Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Of Coffee and Chocolate

So I've got a story or two in me.
Ah, who am I kiddin? I've got hundreds. Dark comedies, actioneers, sci-fi and fantasies most especially. Shorts, novellas and maybe—just maybe—a novel or three as well. The words congeal into paragraphs like soldiers forming battalions and rage inside me like a turbulent sea. The floodgates tremble. The dam bulges. The levee is about to break. A literary flood is imminent, waiting to be inscribed laser-like onto my computer screen, held at bay by gritted teeth and sheer willpower.
I will sit down, crack my knuckles and simply let it all flow…
It's that easy, right? Right.
It's one thing to turn the reins over to the muse right after reading an awesome book, or seeing an adrenaline-jolting movie, or running with the bulls in Pamplona. Yeah, those mountain top experiences infuse you with energy and a sense of urgency to go out and show the world exactly what you're made of.
But what about those other 364 nights out of the year. You know, when the kids need help with homework and the yard needs mowing and your needy Jack Russell Terrier just won't quit depositing her slobber-coated tennis ball in your lap?
What keeps you going when you only have snippets of hours here and there and you are tired and beat down and are working on what seems like the 2999th day of writing your 3000 word short story and you are in danger of going into the negative on your one-word-a-day goal but all you really want to do is go eat a chocolate chip cookie and go to bed?
The deeper I get into this whole writing deal the more I realize that, sure, craft is necessary as is skill. Of course, some smattering of talent is a plus and the nuts and bolts of grammar and composition will likely come in handy. But discipline and focus are the glue that binds it all together. Not all of us have a cabin by the sea that we can sequester ourselves away in for months at a time, to emerge haggard and bleary eyed with a completed novel in hand.
We live in the real world and quite often, real life gets in the way. It's about a daily grind. Writing when you really don't feel like a writer. Pushing yourself like a marathon runner who is on the verge of collapse.
So, how do you do it? What tricks of the trade do you employ to distill something usable from those late nights?
It's all about coffee and chocolate…


Sarah Jensen said...

I try to treat it like a job. Of course, some days I'd get fired. Read too many blogs. :)
But I figure that their writing blogs, so that counts as work. Right?
I have to remind myself that real life is important and force myself away from the computer. I really love writing and the research and study it entails. So I guess for the most part, I have the opposite problem.
I'm learning to write while kids are at school and when they go to bed. But it's hard for me. That's my real challenge.
So I guess the grass isn't always greener.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Writing feels like a physical need for me, at this point. I'll blow off working on my novel for a day or two if real life is being whiny, and make do with short stories whenever I have half an hour to spare. But that's like replacing meals with crackers and Red Bull. I start feeling like I'll snap if I don't sit down and put some real effort into writing. At that point, the workplace asking for more shifts or the friend wanting to spend more time together will be firmly told no. It starts feeling really good to put aside three hours to get some plot-rich scenes done.

On the days where I have time but don't feel like it? Well, that's why my preferred workplace is a coffee shop!
"Come on," I tell myself, "We'll get a slice of cake to go with the coffee today, how's that?"
My lethargic mood immediately brightens and says, "Well, that sounds reasonable! But it better be chocolate."
So, yes, personal bribery is totally the way to go, I say. Whatever helps you enjoy the bad days!

Ms Kitty said...

I let my life take over for 10 years. Writing in spare moments at work, or while my DH sleeps.

These last few months have been just for me. I'm between jobs, and I want to finish this second novel while I try to sell novel #1.

I did have to make a compromise, I'll get my house work & chores done before I write. But after dark, it's all my time.

Some days I surf blogs while I'm having my coffee. But duty calls. Besides, sitting all day made me fat again. I need the exercise. I'll put the laptop on the island and stand typing in-between chores.

Having taken so much time to do other things, I think I'm ready to pursue this as a business. My age is against me, in all things but one: I've seen enough to have some great tales to tell.

Ink said...

Nice one, Book.

Talent only goes so far. Perseverence, determination, discipline... whatever you want to call it, you need some stick-to-it-ness to succeed in this writing game.

This actually takes me back to University, to one of the most important things I learned while getting my degrees in creative writing. It had nothing to do with the craft, and everything to do with the simple observation of my classmates, because not only did I get to see what they wrote, but I got to see how they wrote it. That is, I had a chance to see the work ethic of different writers. Watching these people I realized that not only was there a variance in the talent level but also in the writers' drive, in their willingness to put in the hours. And often the two traits didn't match up.

So I got to see lots of writers waste fine talents, while some of those with less talent ended up achieving more through diligence and careful learning. I didn't want to be one of those talented kids who fudged around, who sort of felt they'd write something great when they finally got around to it. Because once they got out of school life would get in the way, and without that drive, that need, the writing would fall away, sloughed off life some old skin. They'd be left with a story or two and a few anecdotes from their days as a "writer".

Now, maybe a few will hit their fortieth birthday and will again be zapped with the need to write, and maybe experience will give them the drive and discipline required to take up the game again in a serious way. I could see that happening for a few. But most... adios.

I didn't want that for me. So when I got to school for my Masters I was going to be talented and productive. I was going to write. A lot. And looking around I could sort of see those who would continue on and those who wouldn't. And this wasn't a random sample, either. If you're getting an MA in Creative Writing you have to have at least some talent and drive, at least a bit of serious intention. But still, you could see it. I was one of the two or three hardest workers. Of the other two, one was a brilliant student who would go on to get his Phd in hopes of being a Prof. I could see him not writing much fiction, if only because he'd be busy writing academic stuff. But I could see him writing, too, spinning out stories in his downtime. And the other, well, she probably would've been at the bottom of the talent pool when she first arrived at the school... but not at the end. She showed more improvement than anybody. She had the discipline. She wasn't afraid of the blank page.

The others... a few had talent and pretty good drive. I could see them still at it somewhere, plugging away. Some though... you knew it wasn't in the cards. Other things would get in the way. One poet merely wanted the letters beside his name. He nodded through every poem critique throughout the year and a half... and in his final submission the poems hand't been changed from the originals, not even a comma. He wasn't really interested in the craft, in learning anything, in getting better. Why push himself? He'd get what he wanted.

Seeing all this was important to me. It hammered home that it's not about your talent... it's about what you do with that talent. You have to make it work for you, and to do that you simply have to keep tapping those keys. Again and again and again...

As for what works? Well, maybe I'm old fashioned, but... will power. The want to write, to succeed, has to be stronger than the desire to stop in the face of obstacles. On those days when it's hard I make myself punch the keys. Because I know if I do I'll be rewarded, I'll find my way back into that secret and glittering room of Story. If I want to be a writer I have to write.

Now, having said that, I think habit helps. It helps, at least for me, to have a consistent place and time to write. The brain comes to expect the writing, and so it's easier to fulfill that need. And I also think it's nice to have a bit of a writing community around you, either in person or online. Not necessary... but I like being able to talk about what I do, and hear about what others are doing. A bit of comradeship certainly doesn't hurt the writing process, or so I've found.

Ellsea said...

I have a quote pinned to my wall. It reads "Great works are performed not by strength, but be perseverance".

That, and a clear visualisation of where I want to be, keeps me going, even though currently I can't start writing until the evenings when all the children are in bed - I get 3 hours a night, maybe more if I can tolerate exhaustion the next day.