Bonjour and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog about writing fiction and rewriting fiction. Authors seem singular amongst the professions in their desire to hand out free, unsolicited advice on their craft and I, dear, faithful friends, am no different in that regard… except (!!!) that my advice isn’t trite air-punching sophistry or stylistic showboating designed only to display the author’s wit and/or iconoclastic vim. Practical, specific feedback on the actual nuts and bolts of constructing a sentence, and how sentences fit together to create character, voice and plot – that is what Death Of 1000 Cuts is all about.
I see a lot of writing advice out there that boils down to DO IT! WOOHOO! or repackages desired results as suggestions, e.g. ‘remember to be original’, which is about as useful as a martial arts instructor not demonstrating any moves, but simply instructing her charges ‘remember to be fucking amazing at ninjutsu’. Imagine if that worked. Like, you were cornered by a gang and a friend called out ‘Remember to be fucking amazing at ninjutsu!’ and you were like, ‘Oh yeah.’ and suddenly you could like moonsault off the walls and teleport and shit.
That isn’t how writing works, guys. But a lot of the internet acts like it is! That’s because, I guess, a lot of writers don’t really know, consciously, how they do a lot of what they do. Pedagogy is a skill distinct from writing, and some people can be genuinely superb fiction writers without really being able to articulate the processes they use to create their work. Now, of course, this is the point where people start objecting with guff about innate talent, ‘gifts’, and all sorts of wishy-washy mythology about the mysterious ineffable nature of art, and people are welcome to do that, but those people are wrong, and if they double-down on their position without being able to produce anything more substantive than anecdata and blustering ‘yes, but don’t you think that writers sometimes…’ hypothetical bullshit, then they are fucking idiots.
Writing is about technique. It’s not entirely reducible to technique, but the other bit isn’t magical pixie dust or having the correct genotype that marks you as a member of the creative aristocracy. You have to be literate, you have to read sometimes so you have a basic comprehension of the form, and you have to have an interest in the world and in people.
I’m not going to go off on one again about teaching creative writing. But my point is – and I feel like this is a simple statement of fact rather than belligerent grandstanding – Death Of 1000 Cuts aims to cover all the parts that other writing blogs and manuals don’t and can’t. You know – the actually useful advice that you can immediately apply to your work to make it better. The good stuff.
And the reason I’m saying all this is as a long-winded build up to today’s post, which is about the psychology of writing and, as such, might seem less immediately applicable and practical than the usual ‘do not put this word here, ever’ admonitions we trade in. Still, I thought it was important, which was why I wrote it.
Cut 25 – War Is Over
I used to think I was constitutionally lazy.
In my head, writing was a vast battle between a few brave, glowing ideas and the endless grey hordes of Sloth. Without eternal vigilance, without constant hacking and slashing and bellowing war cries, the outnumbered desperate heroes would be overrun, their bright lights would wink out across the battlefield, and all would disappear under a tide of idleness.
Which isn’t to say that it was all doom and gloom. Precisely because writing was a valorous battle against Sloth, a battle in which the odds were massively tipped towards the evil aggressor, any victory, however slight, was a cause for celebration and an act, not of simple work, but of exceptional heroism. A completed chapter was an absurdly unlikely boon – a completed novel, little short of a miracle.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. It’s difficult to sustain such a deep foundational myth unless there is a culture that supports it. I know a lot of writers who talk about themselves in terms of being lazy, feckless procrastinators who will do anything to wriggle out of knuckling down and writing.
It seems kind of harmless, cutesy self-deprecation most of the time, but it often veils a genuine frustration, a desperation even, of really, really wanting to do something – i.e. write – while finding all sorts of ways of avoiding it. There’s a feeling of helplessness, of living with a built-in saboteur who will do anything to prevent your feeling self-actualised, fulfilled and happy.
And so, naturally, out of this proceed feelings of guilt and shame. Since you’re in control, not writing is your fault, right? It is your failing. And if only you weren’t so complacent, so lazy, so cowardly, you wouldn’t do it.
So – the writer reasons – the trick is to make not writing less attractive than writing. If we load up not writing with feelings of failure, of guilt, of being a bad, lazy, feckless person, then when we come to decide between ‘playing 20 minutes of Torchlight 2 while listening to a podcast’ and ‘working on my novel’, the former will make us feel so sick and gross and unhappy that we will inevitably pick the latter.
Only last week I read an author on Twitter who called themselves ‘naturally lazy’ and claimed their most reliable motivator was shame. I think a lot of people work this way! And it’s a very logical position to take, that draws on lived experience and aims to create the best possible long-term outcome for the writer. The only problem is that it’s utter bollocks.
Here’s something that ought to be blindingly obvious: constantly telling yourself you’re a lazy, slovenly sack of shit does not build confidence or self-esteem. In fact, it’s exhausting. When you’re exhausted, you need rest. But you’ve decided that resting = slacking off, so when you try to rest that only reinforces the belief that you are terrible, odious sluggard. The voice gets louder, more strident, and more convincing.
But what of your brilliant plan? Aha, yes. Associating leisure activities (and, ultimately, any non-writing activities) with guilt, shame and failure. You have dynamited the lifeboats to keep everyone from abandoning ship. Brilliant.
Except now you have literally no way of alleviating stress and tiredness, nor of achieving relaxation and self-fulfillment, except writing. IS THIS STARTING TO SOUND UNHEALTHY YET?
But you don’t understand, Tim, I hear your inner critic screaming, being kind to oneself might be okay for other people, but if I give in to the idle part of me, I’ll never write. I know myself. It’ll be over. You’re asking me to slosh kerosene over my dreams and toast marshmallows on the bonfire. I don’t have that luxury. I can’t afford to be self-indulgent.
Let me just stop you there. Leisure time isn’t self-indulgence. Whole weekends off aren’t self-indulgence. Pacing oneself isn’t self-indulgence.
Continual, carping self-criticism is the true self-indulgence. It makes you shit at writing. It tires you out. It’s horribly inefficient.
A few days ago, I took my first weekend off since June. I went and played a Netrunner tournament in London, I had a lovely Turkish breakfast, I hung out with my friends and ate peanut butter brownies, I read and I did some washing up. When I sat down to write on Monday morning, it was easy. Well, okay – ‘easy’ isn’t quite the word. It was straightforward. I sat down and I wrote. I made mistakes, and I corrected them. I wanted to be there. I enjoyed it.
I enjoyed it because I was rested. I enjoyed it because I love stories. I enjoyed it because, it turns out, I’m not constitutionally lazy – I’m just human. And if I constantly repeat a mantra of how shit and feckless I am, I get tired.
I read Steven Pressfield’s The War Of Art, in which he advocates viewing creativity as a constant war against ‘resistance’ – which is to say procrastination, avoidance behaviours and fear. It all sounds very stirring and masculine, and absolutely devoid of fun. All I will say is that, in following his own regimen, Pressfield’s greatest artistic contribution thus far has been The Legend of Bagger Vance.
If you keep pounding yourself with this joyless Protestant work ethic nonsense, you make yourself inefficient, uncreative and – most importantly – unhappy. Being kind to yourself is not self-indulgence. Listening to your bullying inner voices is self-indulgence. True professionalism means treating the talent – i.e. you – with respect and humanity.
If you want a sustainable, professional creative practice, it must involve reasonable working hours, leisure time, and a willingness to start each day afresh, rather than gnawing on last week’s failings. Shame, like anger, can be used as fuel, but it burns far shorter and far dimmer than love or enthusiasm, and it gives off dangerous emissions that ultimately poison those reliant upon it.
Work hard, by all means, but do it because you want to, not because you ought to. And take a rest. It’s not skiving. It’s essential.