No, really. If you put me on the spot and say “WRITE SOMETHING!”, I’ll completely freeze up. “Okay, write something about goats!” …goats…? Umm. I got nothing. I’m not a big Mountain Goats fan. LJ had a goat for a mascot. Aaand…that’s about it. “It’s not that hard! Write a story about a goat!” Doing what? “I don’t know! Make something up! You’re the writer!” Umm…
Yeah, from that transcript, it sounds like I just don’t have much of a thought process at all. It sounds like my brain just can’t get out of first gear.
On the contrary, my brain is most likely going:
Okay, goats. Goats. Mountains? Which mountain? Any mountain in the US, or one in Siberia? Which country is it that we usually see mountain goats on those BBC nature shows? Okay, a story about a goat that’s filmed by Attenborough’s team. No, that’s stupid. A goat that befriends the team? Meh. Too hokey. No, let’s back it up. The Pet Goat. NO! No no no. Not gonna go there. What the hell should I write about a goat? Why goats, anyway? I don’t have any interest in goats. Well, goat’s milk cheese is pretty tasty…that reminds me, we need to do our food shopping this weekend. I need to get that, and some more cereal — wait. Where was I? Goats. Man, I can’t think of anything.
This is why I’m not much of a person to write via a suggested prompt. I tend to overthink the exercise. It’s not that I can’t write like that, it’s that my default setting is usually long-form story. It’s why I’ve never really tried writing short stories in the past. It’s also why I know I’d never be a reporter on assignment. It’s not my default setting.
That said, however…
This is one of the reasons why I’ve resurrected the daily practice words. I’m trying to break out of that habit of thinking oh god I have to write 750 words about something and my brain is blank. I don’t know what the hell to write about. Or more to the point: I’ve already written about X, Y and Z. I’m sick of writing the same damn thing over and over again. I want to write something different but I DON’T KNOW–
You know, this is why I need to tell myself to STFU every now and again.
But seriously, I’m doing my best to break my bad writing habits. Instead of blanking out or freezing up, I’ll just write a random passage of conversation, just to see where it goes. It’s one of my favorite exercises, actually: writing a passage that tells a story or part of a story, using only dialogue. No prose, no ‘he said’, ‘she exclaimed’, no descriptive action. I force myself to write as if it’s two people on a blank stage, interacting purely through voice. And in the process, it makes me rethink how to approach my writing.
It’s good that I know what my bad habits are, that way I can do something about getting rid of them.
The inspiration behind the stories, ideas, settings and characters of the Mendaihu Universe have come from all kinds of places over the years. I’ve talked about quite a few of them on various blogs as well. I’ve mentioned the albums I listened to, the movies and the books and the TV shows and and and… There’s been a lot that I’ve read and enjoyed that inspired me to write these stories. I made a semi-official list sometime around around late 2002 that included all of these. Maybe one of these days I’ll update it and paste it here on the blog, just for fun.
So where does this inspiration come from, anyway? Well, my first rule of being inspired by something has always been if it causes me to drop everything and run to the computer to start typing. If I finish reading a book or watching a TV show or a film and my first reaction is a creative excitement, if it’s made me notice the writing and the production in a good way…then it’s done its job, and done it well.
[Good recent examples: the always level-headed Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War, no matter what mood he may be in; the deliberate pacing of the movie adaptation of The Martian, the one-person cast of driving ninety percent of Gravity; the movements of a large cast in Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves.]
I always cite music as an inspiration, though that tends to be more on a molecular level, as it were. Certain songs will inspire the mood of a specific scene; some albums will be my go-to’s for writing sessions (one recent release getting heavy rotation here is Shearwater’s Jet Plane and Oxbow). I may occasionally hear a song and imagine a scene not yet written; with those I’ll either make brief notes or I’ll listen to the song a few more times and think about whether it’ll fit in the project I’m working on.
I like to keep my eyes and ears open for these sorts of things. I’m not one to read or see something and think I want to write THAT! Mainly because I know by the time I finish it, it’ll no longer be in season. It’s more on a creative level; if I’m amazed by the writer’s dexterity in weaving a complicated plot, or their ability to look at a well-used storyline from a completely different angle, that’s what will inspire me to take the same route.
I suppose it all boils down to: how did the creator get his or her creation stuck in my mind? It has to be more than flashbangs and shock-and-awe and disturbing scenery; there’s a time and place for all of that, but it’s nothing I can or should completely rely on. It has to be the whole as well as its elements; the artistry as well as the work.
I think it’s time I readjusted my attitude about my day-to-day. It needs it.
I know many writers who write part-time — that is, they balance their writing time with their current day job and/or parenting duties. It can be a frustrating attempt at balance, especially when your Day Job Brain functions much differently from your Writing Brain. I play with numbers and emails all day, and I’m extremely well versed in business-speak. That job entails a lot of logical, linear thinking. Nine times out of ten, point A and point B should lead to point C. [That tenth time is the exception setup, what I often refer to as “it goes like this…except when it doesn’t.”] It’s not exactly a tough job — okay, it is in its own way, but I’ve been at it for seven-plus years and I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t let it stress me out all that much anymore.
My writing, on the other hand, includes a lot of nonlinear plotting, multiple points of view (not just in narration but in character personality), and a lot of leaps of faith, in hopes that it’ll all make sense at the end. It’s the dreamland I always look forward to, where I can play with words and images, make up fantastical things, and tell fun stories.
Just as logical, but completely different frames of mind. I’ve been doing both for so long I can easily switch between the two when need be.
Lately I’ve been in a rut, however. By the time 4pm rolls around and I log off, I just want the day to be done already.
Okay, maybe the situation’s not quite that dire…but after eight hours of the Day Job, sometimes the last thing I want to do is work on something else. I want to be lazy and goof off! I don’t even want to go out at night…I just want to sit around and whittle the time away. Thankfully my ingrained guilt receptors kick in soon enough and I get to slog away for a few more hours doing whatever it is I need to do creatively.
How did I get this way? And don’t tell me “you’re getting old.” I may have just recently turned 44, but I’ll be damned if age is going to be an excuse for being a lazy bum.
I started thinking…what was it that got me excited about writing previously, anyway? Or excited about going out to do something?
As always, I thought back to a time where I was truly excited about my writing time. I thought about my Yankee Candle days — I had a half-hour commute each way, I moved hundreds of boxes all day long, and yet I still managed to make a weekly habit out of doing a comic book and new cd run in Amherst. I was also able to spend two solid hours writing at least a thousand words every night. My personal best in terms of word count that I’ve been trying to reach for ever since.* Or my days at HMV, where I’d drive 50 miles to the mall I work at, slog through the day, drive 50 miles back home (or the 70 miles to Amherst for the occasional comic book run, then an additional 30 back home!)…but still balance that with the hour before work writing longhand, and the hour or so at home, transcribing to the computer.
Point being: I know I can do it. There’s no doubt about that.
So why am I complaining that I can’t, or don’t want to? It’s not as if I’m particularly exhausted, mentally or physically, or can’t stand the project I’m currently working on.
I mean, I’ll be heading over to Amoeba over on Haight tonight to see The Church, one of my favorite bands, play an in-store show. The store is only a few miles away, and I’ll probably be home before 8pm anyway. And yet, why do I feel lazy enough to want to come up with an excuse for not going? I mean, come on. It’s the freakin’ CHURCH, for pete’s sake! They only sing my favorite song ever! Why the hell am I feeling so damned lazy??
Finally it dawned on me, just today: I was looking at this current schedule from the wrong angle.
I work at home, so it’s not as if I have to deal with a commute; I wake up at 6am, have breakfast, read some webcomics and catch up on the Twitter feed, and log on at 7:30. I take two fifteen minute breaks and a half hour lunch. I log off at 4pm and we head over to the YMCA soon after to get our exercise. Dinner is usually around 5:30-ish and I’m writing by 6:30pm, all the way to about 8pm. I get my daily words and my project words done at that time…and if the work day is particularly slow, I sneak in some personal writing, such as this particular blog entry. The day’s packed to a reasonable degree, but I’m not draining myself in the process.
All the same, I’ve been suffering from a terrible case of the Don’t Wanna’s.
And that’s the issue right there! It’s not the schedule or the work/writing balance that needs fixing: it’s my attitude.
So I submit this: let’s return to my YC-era work mindset — my day job is my paycheck, but my writing is my career. But don’t forget to have fun as well.
I’ll still dedicate the same time and brain power to the day job, of course. But let’s also look forward to logging off at the end of the day.
Let’s remind ourselves throughout the work day that, once I’m off the clock, it’s time to go and have some fun! Let’s look forward to walking around the neighborhood after work. Let’s look forward to playing in that imagined world for a few hours. Let’s look forward to having fun with what I love doing the most.
It’s not about trying to do everything at once. It’s simply a change of attitude. Look forward to life. Look forward to that bit of entertainment. Look forward to that writing time at the end of the day, because you know and I know it’s a hell of a lot of fun, even when it does get frustrating.
Chances are, the payoff will be worth it.
* Mind you, I’m not trying to force a thousand words on a nightly basis, because it depends on the project. I’m working on Walk in Silence but not logging any new words because most of the work has been what I call ‘framing’ the flow of the book. My sort-of daily 750 Words have been consistently over 750 and flowing quickly, so I can safely say I’m counting the words where they really do count.