Faced with a blank screen, I’m reminded of all the frustrated thoughts writers have about the process of writing; or as so often happens, the process of not writing. Entire books have been written about this. I often think that, no matter what a writer may be blocked from writing, he or she can always think of things to say about not writing.
I have loved words in a row since I can remember and I can’t actually remember ever learning to read them. By the time my memory formed well enough to give me some continuity, I simply read, anything and everything my parents provided and anything I could manage without their knowledge or (sometimes) permission. I have always spent as much time reading as the world would allow me, even at times holding a book with one hand while I cooked or made the bed or did other chores with the other. As a character says in a Robert Heinlein novel, “The Number of the Beast“, I would “read when I’m sleeping if I could keep my eyes open.” Only one exception exists — while I can read in airplanes and trains, I cannot read in an automobile. I get carsick. Very carsick. I think it has something to do with the horizon line, but in any event it used to be so bad I couldn’t actually read a billboard (remember them?) while the car was moving. Better now, or perhaps there are just fewer billboards. I will read almost anything, although I am embarrassed to admit that my pleasure in what is considered “good” literature is pretty minimal. Still haven’t gotten past the third page of “Ulysses” or the second page of “War and Peace“, but I’ve read every novel John D. MacDonald ever wrote. Twice.
What this has to do with writing is obvious — a lot of compulsive readers turn to writing sooner or later. Sometimes it’s as simple as “gee, I can do that,” sometimes it’s more along the lines of “well, I could do better than that with one hand tied behind me,” and sometimes it’s just that one thinks one is going to run out of reading material unless one creates one’s own. In my case, I suppose it was a combination of all three, mostly the first and the third. Although another impetus was all the non-fiction writing I’ve done in schools over the years. (It used to be my boast that I could do a 30-page research paper, with quotes, footnotes, and a coherent narrative, from a standing start in a little over 24 hours, using only materials I could find in a two-hour search in the library. And that was before Wikipedia, of course!) And after working for lawyers, legalese simply pours from my fingers onto the screen without in any way engaging my brain (or anybody else’s, undoubtedly). So words on a page is easy.
What isn’t easy is words on a page that make sense, lead somewhere, create interesting characters doing interesting things for interesting reasons, that have a point and that keep people reading not because it’s just Gail maundering on again, but because the narrative is so compelling. That’s hard. And unlike some blessed writers (whom I’m sure have their own difficulties), in order to approximate this I must rewrite and not just once or twice and not just to catch typos. I must plan and outline, I must know where my hero is going before she does (or he), or she’ll never get there. So sometimes looking at a blank screen makes me think about all the reasons for not writing.
Some of them are outside the writing process itself. There is absolutely nothing like being faced with writing work to do to make cleaning the oven or sorting the pantry or doing the laundry intensely attractive — and this for a person whose primary claim to domesticity is that I was born here (that’s a quote, by the way, from my writing partner and friend Sharon Goldstein). I have even gone so far in times past to avoid writing that I would more or less come to and discover that the silver was newly polished and that everything in the Welsh dresser had been washed. Now this is world-class writing avoidance.
But there are more insidious methods to avoid writing, methods that take place while you are supposedly actually writing, but you’re actually not. The best and most defensible way to do this is to “edit.” This means going over past work to “edit” or “copyedit” or “improve” it. It means placing commas, putting brackets around things to deal with later, rewording sentences that aren’t quite just exactly right, going back and removing the editing you’ve just done. Every writer, even the occasional writer of a presentation or a school paper, will recognize these ploys and many others. You can spend several hours “not writing” in this fashion and still feel like you’ve accomplished something.
Another favorite ploy, which works especially well when you haven’t yet written down a word of your great American novel, is “research.” If you do it right, you can make “research” substitute for actual writing for weeks at a time. After all, if you’re going to write a book about, say, the Arapahoe tribe’s use of Estes Park as a summer hunting ground, why, then, you’ll have to make a pilgrimage to the Estes Park Historical Museum, to the Estes Park Public Library, and then, just to be thorough, you should undoubtedly hike in the areas where the Arapahoe roamed, as it were. Of course, for those of us like, uh, me, who live in Estes Park, “research” would be better writing avoidance if it were undertaken in some other spot, such as, say, Rome or Paris, or London. Which is probably why I, for one, have a tendency to write about Rome or Paris or London (especially London).
Another means of not writing is to plan and outline and then tinker with the plan and the outline. I find that I can do this for, too, for weeks at a time. And if, later, as usually happens, my outline falls apart under the weight of the words in a row I finally, all excuses exhausted, get down to writing, then obviously I have to redo the outline. This dance can take care of actual months of writing time.
But the final writing avoidance takes place during the period I laughingly call “rewrite” during which I realize nothing I’ve written except odd bits of dialogue would interest anybody, even somebody in solitary confinement given only my book to read for the rest of his or her incarceration; when I realize that every bit of it has to be redone from scratch. This is depressing, of course. (It also is not objectively true — any writer contemplating their own work bounces inexorably from “this is the best thing I’ve ever written” to “this is the worst piece of something or other (words to be supplied by reader) that has ever been written by anybody.” There is no middle ground, by the way.) But the depressing part of it is true, and usually leads to putting away the novel for a while, which is the ultimate writing avoidance.
I’m not doing that at this moment, I’m merely trying to get a running start on this blog, so my not reading through and making notes on the latest draft of “World Enough and Time”, written by Sharon and me, with an absolutely vital plot assist from Joe Bays, Sharon’s husband, is defensible for about the next, perhaps fifteen minutes before I’d better get down to it.
Two more random thoughts on writing for today: One, that the Brightweavings website kept for Guy Gavriel Kay often has posts by the author that are quite illuminating about the process of writing and what the writer’s life is like (he also writes really good alternative universe fiction). I recommend the site for all readers and writers.
And, finally, one of the great accessories a writer should have are pets, in my case and I recommend them, cats. Not only are they accustomed to strange behavior on the part of their humans, they are wonderful means of writing avoidance in themselves. Here are pictures of my two: