a decent living from just writing. Gambling that you’ll be the rare exception seems foolish. Of course, I could be way wrong. But I (ahem) doubt it.
Long ago it occurred to me that lack of self-confidence is an indulgence that I can barely afford. I live, work, and write within a context of human relationships, many of them dependent on my keeping my act together and these relationships are dependent for me not to let go to wallow in self doubt. It does create a tension as when all urgencies are moderately satisfied self doubt it still there to be dealt with. But I find it so much easier to manage self doubt when I consider it in a frame such as the temptation to eat too much chocolate. I do not necessarily need to eat any chocolate, though I could easily envision eating enough of it for a suicide by chocolate.
I do not see sitting in the chair and physically writing as the full act of writing. To write, on paper, or computer or whatever the media is a conscious portion of the activity of a larger context of the process of writing that envelopes the sum total of our lives, and in turn conditions how we perceive and live our lives as writers. When I am out-and-about with a hammer to shape a stone, or driving a truck, or to shovel snow or talk to the neighbor about wood stoves I am writing. I experience and shape story as actively as if I sat in the chair at the writing desk. This, in part, makes me always feel a bit disjointed in discussions as to how much time in hours one spends writing. To me a writer never spends time not writing.
Doubt it could be said better. The life, she proves to be an on-going lesson re. letting go of the insecurity long enough to submerge into the writing. Once there, all is well. Aye, there’s the rub. Just stay in that place, right?
Writers are a supremely self-punishing lot, I’ve found. All that thinking and ruminating on stories, narrative, connections, metaphor, and characters becomes ruminating on self. Bleh. “Always composing, never writing” is how I used to put it. Realized all this after spending a few sessions with an awesome Jungian therapist who helped me recognize and bust down my own barriers to creativity that, irony of ironies, grad school and I together erected so beautifully.
Scott Blackwood once told me it wasn’t until he had a kid that he realized he was mortal; it gave an entirely new urgency to his writing life. That shit gave me chills. Nothing like a deeper greater purpose to show you your point in life. Makes lack of self-confidence its bitch if you know what I mean. No point in being afraid (and no time) when you’ve got a job to do.
I love your parallel to chocolate suicide: it’s a choice! And you say, “Long ago it occurred to me that lack of self-confidence is an indulgence that I can barely afford.”
Strange that grad school helped me (and likely others) to own lack of self-confidence–or at least to recognize it, taste it, face it. Shucking it off is important work. And necessary, too, to live that life you talk about.
Pretty stuff here:
“To write […] envelopes the sum total of our lives, and in turn conditions how we perceive and live our lives as writers. When I am out-and-about with a hammer to shape a stone, or driving a truck, or to shovel snow or talk to the neighbor about wood stoves I am writing. I experience and shape story as actively as if I sat in the chair at the writing desk. This, in part, makes me always feel a bit disjointed in discussions as to how much time in hours one spends writing.”
Always a work in process.
yes, yes & yes!
work/life in process… always.
Perhaps, Jesus, that’s why we hang here with our comrades? To remind and remind and remind…
good to remind and to remember. good to be here. thanks for writing.