Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing is fun. Starting is hard.

At the risk of semi-disagreeing with Professor Zero's "A Heretical Post," I have to qualify what she says when she says "Writing is fun. Publishing is easy."

She's right about the writing books that moan about writing and about the Frail Souls who put their hands to their foreheads when telling you how busy they've been. Maybe they have been busy, but they haven't been busy shingling roofs when the temperature is 104 degrees, nor have I, so let's not kid ourselves about the kind of hard work we do. So when is writing fun for me? (Your mileage may vary.)

1. Writing is fun when you're in the flow of it. Unfortunately, that "flow" experience sometimes gets spent on other things, like a piece of grad student writing I was commenting on the other day. My brain was pumping, I was making suggestions that will make the writing better, and I was enjoying that "flow" experience through commenting--but it didn't contribute one word to my own writing.

2. Writing is easy, but starting writing, and thinking about what you want to write, is hard. Over the weekend, when my colleagues were variously skiing, hiking, enjoying conferences, and visiting tropical places, I sat stubbornly in front of the computer monitor while trying not to bang my head on the desk while I tried to think through some concepts for a deadline-driven proposal. I'd like to think that doing worthy things like going to the gym or washing the floor or finishing an article review would help by breaking up the process, but all that does is say to my brain, "Why, you've worked a lot already today, haven't you? I guess you're all done."

From various comments, I'm guessing that my colleagues don't go through this long, slow process of gearing up to write. I've asked them about how they get started writing or if they get stuck a few times, and they look at me as if I've grown two heads. They're more like the people Boice describes in Professors as Writers, or the ones that Silvia describes in How to Write a Lot, who never experience anxiety because they know that they will write every day at a set time, without any of that nasty agony about ideas.

3. Writing is fun once you've finished a piece. Have you ever noticed how right after you finish something, you sort of love it for at least a few minutes? Everything, however minor, gets some admiration right after I finish it, from a politely cranky letter to a state politician to an article that gave me grief. Of course, two hours later I am dissatisfied with it again, but in that immediate glow of relief over finishing something, I'm happy with it and with myself for getting it done.

4. Writing is fun when you see your work in print. Again, like the "I've finished it!" afterglow, this doesn't last. You get the book or journal, you start to read, and soon you notice a sentence that you would totally revise if you had the article back again. But that's the nature of creating anything, isn't it? I've heard of famous directors who had to be barred from the projection room even after their films were released, because they'd try to go in and recut things.

So yes, writing is (or can be) fun, else why be an academic or keep a blog? But if it were easy, I'd be a few thousand words into the next project by now instead of trying to procrastinate by writing a blog post.


michele said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one!
I came across this blog post while procrastinating writing myself and it made me feel less useless as I struggle to put start a conference paper with a looming deadline.

It's heartening to hear that other people struggle with writing, especially since I haven't finished that long piece of writing called the dissertation!

If I might suggest another time when writing is easy?
When it doesn't count.
Which I know is sometimes why I blog - because it's so hard to write the things that do count!

profacero said...

I do the long gear up also.

I do the Boycean thing only when I'm already in the flow of a long project, and ultimately I think it's the most appropriate for long grant proposals and technical reports, or things you just want to GET DONE in a workmanlike fashion. If you look at descriptions of habits of any actually famous writers, you find that they're all different.

If I look at what I've finished, I see that the Boycean method created the more boring pieces. There are some others that looked like they were being written Boyceanly but they are all short, and were in reality written in some sort of continuous dream state despite the apparent breaks.

The reason I think writing is fun is that it's hard and creative, and I like that combination, although I agree that it's funnest when it doesn't count.

Still, what I'd add is that it is fun when your project is your own. I've written many things that weren't what I really wanted to write, weren't on my first choice of topic, etc., and they were not fun.

For that reason I discern I may be doing my first writing only now. People always say that you write to figure out what you think. I never agreed with that, I always knew my point before I started, writing was just explaining it -- and was often really boring for that reason. But that had to do with not writing about the things I really don't understand and really wish I did. Then writing really does make you order and deepen your thoughts, and it becomes a process of discovery. And as I say, everyone knows that, I've been told it many times, but I never really understood it.

undine said...

Michele, "when it doesn't count"--absolutely. Blog posts "feel" like writing, and they are, in a way, but since they're writing that doesn't "count," they're easier to write.

Profacero, sometimes it's easier (and almost more fun) to write the boring stuff--the reports, etc. that just involve crunching some numbers and organizing everything. It's the stuff I care about that is hard, but that's also the stuff that I can get most excited about when I'm writing it. Do you count the long gear up as part of the writing?

Ink said...

I think "serious" writing is fun only after the ideas/structures are more or less constructed and I'm revising for style and flow...

Ink said...

Oh, and I think a writer with the long gear-up phase has been called a "heavy planner" in some of the discussions of writing as a process (able to do in the mind what others might do on the page as part of drafting *before* s/he even comes to the page). I've always been envious of that ability. :)

Professor Zero said...

Heavy planning, yes, that's what the gear up is. My daily word count is low, too, but I don't do multiple drafts or much revision. I have only the roughest of outlines. But I have extensive notes in real prose on pieces of paper that I can shuffle around and write from.

I love to edit. But I don't count that or the gearup as writing.

Secretly I love the gearup too. It's about coming up with alternative introductions and titles, because once I've got those and envisioned the end point, I'm home free. This is the other weird habit I have - it seems you are to write introductions last, and choose titles after that, and not know where your endpoint is going to be.
I need all of those things first, although they change sometimes.

Also - important for me - writing is work, but the worst of it is what I transfer onto it. Before I got all the complexes I have had since Reeducation and since trying to write a book I didn't like and berated myself for not making headway in, I was a lot more objective about my writing.

Finally - I realized something yesterday, ran across a writer saying he didn't believe in writer's block any more than he believed in "carpenter's block." I decided writer's block wasn't about writing or the work of it, it was about what we transfer onto it (and what's riding on it, of course).

carldyke said...

I agree with Cero about writing problems being about what we transfer into it. So blogging is low-transfer writing.

I also have the most trouble getting started. Gearing up is definitely where the grind is, although the discovery parts of it can be fun. Once I'm in it the flow can grip me and time goes away. But this is a struggle daily renewed.

undine said...

Ink, I think I'm a heavy sitter rather than a heavy planner. Half the battle--no, more like 80%--is sitting there trying out various opening sentences.

Professor Z--writer's block as carpenter's block--heh. Do we attack that one with a block plane? I wish I could come up with titles first, but they're usually the last and least satisfactory thing about the writing for me. (My diss. title was such a clunker that even my director commented on it.) On the other hand, maybe the planning you put into those titles and intros makes the rest of the writing go smoothly.

One true sentence, Hemingway used to say. Just get one true sentence and the rest will follow. After working on a new piece today, I think he's right.

undine said...

carldyke--a struggle daily renewed, absolutely. You have to find a way in, and that's the gearing up/hard part.