EXT. SOUTHERN MAINE – DAY
Chris Holm briefly emerges from his writing bunker, pale and unshaven.
When the hell did it become summer?
More importantly, why aren’t you wearing any pants?
The life of a writer is strangely bifurcated. Half our time, the part most people see, is spent shilling our work. Tweeting, blogging, touring, signing, paneling. The other half, the important half, is spent writing. Without it, no amount of all that other stuff is worth a damn.
I’m in writing mode right now, trying to take advantage of the quiet before THE KILLING KIND comes out in September, and my life temporarily gets a whole lot crazier. (You should go preorder it; I hear it’s pretty good.) As of this writing, I’m about 46,000 words into the second Hendricks thriller. Those who’ve never written a novel-length work are probably thinking, “Wow! You’re more than halfway done!” Those who have, and know what a terrible slog the middle third invariably turns out to be, are shaking your heads and saying, “You poor bastard.”
I always think of the middle third as the book’s horse latitudes. Sails sag in the absence of a strong tailwind. Progress slows. Household projects begin to call my name. The shiny objects on the internet that clamor for my attention get a little shinier.
So, how do you combat it? (No, seriously: I’m asking.) In my case, with depression, alcohol, and bouts of crippling panic. (I kid. About the alcohol, at least. I’m getting too old to deal with hangovers.)
In truth, the way I deal is by carving out as much quiet time as I can for my subconscious to work the problem, and figure out the story. (Yes, I’m a pantser, but even when I outline, I find the story’s middle resists writing.) If I could meditate, I would, but every time I try I feel as if I should be doing other things. So instead, I go for a run. I take long walks through my neighborhood, sometimes hashing out plot points with my wife, sometimes not. I leave the radio off when I’m in the car. And most importantly, I step back from the internet a bit.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m as internet-addicted as they come, and I’m not advocating a total blackout. I tend to favor the Timothy Leary method: turn on, tune in, drop out. I still check my email. Still make my usual morning rounds (my Twitter feed, NPR, Portland Food Map, Boing Boing, Wired, Mental Floss… and Maine Crime Writers, of course.) But what I don’t do (or, at least, attempt to avoid) while I’m writing is engage. No Twitter conversations. No Facebook posts. No likes. No faves. No retweets. I find that, when my motivation and inspiration are low, the instant gratification of the internet is a dangerous thing. It scratches the creative itch, but leaves me nothing of any consequence to show for it. As Ben Gibbard, frontman for Death Cab for Cutie, put it in a terrific interview with the AV Club last year:
I just notice this trend among some musician friends of mine who are over-tweeters—they get writer’s block. “I haven’t written a record!” Because you’re burning all your creativity on witty observations about the Kardashians! Fuckin’ write a song! If you have any kind of narcissistic tendencies, and I think all creative people do to a certain extent—before these outlets, if you wanted to be in front of somebody, you had to go out into the world and share the thing you made and kind of get off on the adoration of a crowd. But now that crowd exists in your pocket. Whenever you’re feeling like you need that validation from people who already think you’re great, you can just go online and people are like, “You’re amazing!” It’s cut out the need for people to actually be out in the world sharing their creativity with a crowd, because the crowd is already there. If I can just go on my phone and make witty observations while I’m watching the Emmys, I don’t really need to finish that song that I was working on, because I already did some creative things today.
Gibbard’s observation hit a little closer to home for me than I would have liked, so I’ve tried to scale back on my social media interactions when I’m in writing mode. Instead, I watch. Listen. Absorb. And channel everything I want to say into my writing.
Or, as Robin Williams put it in The Birdcage…