The Long Walk
by M.J. Hearle
Writing is hard. Maybe not working in a coal mine, swinging a pick axe hard, but probably a lot harder than non-writers would believe. Sure we get to spend all day in our pyjamas, have as many tea and biscuit breaks as we like, forgo personal hygiene because the only person we interact with all day is our dog and they don’t care if we haven’t brushed our teeth or put deodorant on – but these are just the fringe benefits of what can occasionally be a punishing profession. Over the next couple of posts I want to talk about some of the problems I ran into when I started writing, so you can hopefully avoid them.
Let’s start with The Guilt.
There’s a great line from Californication that sums up what I’m talking about: Hank Moody is lecturing a classroom full of students on what it’s like being a writer and finishes his cheerfully discouraging talk by saying, ‘Being a writer is like having homework every single day…for the rest of your life.’ Truer words were never spoken by a television character. Even without a deadline looming, I feel the constant pressure to be writing. What makes it worse, is this pressure is largely self-imposed. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, whether it’s drinking beers with my friends at the pub, cleaning the dishes, sleeping, my brain makes me feel bad about not using this ‘free’ time to write.
The Guilt does have the positive side effect of forcing me to get off my lazy arse every now and again and actually accomplish something, but largely it just makes me want to glass myself. The self-loathing writer is something of a cliché but it exists for a reason. We generally tend to be our own worse enemy.
So, how do you alleviate this guilt? Some writers have a daily word count they set for themselves – usually somewhere between two and three thousand words. I can see the merit in this approach, but it never really worked for me. You see, somedays I can spend eight hours staring at the screen and only generate a couple of hundred words, while other days I can sit for less than an hour, fingers a blur over the keyboard and punch out three or four chapters. Muses can be fickle – mine never phone’s ahead to let me know when she’ll be showing up.
Another reason I don’t truckle (isn’t that a great word? I just discovered it.) with the whole ‘word count’ method is that I found it often makes The Guilt worse. Having a established word count as your only measure of success is just setting yourself up for failure. As I alluded to before, sometimes the words simply won’t come, no matter how much you will them to.
Remember your book isn’t a uni assignment, there’s no professor who will sit back after your day’s writing and count each and every word to make sure you’ve included the minimum amount. If you treat it like work it will begin to feel like work, and you’ll experience all the typical anxiety and pressure of a stressful office job.
Instead of a word count just set yourself a designated amount of time to write. It can be half an hour, an hour, five hours if you have the time and no other distractions in your life (partners, children, pets, alcoholic friends demanding you to drink with them). Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t write solidly for that entire duration – the important thing is you were there. Just you and your book spending a little quality time together.
Writing is like anything else in life – it’s all about striking the right balance. As much as you feel like you should be handcuffed to the computer, downloading the characters and scenarios swirling around in your imagination it’s important to give yourself a break every once and a while. Nobody else will.