by Elissa Schappell
I think it is marvelous when writers say, “I have no trouble writing! I never struggle!” “How wonderful!” I say. “Let me take your picture so I can display it all around the world in bookstores and libraries and bus shelters. Here is the one writer who does not struggle!”
Understand, if you are one of these writers, that some people will throw rotting fruit and vegetables at you, other people will pray to you as a God, and some—I am among them—will smile and nod politely knowing that what you are doing, my happy hobbyist, isn’t really writing, it is typing.
Thomas Mann put it best when he said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Writing is difficult, and it should be difficult, because anything in this life that is really worth doing is going to be difficult. And if you are really pushing yourself—if you are exploring those dark places where your most potent material lives—you should be a little scared.
The question is, how to get past that fear? How do we out-fox the forces of resistance?
I expect that a room of full of writers can understand how it is that I never wrote a story that bore any resemblance at all to my real life until I was in my twenties. Why in the world would anyone care about the life I’d lived? I’d never gone to war, shot a bear, or worked as a secret agent. It was hard for me—an upper-middle class white girl growing up in the suburbs—to take my life and my material seriously when the culture at large, for the most part, didn’t.
I don’t expect you to understand how I could not have finished writing all the stories in my first book until it was already in the catalogue. What can I say, I struggle.
The fact is, it’s not that hard to write about stuff you don’t feel attached to. As in any kind of relationship, the stakes are very low when you are not invested on an emotional level. There is safety in that, of course. The chances of you getting hurt are a lot less. After all, you can say, this work doesn’t really represent who I am. Trust me, when I really care about a subject, I write like an angel.
If you are cool with that, that’s great, but it’s not for me. As a reader I want to feel that the writer has some skin in the game. I have no interest in writing that doesn’t bear the mark of the writer’s bloody fingerprints. The writer’s blood, no one else’s. I want to feel that the writer has given up something of themselves. If they haven’t, why should I waste my time? Let alone my hard-earned cash.
* * *
Here is the good news about being a writer: No matter whether you’re using pen or pencil or the computer, scratching in the sand with a stick, or, like Robert Frost, writing on the bottom of your shoe on a train, you are not writing in cement. What you write is not going to be engraved on your tombstone or tattooed on your body unless you want it to be.
The good news is that, unlike working at Sea World, where every hour on the hour, in front of hundreds of people, you’d have to stand on the back of a killer whale while it jumps through hoops of fire, no one is watching you write.
The good news is when things go wrong, you won’t drown, or lose your bathing suit top, or set your hair on fire. No one is going to clap when it goes well (writing is a lonely business), but no one is going to boo when it goes poorly. Except for you. You are relentless. You will heckle and you will boo because that is what you do.
And more good news! Unlike performing with killer whales, which demands you work at a giant aquarium theme park, a writer can work anywhere!
So you’re thinking, Oh great, my words aren’t written in stone, I am all alone, and the only upside is that I’m not likely to drown, sustain third-degree burns, or piss off a killer whale. Oh, and I am also a self-sabotaging jerk.
Yes, but you knew all that already.
Here is the less good news: In order to practice your art, you don’t need much more than a pen or a pencil and some napkins or a stretch of sand; it’s hard to find an excuse not to do it. (See Mr. Frost. See also the filmstrip of a woman who lost both arms and so writes with a pen between her teeth.)
And the bad news? It comes from the famously unsparing Flannery O’Connor, who said, “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.”
What does that mean? It means in order to create art, your work must be deeply personal. I don’t mean autobiographical; what I mean is that your writing must be of you—from you. The material should be imprinted with your DNA. If your writing is not of you, of whom is it? Hemingway? Wallace? Woolf? Is that your goal? To be a cheap knock-off of a great artist? Do you really think you can out-Hemingway Hemingway? Sling footnotes faster and farther than David Foster Wallace? Dive deeper into the waves of human consciousness by mimicking Virginia Woolf?
No, you need to accept the gift, that messy, dirty, mysterious gift of your own experience and do something with it.
What readers are hungry for is what Richard Ford calls “new knowledge.” It is your job as a writer to come up with it. The only new knowledge you possess—the only material that is unique to you—that which no one else has, is your life.
When we write about that which only we could write about—when we use the material that only we have, what we have lived and, by virtue of living, earned the right to write about, when we are making that work—it is only then that our work takes on a quivering aliveness and only then because we have given it our life force.
* * *
Now, once you decide to start writing about what you care about most, you can expect some pushback from your subconscious. Okay, a lot of pushback. Steven Pressfield writes about resistance at length and with such clarity in his great book, The War of Art. Read him.
As he points out, your subconscious hates change. It will do everything it can to undermine, distract, and sabotage you just to preserve the status quo. Your subconscious is still listening to the Miami Sound Machine. Your subconscious can’t bring itself to throw out its leg warmers.
Why doesn’t your subconscious want you to write?
Because your subconscious knows writing is Hell unless it is Heaven and when it is Heaven it is a narcotic. In my experience—and to be fair I am a junkie—nothing, or very little, feels as fan-fuckingtastic as writing well. So the subconscious’s fear is not just that you’ll write, but that once you’ve gotten a taste of writing about stuff you feel profoundly attached to, you’ll get hooked on it. Mixing potent knowledge with emotional investment leads to danger.
Nice people do not seek danger. Don’t be nice. Don’t write what you think you should write, or the way you think you should write it. Be bad. Use all of that fantastic material your subconscious has declared hazardous to your health.
The subconscious knows firsthand how promising your material is because it’s the one that keeps pushing it into the basement with a stick every time it creeps up onto the page. Even so, while your subconscious is vigilant, powerful material has a powerful need to be used, and will slip itself into your work by whatever means necessary. Be prepared.
That story about the alien with the faulty tractor beam? That’s really a story about how your mother always loved your brother more than you. Powerful material wants to be rescued from the basement and brought out into the light where it can breathe.
Your subconscious just wants what is best for you, sweet pea. Play nice. Keep Your Hands Inside the Moving Vehicle. Spit out that sour ball or you’re liable to choke to death. Your subconscious knows writing puts you at risk. Taking a risk means risking failure.
Your subconscious isn’t evil; in fact it would say it just wants to protect you. It doesn’t want you to write because you may fail. Probably fail. Failure is terrifying. It was one thing for me to fail in writing about a sensitive albino boy with attached ear lobes who after failing to connect with his father climbs up a burning tree; it was something else to write about my rage at my father’s having cancer, watching a friend starve herself to the bone, my failure to love the right person.
And yet failure is an essential part of the artistic process. As Samuel Beckett so famously said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.” If Beckett gave a TED talk it would be called Fail Forward.
The truth is if you aren’t failing—spectacularly—you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. It is only through failing, bashing into walls, and tripping in rabbit holes that we find our story. The act of failing and not quitting but continuing to write is what makes you a writer. Those who respond to a donkey kick in the ego by deciding, I won’t make that mistake again! are not serious writers.
If I am being totally honest with you, I don’t care if you write or not. I really don’t. It’s fine with me if you quit. I surely don’t need the competition.
I know all too well how difficult some stories are to unlock and how paralyzing that can be. Remember I was the writer who was struggling to finish her book when it was already in the publisher’s catalogue! It is easy to get discouraged. Especially when your subconscious is hanging around ready to criticize your every move. How can you possibly break into a story when you’ve got a critic over your shoulder hissing, Are you kidding me? You? You’re a pinhead. Stop. Please. Quit it. This is embarrassing. You couldn’t write your way out of a wet paper bag. Your mother was right. You should have gone to dental school.
* * *
Bullying is only one weapon in your subconscious’s arsenal. In addition to the aggressive cut-you-off-at-the-knees intimidation it also deals in distraction and procrastination. It’s fine if you don’t write, your subconscious coos. You don’t have to write. Who could blame you? You’re tired. You’re busy. Look at your hair. You can write tomorrow. Today there are important matters to attend to. Look at this sock drawer! This is an abomination. How do you live with yourself? So you organize your sock drawer. Creatively. Stripes, polka dots, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John . . .
If nothing else, if your subconscious can’t stop you, it wants to rob you of the momentum needed to fully realize your idea. The subconscious knows when a story has weight and character, when it begins to breathe you are much less likely to abandon it.
Once you’ve finished the urgent task of arranging your sock drawer and maybe raking a comb through that hair, you might look up a book by Barry Michels called The Tools. Michels, a Jungian psychologist, has a theory that the reason we procrastinate is because no one is forcing us to write. There is no “external authority figure”—no parent, teacher, talk show host—wagging their finger in our faces and telling us that we must write. So what is the big deal if we put off writing until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? It’s not like anyone is going to hold us accountable. Well, actually . . . not so fast. There is an external authority figure we must answer to; it’s just not human. It’s the God Chronos. And every time the writer says, I’ll write tomorrow—certain in the fact that there will be a tomorrow—they are staking a claim to immortality.
Michels suggests this is “the ego’s way of claiming that it has all the time in the world.” As a 2011 New Yorker profile on Michels and Stutz put it, “writing, by extension, is a kind of death.”
For one who fears her mortality as much as I do, the irony of not making my work—the thing outside of committing the crime of the century that would go the furthest to secure immortality—is rich.
Michels’s cure for procrastination is very simple: Submit and surrender. Sit at your desk for a set amount of time every day and work, acknowledge that you are not immortal. You don’t in fact have all the time in the world. And in the time that you do have make the best work you possibly can.
So you didn’t write today. You can take pride in the fact that if they gave out prizes for artistically arranged sock drawers you’d definitely beat Jonathan Franzen. But so far they don’t give out prizes for tidy sock drawers, and really is that how you want to spend your time? Is that really how you want to whip Jonathan Franzen?
Of course, you are really busy, and tired, and yes, you can, probably, likely, hopefully write tomorrow, and yes your sock drawer is an abomination. However, when you get right down to it, if you’re like me—and I fear you are—whatever it is that you are doing instead of writing (or almost whatever I am doing) does not come close to feeling as amazing as writing well does.
Getting into the practice of writing is all that will keep you from prioritizing your sock drawer over your art. It’s the habit of writing that will save you from jumping overboard when you sail into the straits of confusion. Habit that will help you navigate the shoals of despair and save you from drowning in self-loathing.
The only way you can develop the habit of writing is by taking yourself seriously as a writer. You’re a smart person; why would you dedicate years of your life you could be spending playing tetherball, pushing your kid on the swings, learning Portuguese, watching Fellini movies, to writing, if you weren’t serious about it?
Understand that until you take your work seriously no one else will.
Not writing is an easy habit to pick up. Going to bed before 2:00 a.m., exercising regularly and not saying “I feel” when I mean “I think” are habits I’m struggling to get into. Not writing, no problem. Indeed, it gets easier and easier not to write the longer you don’t do it. In fact, scientific studies show that simply thinking about writing in a positive way can in and of itself create positive feeling of having written.
Soon you’re thinking, Wow, this not-writing thing is great. I have so much more time to arrange my sock drawer. Socks make me happy.
You know this feeling. The I’m-not-writing-and-that’s-fine feeling. I’m not writing, and everything is fine. Really I’m fine. Except nothing is fine. For me nothing is fine unless I’m writing. Writing is where I feel most alive. Where I feel like I am doing the thing I was made for. Writing is the one place I can tell the truth. The one place I can be a monster.
* * *
Back to the voice in your head—no let’s say heads—because really resistance is a hydra. You cut off one head and another grows in its place—the voices bullying you for your own good. The ones you have to quiet in order for you to suspend judgment long enough to make a draft. How do we silence the subconscious that has you almost convinced that you don’t have a story to tell, and even if you did have a story to tell no one would be interested in reading it, and even, in the very unlikely event that someone did want to read your story, you couldn’t write it.
You can’t write anything.
The most effective tactic I have found is to run. Run. Write fast. Put as much distance between you and your ego as you possibly can. Write as fast as you can, as hard as you can, for as long as you can, past the point of reason, out of the range of that hateful voice yelling, You’re a loser! You’re an idiot! Your hair looks stupid!
Write, don’t think. Stop trying to clever your way through the story. Stop trying to impress people. Don’t think. Write. Write from the part of you that isn’t a show off. That doesn’t lie. Write from your stomach. Your head is not to be trusted. Remember how it told you it was more important for you to rearrange your sock drawer than to write that story about the year your brother disappeared?
Your stomach knows the truth.
So put your head down and write into the danger. Write as fast and hard and for as long as it takes to get your pulse galloping, keep up with the speed of your heartbeat. When the voice yells, You don’t belong here this isn’t your territory!
Keep writing. I lived here, I ate at that table, I slept in that bed. I lived this life, I own it.
When it yells, You can’t say that!
Say it. Know this: it is your job to say the thing that no one wants to say and maybe it seems no one wants to hear, but we all know it is true and must be said whether any one wants to hear it or not. Trust that people do want to hear it and need to hear it, and you don’t need permission to write it.
Create new knowledge.
Now, if you believe your stomach when it tells you you’re onto something, why then don’t you write it?
Why? It could be a poverty of optimism. The misguided belief that you will never have such a promising idea again and thus you better save it. Or that the story is so powerful, the experience so raw, you don’t have enough perspective to see it clearly. You should wait ten years and then write the story.
This is not true. What comes to pass is that over time you change and your relationship to this idea changes. Days pass, years pass, and one day we discover that powerful material no longer has a hold on you. That brilliant spark you captured and began to fan into fire has died and what you’re left with is a pile of ash. You will never again be who are you today. For better or worse. So write it all down now before you change. Don’t worry about making sense, just make pages.
* * *
Now you’ve shut up your critic. You’re listening to your stomach and not your head. You’re optimistic. You’re writing fast and hard—or you would be if you could find the time. Sometimes it’s not resistance so much as the laws of universe—the spacetime continuum—that is keeping you from working.
How do you find the time to work when there is so little time? As the mother of two children I know how difficult it can be. Not simply because at the end of the day you haven’t made any money, or anything that someone else might value. All day you are putting out fires and thus writing is the easiest thing to let go. No one will even notice if you don’t write.
So what can be done? Begin by making your writing a job. A job requires you to show up at a set time and work for a set number of hours. Set up a time you can reasonably expect to work every day and do it. Once you show that you are serious about your work, you go to work regularly, you work set hours, others will be too.
Set yourself up to succeed. Don’t say you’ll write every day for three hours if you know you can’t. It’s important to set a reasonable goal, one you can meet, so you can begin to put some days together and recognize your success. Feeling successful—especially when the work itself may not be going as well as you’d like—is essential to getting you back to the chair to work. Isak Dinesen said she “wrote a little every day, without hope without despair.” Which seems very sane. It may feel small to you, but it’s enormous.
Taken one by one these obstacles to making art can seem silly, but the agents of resistance are real and impossible to conquer unless you reckon with them head on.
What you will find once you do, once you start making a habit of writing, of putting your butt in the chair and acknowledging you must work today because who knows if we get tomorrow, once you start gaining momentum, once you start writing with your stomach instead of your head, once you start to make peace with failure and stop judging your work before you’ve even finished, once you start making work that matters deeply to you, once you dare to take your writing life seriously—and accept that you will never love Miami Sound Machine again, or in the same way—then resistance will grow weaker. It will see that there is really no point in even trying to stop you from writing, it will get out of your way, and it will, finally, let you write the end of the book that is already in the catalogue. It will allow you to write the story you were meant to write.