Writing is one of the easiest things in the world not to do. That’s the primary reason most people don’t do it, and why those of us who profess to be writers are always struggling to force the words out. It’s doubly ironic in that no one is born a literary wunderkind, and like muscles, writing only improves the more you do it – so why do the distractions and excuses continue to mount? It’s too nice a day outside. The game’s on. My partner is lonely. I was in front of the computer at work for nine hours already. The new trailer for Prometheus just turned up on YouTube. I’m just not feeling it today. I need chocolate.
Here’s the problem, I think. When you go to the gym, if you can’t do 150 pushups in one attempt, no big deal. You’re not going to wallow in the pit of failure and whine about how you’re never going to get to that magic number. You might be satisfied with doing 60. The next day you go back, and you do 70. Then 80, then 100, slowly and methodically increasing your stamina until you reach your goal and strut around with pecs and guns like The Incredible Hulk. And really, although you might feel a little inadequate next to the no neck wonder at the leg press who looks like he’s never eaten anything other than chicken breasts, raw eggs and protein shakes, you’re really only competing against your own physical limits. And you always have a reassuring notion in the back of your mind that it is just a matter of persistence, that eventually your body will toughen up.
Doesn’t work the same way with writing. When you write something you know is bad, it’s a bodyblow to your ego. The pathetic cobbling-together of syllables in front of you might as well have been scrawled in crayon by a three-year-old, you hate it that much. Off to another blog to find some inspiration. Wow, that’s really good, I can’t write that well. Everyone is so much better than I am. Why can’t I show a penetrating insight into humanity like Jonathan Franzen or be as witty as Terry Pratchett or sound as intellectual as Christopher Hitchens, or even be as effortlessly funny as that 19-year-old girl who blogged about her missing underwear? Hitchens in particular is incredibly intimidating with his line about how most people have a book inside them, and that’s where it should stay. If you are looking externally for validation of your self-criticism, throw a stone, you’ll hit some piece of literature that will make you feel hopeless.
We like to mock those daily affirmation exercises where you are instructed to stand in front of a mirror and tell your reflection over and over again how special you truly are, no matter how silly you feel doing it. I suggest that perhaps there is a writer’s equivalent that isn’t quite so Stuart Smalley. Because the praise we get from others doesn’t ever seem to crack that veneer of insecurity that is always telling us that “no, we actually do suck.” When I’m mired in that self-loathing spiral, I like to give some thought to some of the other ideas in the hopper that I would like eventually to put to paper. As I’ve mentioned, I have a novel that I’m finishing. I also have its partially-written sequel and, because I cannot tell the entire story in only two books, the eventual third installment. I have a young adult book that is a reflection on a personal tragedy from my teenage years, of which I’ve penned a single chapter. I have a premise and outlines for a thirteen-episode television series. I have what I think is a killer idea for a high-concept screenplay which came to me in a dream a while back. And I have this blog – this is my ninety-first post and I’ll likely pass 100 before the end of the month. That’s not an insubstantial volume of work. And there very well may be more lurking in the corners of my brain yet to be discovered, and I’m kind of excited to find out what they are. That is enough to keep me going, to silence the voice of Pazuzu ever taunting me with visions of spectacular failure. To throw the foul-mouthed bastard down the Georgetown steps.
With all due respect to the late Mr. Hitchens, if you think you have a book inside you, then write the damn thing. Maybe you won’t get past the first page, maybe no one will ever read it but your significant other. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. It may be gold, it may be merely pyrite, but you won’t find out unless you dig it up. Isn’t the promise alone worth getting out the shovel?