Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Damnit Part II: Sick to Death

In honor of being laid off at my day job, I present Damnit Part II of a series, discussions of the aggravating shit that comes with being a writer. I hope you find it as edifying to read as it was cathartic for me to write. Enjoy, and wish me luck with my job search.

God, that was the lamest introduction yet.

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I think we have all faced that moment: you're working on something and you realize that you are completely and totally sick of it. The characters seem flat, the plot seems contrived, the setting is boring, and even your own turns of phrase make you feel vaguely ill. All of this was thrilling just last week (or even just yesterday), but today you've had enough of it.

You are sick to death.

Of course, the trouble is that writers are often the least qualified of anyone to judge their own work. I know I am - that's what the Abigail is for. I also know Franz Kafka was - most of his work was published posthumously, and then only because his best friend Max Brod defied Kafka's deathbed request and published his writing against his will - but that's not 100% relevant right now. The point is, just because you've suddenly decided that it's all crap doesn't mean that it really is. Ok, it is relevant: Franz Kafka decided right before he died that all his stuff was crap, and if his friend and lover hadn't ignored his wishes, the world wouldn't have Franz Kafka today.

Why, then, other than overactive inner critics and other psychological problems, do writers come to become totally sick of their own creations? I'm convinced it's because we engage with our creations in such a painfully intimate way. Readers go out on dates with our short stories and have long term relationships with our novels, but we marry every single thing we write. We don't see a clean, finished product - we see the work when it sucks, when it's full of rough patches and blemishes. Even the good parts get tired. We stare at our creations for hours at a time, contemplating their faults. Given that we spend so much time on our writing, is it any surprise that we get sick to death of it?

The question is, what do we do about it?

I start by acknowledging the reality of the phenomenon. Realizing that it's you who are sick to death of something, not dealing with a piece of writing that is genuinely worth not finishing, is the first step.

What do you do next, though? To extend the relationship metaphor, you need a way to make the story sexy again. Remember, it's not about the story, it's about you. Below are a few things that have worked for me:

  • Read something that reminds you of why you wanted to write this thing in the first place. You should be careful that it's not something that makes you feel scooped, of course. If you're permeable, like I am, use it to get your juices flowing again.
  • Take a page from the National Novel Writing Month book and just write through it. Set yourself a number of words per day and commit yourself to putting those words down, no matter what. Even if it means writing something painfully stupid. Hopefully, if what you're feeling is just a slump you'll get through it and start writing quality stuff again. You might have a hell of an editing job ahead of you when you're done, but you'll be happy again. More importantly, you'll be writing.
  • Find some way to make what you're writing fresh and new. Like the above option, this might not result in anything you want to use later, but the worst case scenario is that you do some writing you don't get to use later, and if that's a new experience for you, why are you bothering to read this?

There is one more possibility - not an option in the romantic metaphor, but fortunately stories are more forgiving than significant others - and that is to take a break. You can spend a little while working on something else, or even not working on anything at all, and then get back to your old idea when you're feeling fresh.

I do not recommend this option. I won't use it. I have a really hard time recapturing creative energy once I've let it go. Hell, I wrote the first 90% of A Knight of the Land in two months, lost track of my enthusiasm for two years, and then wrote the last two chapters in a single weekend. Probably I should work on this. However, what fails for me might very well work brilliantly for you, so if you think you can put something down, wait a while, then pick it up again, well, more power to you.

Either way, there's a cure for being sick to death - a Dramamine for the nausea in your soul.

Now, if only the cure for sick to death of not having a job, I'd be feeling a lot better.

* * *

  • When have you experienced the "sick to death" phenomenon.
  • What cures have worked for you?


Scattercat said...

Never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never ever stop working on something.

Never. Never ever. Don't. Don't do it. Don't even think about it. Don't even acknowledge the possibility.

It's bloody awful if you do. I favor the "push through it" mentality, because frankly inspiration is only good for a start. You can learn how to write on demand, and pleading off because you don't like it anymore is weak sauce. Pony up, bite the bullet, suck it in, and deal with it and keep writing because if you stop it's like riding a bike uphill and you lose your momentum and then trying to start again you get wobbly and fall down and it's ten times as hard as it was when you started it with all that speed from the straightaway.

Once you're finished, then you can take a break. In fact, you should. And then come back to it with fresh eyes. That's like pausing at the top of the hill; starting up again is just kicking off and coasting at first.

I've lost more stories by stopping in the middle...

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, but I figured - hey, it might work for some people, it seems like it might.

Of course, maybe you're right. Maybe it really does never work, for anyone, and people only keep on doing it because it seems like it might.

Scattercat said...

Well, my own experience is admittedly anecdotal, but every book of writing advice I've ever read has concurred: stopping in the middle because you've "lost your inspiration" is a recipe for disaster.