Monday, February 11, 2008

The War of Art (Book #14)

I have yet to sell a book, but I've finished three manuscripts and am almost 50,000 words into a fourth. When I'm in the zone and in drafting mode, I can turn out 80 pages or more a month despite working full time, having a 3-year-old child, and only being able to squeeze an hour or so per day out of the calendar to write.

If it sounds like I'm bragging, I kind of am. This is what I want to do, more than anything. (Well, more than anything I want to start SELLING those manuscripts, but you know what I mean.) So I've fought pitched battles with my own laziness, procrastination, and fear of both success and failure and trained myself to sit down, day in and day out, whether I'm feeling all creative and inspired or not, and put words on the page. And there are few tougher adversaries than laziness, procrastination, and fear. Steven Pressfield labels them Resistance, and his book, The War of Art (2003), is about defeating it.

For the most part, I found the book an inspiring reminder of lessons already learned. I like his focus on professionalism, i.e. doing the work whether you're in the mood or not. Wait for the Muse, and she'll ignore you. Start writing without the Muse, and she'll eventually come to bless you. Pressfield quotes Somerset Maugham: "I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp." I heard the same basic idea from Bernard Cornwell at a writers' conference, and it's stayed with me. He says there's no such thing as writer's block, and the day a nurse can call her hospital and say she can't come in to work because she has nurse's block and have that accepted as a valid excuse is the day we have a right to put on diva airs and not write simply because we're stuck or aren't in the mood.

Anyway, I'm with Pressfield when he talks about overcoming Resistance and writing like a pro even when you're not getting paid for your work yet. But he loses me when he starts getting all visionary and mystic about the Source of creativity, and how the ideas are Out There and we're just the channels. Um, no. Way too New Age and woo-woo for me. I get my share of blinding epiphanies and "aha!" moments, but it's my own brain that's doing it. I can get plenty of joy and even sense of the numinous out of being a storyteller, another link in a long chain going back to the bards of old and even to grandmothers and grandfathers around the fires in Paleolithic caves, without believing I'm nothing more than a channel for the muse.


Elena Greene said...

I like this book too. I can deal with the second part because I don't really mind if people call it angels, girls in the basement or the subconscious mind. It's enough that there's a mysterious place some of the best ideas come from and that there are ways to connect to it, whatever it is.

I don't agree that there's no such thing as writer's block but I think I understand the underlying sentiment: that writer's block shouldn't be an excuse to stop trying to work on a regular schedule.

But sometimes even if I am diligent and persistent, the ideas still don't flow. At that point I know I need to journal or go for a walk, something to get my subconscious mind cooperating again. And then get back to work, of course.

Susan Wilbanks said...

I don't have any problem with other people being mystical about where their ideas come from, it's just that I felt Pressfield was being a bit too dogmatic about his mysticism--that if I didn't buy into his "ideas are out there, we just tap into the great universal well" concept, I was either too proud and self-sufficient or not really artistic/creative.

Which might just be my own issues showing up. I've never been that comfortable with more mystical approaches to spirituality and/or life, so when I feel like someone is pushing it onto me, I push back hard.

The great value for me in deciding that there's no such thing as writer's block is that now when I get stuck, I don't think, "Oh, well, I'm blocked. I can't write until inspiration comes back." Instead, I think, "Well, what's the problem? WHY don't I want to write today?" And if I'm just tired or having a bad day, I'll tell myself, "Just one page, and you can quit." As often as not, the act of writing breaks up the block and I write my normal daily quota. And if I literally can't think of what to say next, I actively try to figure out why I'm stuck and how to get unstuck. E.g. yesterday instead of writing I spent an hour brainstorming with a CP, then wrote up notes on what needs to happen in my next 150 pages or so. Which unfortunately entails completely rewriting the previous 50 pages.

The other thing about the "nurse's block" analogy that helps me is that maybe nurse's can't call in with nurse's block, but they do get sick leave, bereavement leave, and vacation time. So I can forgive myself for falling badly behind over the past two weeks, because having the flu is a perfectly valid reason to miss work of any kind.

Elena Greene said...

It sounds like you've figured out what does and doesn't work for you. I think that's so important.

To me the nurse analogy is helpful but I think it does break down eventually (as all analogies do).
The thing is I can perform tasks that require only the conscious mind/logic brain/whatever at any time with the same efficiency. But with the writing I can only go so far without cooperation from the subconscious, which is more vulnerable to things like rejections, reviews, unsupportive loved ones. Daily butt-in-chair can take care of that "don't feel like writing today" block but may not be enough for bigger issues. In fact, I've found that prolonged butt-in-chair when I'm really struggling can make things worse. That's when things like journaling, meditation, exercise, etc... can be helpful.

An analogy I like is with athletes who suffer injuries or lose confidence. Practice alone won't fix such problems; they might need to do some physical therapy or change their training methods.

I believe writer's block does exist though not all writers suffer from the more acute form. But it's a condition that can and should be treated, not an excuse to stop working.

Anyway, I hope you feel better soon! My kids and I are in our 3rd week of sinus horrors so I know how exhausting that is.

Danielle said...

I can turn out 80 pages or more a month despite working full time, having a 3-year-old child, and only being able to squeeze an hour or so per day out of the calendar to write

This makes me so envious. ::sigh::
I was never that prolific, but I wrote steadily -- until I started the Crazy New Job last summer. I haven't written more than dribs and drabs since.

I don't know whether I need hairpats or butt-kicking, but I need *something* to get me back on track.