Kate Flora, here: A Maine writer attending the New England Crime Bake conference a week ago observed that she appreciated what we are writing at Maine Crime Writers because there is often useful advice for other writers. Since one of the goals of the Crime Bake is to create community among crime writers, her remark reminded me of this old column I wrote about writer’s block and keeping up our spirits when our publishing goals always seem too far away and what we’re writing feels like gravel.
We’re coming into the dark season now, and when the days are short and the weather gets nasty, it’s hard to keep our spirits up. So here are some thoughts as we all embark on winter.
Everything I write lately does feel like gravel and as I’m embarking on a new Joe Burgess book, it seems like I have no new or fresh ideas. After a chat with my artist friend, Pete, about how my spirits won’t lift and I’m getting very little writing done, I decided to look up writers and morale on the internet, and see what wisdom was out there. My first hit immediately lifted my spirits. I found this, from the UVic student writing guide:
As a noun, a moral is what you get at the end of a fairy tale.
As an adjective, moral means “righteous” or “ethical.” It is an example of an abstract word which can be abused.
Morale measures the level of your spiritual happiness, usually when you are at war or playing sports.
When I stopped smiling, I started to wonder: when I am writing, and my “spiritual happiness” seems to be a low ebb, it this war or sports? Some days it sure feels like war, like a perpetual battle of the writer against the editor, the agent, the bookseller, the other writers whose books are being chosen or purchased or lauded, and the tiresome postman who keeps bringing bad news or no news and rarely a check.
Other days, it seems like a sport, especially when I’ve scored a goal, or the equivalent of a goal in the writer’s arena of worldly success. Those goals are hard won, though, and they don’t come very often. The fact is that this is a hard business. Not as hard as being a cop or an emergency room physician, but hard. To get the work done, we must be solitary for long periods of time, and we have to be our own bosses. We are the ones who have to set our own schedules, keep ourselves in our chairs, and meet our deadlines. Often, we even have to create our own deadlines.
Sometimes, the rewards seem too fleeting compared to the time we spend working toward them. And for the aspiring writer, the beginner, there is often little more than faith in their own ability to sustain them. I’ve been sitting here today thinking about some of the writers I know who have struggled for years to achieve publication. Some of them, some really talented writers, have finally gotten discouraged and given up.
When I hear that another writer is feeling despair, I always wish I had more wisdom, after thirty years at
this, to share. More time and generosity to sit and listen, to pay attention, to notice when people I care about are looking pinched and broken. And I wonder if other writers have better answers to the question: What should we be doing for each other? How can we help each other remember that we’re writers because we love words, and using our imaginations, and telling stories. And that we don’t stop being writers because someone didn’t love our latest story or we got a rejection letter in the mail, or something we thought was done needs to be rewritten.
As I’ve said all along–if you want to be a writer, you have to have the hide of an alligator. And you have to believe in yourself because no one else cares as much as you do. You have to believe in your right to write. You have to protect your writing time for everything that would steal it. You have to find your joy in the relationship between your mind and the page. In the now and now instead of what may lie ahead.
My friend Pete closed the conversation by suggesting that when it’s all discouraging, he seeks renewed inspiration by going to a museum and looking at paintings by great artists. Maybe, he suggests, I should read a really good book. And I happen to have one right here. So when my Blogging “homework” is done, I’m going to reread Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, and study her storytelling and how she reveals her characters. And tomorrow, I know, will be better.
Something else I found while I was looking up writers and morale. On a site called Geist.com, I found a writing exercise labeled: Morale Exercise: Real Writers . . .
So next time you have a discouraged day, write this down: “Real writers …” and free write from this for 10 minutes.
Real writers drink bourbon, believe in rewrite, and try to use words more creative than those labeled by my mother as “ordinary swears.” This sometimes leads to some peculiar questions, as I try to improve my vocabulary. Real writers watch the world around them and wonder about it. Real writers listen in on other people’s conversations and pay attention. Real writers blow off the laundry and eat cold pizza because their characters are doing things they need to attend to. Real writers are willing to admit, even when they’re stuck in the unpublished writer’s corner, that they are writers, because on the good days, being a real writer is magical.
Well, gentle reader, who knows where this exercise will put you ten minutes later? Thanks for listening.