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“Not Writing and Breaking in Big Time”

Not Writing and Breaking in Big Time

Cynthia’s Column December 2009

In this case these two concepts are not related.  But read through to the end and I will tell you one of our biggest local Cinderella stories ever.

You may know my definition of a writer.  Anyone who feels bad about not writing.  Some writers don’t write for years and suffer through them.  Non-writers actually never give it a thought.  Really.  It doesn’t even cross their minds to feel bad about not writing.  So, for us writers, what about those times when we are not writing?

These times are not all alike.  They fall into distinct categories and if you can recognize these states, it will help to minimize the suffering.

#1.  Procrastination.  This one has been beat up and bad mouthed long enough.  Let me shed some light on Procrastination.  All writers do this.  Some claim that they don’t, that they write every single day, 365 out of 365, diligently, rigorously, religiously blah blah blah.  (I’m talking about you, Steve King.)  It is my contention that these writers are just writing during through their procrastination phases and what they are writing then is probably not worth much.

We should retitle procrastination, gestation.  It’s the period after you’ve got the idea, done the research, probably outlined it as well.  Now it’s time for page one.  You think.  All that drama about the horror of confronting the big bad Blank Page.  Maybe it’s staying blank because this baby’s due date isn’t here yet.  It’s still forming itself in the womb.  You want one with only a spine, no hair and fingernails and, well you get the idea.  Let it grow in the dark subconscious recesses of your writer brain.  When it’s ready, then write it down.

I was finally able to turn the guilt of procrastination thing around after decades of making my living as a writer.  I finally got it, and told my Left Brain, “Hey! This is the way I do it.  The way I have always done it and probably always will.  I start the process, ingest the idea, background, research, outline, and then I gestate.  And it has always worked out, so there’s no reason to think it won’t this time.”  And you know, this has actually worked to defuse the guilt and silence the part of my brain that had a habit of beating me up for procrastinating.  It can’t argue with stats rolling back 20 or 30 years.  This is what Hemingway was talking about when he wrote, “Do not worry.  You have always written and you will write now.  All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know.”

#2.  Shiva.  The creative process (and all of life’s cycles probably) has three distinct parts.  I call them by their Hindu names since that is how they were taught to me.  Brahma, the lightning strike of inspiration.  Vishnu, the work cycle.  And Shiva the stop part of the circle.  Do nothing.  Vegetate.  Gel.  I have written about this before in this space.  If you missed that one, email me and I’ll send you that column.  (

Some people speak of it as the G.O.D. cycle.  Generate.  Operate.  Dissolve.  And it can also be seen in agricultural terms.  Plant the seed.  Work it and harvest.  Then let the earth lay fallow over the winter months.  This is Shiva.

It is a part of the cycle our American culture doesn’t honor, to the detriment of our artists.  We are told from first grade on that inspiration is good and perspiration is very good, but vegetation, not so much.  We reprimand our children for day dreaming.  Spacing out.  Doing nothing.  This is wrong.  Out of the nothingness and the chaos comes the next big strike of inspiration.  Not from working 50 and playing 2 weeks every year.  This is self-destructive.

You will recognize that you are in this Shiva part of the cycle if your brain seems not to be working.  You are zoning out and nodding off and staring into space.  If you’re watching TV, you aren’t tracking what you’re watching.  This is your brain recharging like a battery.  The machine is on “Off” so it can do its job of recharging.  Think of your creative mind as a well you continuously drew water from.  This is the time when you have to stop and wait for the water level to rise again.  Let the well refill itself.  While you do nothing.

#3.  The Left Brain trying to Control the Uncontrollable.  This is the state when you’re working and suddenly you are antsy, anxious, ADHD and you feel like you have to flee from your desk or die.  If you feel compelled to walk the dog or go to the fridge for the zillionth time when no new foodstuffs have been added since the last 10 times you went, this may be what is happening.  You have two brains.  The Left Brain is good at organizing (research, outlines etc.) and criticizing.  It can’t stand to be out of control.  The Right Brain is good at imagining and writing first drafts.

Sometimes L.B. can sense a tidal wave of unbelievably brilliant story stuff coming toward you, that is going to be scary and amazing and totally out of control.  This freaks the L.B. out and it will go to some lengths to talk you into fleeing the place.  If you can stay in your chair at your desk and NOT FLEE at these moments, you can get some great stuff written.  Amazing and surprising things happen.

#4.  Exhaustion.  You need to recognize this.  Sometimes you are just too tired creatively or emotionally or physically to work.  You need to rest your body and your mind.  I went back to writing 8 days after giving birth to my first child.  If I gave birth today (heaven forbid) I’d give myself a bit more time to rest and recover.  Be kind to yourself.  In doing so, you’ll be kind to your creative inner writer and you’ll get better results over time.

#5.  Emotion.  Recently my sister Wendy’s beloved husband David died suddenly.  Some of you may remember him from our conferences.  A quiet man in a hat.  When you have a death or a divorce or any shocking emotionally overwhelming events, the part of your brain that usually is used for creating your work, is now occupied internally rewriting the rest of your life to align with this new situation.  Re-envisioning the next decade as a widow or divorcee or without that career you have had for years.  You are mentally, subconsciously creating a new identity.  A new you.  This is a creative process and uses this part of your brain.  When David died, my other sister, Laura, couldn’t write for a month.  Allow yourself time to grieve or heal.  This isn’t bad, people.  It is necessary.  It is life.

#6.  It’s Not Good Enough.  This what it sounds like when you are getting beat up by your critical Left Brain.  You need to find a way to get out from under this mean, loud show-stopping voice.  Here’s what I do.  I post a note on my computer with the magic words:  “I’ll Fix It Later.”  When my L.B. is trying to tell me how much it stinks, I assure it that I will fix it later.  This usually works.  I also find comfort in my favorite poet William Stafford’s words.  Someone asked, “And when you can’t write?”  He replied, “I lower my standards.”

#7.  Guilt. Occasionally a writer will be blocked over time due to guilt over some sin he/she perceives in relation to writing.  If it feels like this might be you, go back in your mind to the last time it was working.  Did you do something you consider wrong?  Did you lift an idea of someone else’s, or fictionalize a loved one and are worried Mom might recognize herself so you better not let this book off your desk?  Did you hack a piece and let it out when you felt it wasn’t right or good enough?

You can fix this.  Get conscious about what you feel bad about.  Journal it.  Write it down.  “I feel bad about my writing because I…”  Then ask your creative inner writer to forgive you.  Vow to go forth and sin no more.  And get back to work.  It’s not woo woo or magic.  It’s psychology.  You have a relationship with that part of yourself that creates your work.  Take care of that relationship because you need this marriage to last your lifetime.  Seriously.  Husbands may come and go, but your creative heart is the only one you’ve got.

Okay, you’re still with me so I’ll give you the champagne moment.

Daniel Wilson is one of writers in my Big Brain Trust critique group which I have told you about before.  (With Marc Acito, Storm Large, Courtenay Hameister, McKinley et moi.)  Daniel is five minutes over thirty, expecting his first baby next May.  Lives in Portland with his equally smart wife Anna.  He has a PhD in Robotics and has written several modest hit books in which comedy and technology happily jive.  (Where’s my Jetpack?  How to Survive a Robot Uprising etc.)  If you’ve seen Oregon Writers Colony’s 2010 calendar of naked authors, Daniel is the skinny guy being pantsed in front of a swimming pool full of girls.

This past week Daniel hit the Holy Grail of the writing world.  A few chapters of his new unfinished novel Robopocalypse were leaked to Dreamworks.  They snapped it up, negotiating a movie deal that closed one night last week at 11:00 p.m.  The next day there was a bidding war on the rights to the book between Doubleday and Viking.  Doubleday won for a magic number in the mid-six figures.  And now Dan Brown’s editor is thrilled to edit Daniel’s new book.

See?  Fairy tales do come true.  Even in Portland.  (In case you thought Chelsea Cain was a one-off.)  I’ll see if I can get Daniel to come down the Old Church and tell us in his own words how it feels to win “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

My new play The Wilde Boy will be part of the Fertile Ground New Play Festival.  Please come and see its staged reading at Artists Repertory Theatre Wednesday January 30 at 2 pm.  Tickets are $7.  Call ahead and buy tickets from the ART box office over the phone.  (503)241-1278.  They will definitely sell out, if my creative brain knows anything about creating reality.

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