Being a “Real” Writer

comic frame from Hyperbole and a Half depicts a girl typing happily on her computer at 3:17 am
Eerily accurate portrait of myself at this moment.

Ok, so sometimes I’m late to the party.  I just came across this two month old post at Hyperbole and a Half, which hilariously depicts what happens when we try to get our lives together and act like “real adults” (cleaning the house, buying real groceries, going to the bank, etc.), take on way too many responsibilities, start to slip a bit, plummet into a guilt spiral, and wind up indulging in shameful, non-adult habits like surfing the internet at all hours of the night (ahem).

This is a cycle I also tend to go through with my writing.  I’ll have a backlog of projects (blog posts, prospective articles, dissertation chapters, etc.) that I haven’t been able to finish, so I start setting schedules.  Actually, what usually happens first is that I read something like this and feel terrible that I’m not churning out a certain number of pages or staring at a Word document a certain number of hours of the day.  Writing advice columns are toxic for me.  No matter how benign and common sensical that advice might be, my brain interprets it like this:  “There are people out there writing so much more than I am.  I WILL NEVER BE A SERIOUS WRITER OR ACADEMIC OR EVER HAVE A REAL JOB OR BE ABLE TO FEED MYSELF UNTIL I GET MY SHIT TOGETHER!!!1!1!1!!1111 My therapist and I are trying to sort out why this is.

So I then start making promises to myself about how I am going to rise much earlier than my body would like and begin WORKING in all capital letters just like that.  I will get wildly optimistic about what I can accomplish and even–because why?  I’m not sure–start bragging about my ambitious schedule to my advisors:  “Oh yeah, I’m going to have a draft of that chapter I still have to read 20 books for by the end of the month!”  God bless these people.  They seem to know that it’s delusion but indulge me anyway.  So yeah, I’ll plug away at my writing for several hours a day for a few days.  I’ll read and take notes on stuff.  I’ll organize my bibliography and format the margins.  Then eventually I’ll realize that the actual text isn’t really going anywhere and I’ll start to panic.  I realize that my self-imposed deadlines, which were ridiculous to begin with, are going to be blown.   Then I start falling asleep at my computer because my circadian rhythms are all screwed up.  So I sort of say “eff it” and start distracting myself with West Wing reruns.

Eventually, the chapters do get done, but it never EVER looks like the advice dispensed in those writing advice columns.  I always spin my wheels like for weeks on end working in fits and spurts with the best of intentions until I discover the Alpha and Omega of ideas, the idea that unlocks the whole goddamn problem.  Then I’ll spend two to three weeks in a kind of writing fugue state, churning out massive chunks of prose in record time, working 7-8 hours a day and forgetting to eat, waking up in the middle of the night to write some more.  During these periods, I don’t need “motivation.”  I need chemical sedatives.  Last April, an epiphany struck while I was casually reading on my way home from a conference and nearly had a panic attack when I was asked to please turn off my electronic device.  Then I’ll emerge from this process exhausted and worn out.  I’ll send that project off to someone for feedback and then indulge in some World of Warcraft or Spider Solitaire or whatever, since my brain is by that point a wrung out piece of mush.  Then I’ll start that process all over again (it’s conveniently timed for maximum productivity in the months of November/December and April/May, so at least it’s attuned to the academic calendar).

Part of me sort of hates this.  I wish I wrote more like writing advice columns told me to.  I wish I were able to keep a meticulous writing log or commit to writing between the hours of 8 and 12 for more than a few days at a time.  I like to think that I would be even more productive if I did, but it’s not working out, at least not yet.

Part of me also wonders if those bits of advice so ceremoniously handed down are, in fact, little fictions in and of themselves.  Perhaps, instead of the sort of “here’s how I write and how you should too because I get columns published in The Chronicle of Higher Education,” Moses atop the mountain, handing you the keys to the kingdom wisdom nuggets I imagine them to be, they are in fact stories about how the author would like to write.  Perhaps they document how they think other people write, the inflated expectations they impose upon themselves after selectively watching their successful colleagues only during their best, most productive moments.  Or, you know, maybe I just need therapy.

I’m considering the notion of embracing my own process and making it work rather than trying to adopt someone else’s.  That’s a little bit scary, because I have issues with self-trust.  I would start with acknowledging that there is something sort of valid about the way I do things, that I do, in fact, get writing done and that the end product (once that first draft produced during the fugue state rests for a little while and gets a thorough revision or six over the course of the next few months) tends to be good.  All I would like to do is speed it up a little bit.  So instead of shaming myself for being one of those people who requires a moment of divine revelation in order to really get a project going, I can study the conditions under which those epiphanies occur.  They happen when I’m reading, actually.  So I need to read and read widely, even stuff that doesn’t seem to be 100% relevant.  They also happen when I’m not feeling harried and exhausted, so I need to create the conditions for calm to the best of my ability.  And yeah, sometimes that will mean a West Wing episode or two.

But accepting my own process also means setting aside my fantasies about how other, more successful writers do things.  The truth is, it probably isn’t as neat as it looks on the surface.  And it’s worth noting  that I’ve never actually looked at the name of the author of one of these columns and said, “Oh yeah, he wrote that groundbreaking article on the theory of blahdy blah blah blah.”  The world isn’t made up of just good writers and bad writers, successful writers and unsuccessful ones.  Most of us are just writers, puttering along, trying to figure shit out on our own terms, sometimes doing well at it and sometimes doing less well.

It’s the same with being a “real adult.”  Most other people over the age of 22 aren’t doing it nearly as well as you imagine they are.  I’ve long been insecure about not having a “real job” yet, a real job being defined by me as an arrangement in which you show up at a workplace at predefined hours and perform Work (whatever that may be).  Then my sister told me about her “real job” at a major accounting firm, where she sometimes did client work (sometimes late into the night) but also spent an awful lot of time reading ESPN.com.  She now has her own accounting business and recently told me that she does her most boring work on a dual monitor setup so that she can watch Glee on another screen.  She makes a  lot more money than me, too.  My other sister, who works the night shift on the reservations line for a major luxury hotel chain also surfs the internet between calls and is encouraged to bring a book to read to help stay awake.  In other words, I have learned that a big part of having a “real job” is showing up, performing the work that needs to be done but also just being there in case work needs to be done even if what you’re doing at any given moment looks decidedly not like work.

So yeah, I’ll own it.  I’m on fellowship, and my job looks an awful lot like vacation, especially to my father in law (therapy!).  But I can “show up.”  I can create the conditions that are likely to produce good writing.  I can learn more about how I write and potentially turn that knowledge into higher productivity.  And the thing is:  no one’s watching, not my parents, not the people who dispense trophies for being a “real writer/adult,” not the people who write the advice columns, and not even my advisors.  As long as the diss eventually gets done, who really gives a crap how it happened?

Image credit:  Allie Brosh

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8 thoughts on “Being a “Real” Writer

  1. I experience the same writing pattern, as well as everyday life pattern – I’ve been showing that Hyperbole and a Half comic to everyone I know because it so perfectly describes me. I also love Spider Solitaire. Coincidence? I think not!

  2. Thank you for saying it out loud! I have long suspected that because of the enormous pressure to be the mature, 9-5 writer, that many people who say they keep that schedule are stretching the truth a bit. I write quite a bit, but no where near the ideal amount that comes up in most of the “how to be a better writer” articles. If I get in 1000 words a day, I consider it a good day. It makes sense that every writer would have a different way of working, anyway. So, I hope you’ve found yours, and good luck with your writing.

  3. You are not alone! Embrace your own writing process and what feels natural to you. You’ll be much happier, and your writing will feel more effortless.

  4. Great post. Some days I’m just not “on” and it takes me ages to write or edit anything. I also work as a professional copywriter so I DO spend all day staring at word documents. I find that I’m only good for 5 hours of writing at a maximum per day, my remaining 3 1/2 hours need to be spend editing and researching, or my brain just stops.

    I find planning out my day helps, and giving myself ample time to complete a project. Also I find it helpful to frequently change tasks, breaking bigger projects down into sizeable chunks.

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