Sometime in 2017 (I think), I attended a reading at the Papercuts bookstore in Jamaica Plain to see Michelle Tea and Andrea Lawlor, the latter of whom was about to release their book, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. I’ll admit I was mostly there to see Tea and get my copy of Rent Girl signed, but it was something Lawlor said that has stuck with me the most. In the question and answer session, they described their writing process as “writing fiction like a poet”, working when inspiration struck as opposed to sticking to a fixed schedule.
As an endlessly aspiring writer, I felt like a weight had been lifted, though it took me a few years (and a pandemic-induced lull) to figure out why.
Back in March of this year, I, like many hassled creatives with day jobs, had high hopes. Mandatory time at home? Perfect! I wrote a song for a collaborative project, I drafted articles and scripts. I created outlines for essays, a webseries, a musical, and a short story. It was a golden time, a chance to finally get to all the things I’d put off for years and make up for lost time. I would reinvent myself as a quarantined renaissance man and seize the zeigeist like nobody’s business. This would be my time!
As of this post, the most I have written over the past three weeks has been an 800-word essay draft about why Quantum Leap should be rebooted that I don’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone. Days have gone by without me making any progress and all that early-pandemic momentum has stalled. My output has slowed to barely a trickle, and my desire to be a writer has been such a part of my identity that I can’t help but feel crushed by that. It’s not even writer’s block: it just feels like a profound lack of energy. That terrifies me, because it taps into what I think is the primal fear of any artist: what if I stop?
Over the years, in my endless quest for writer cred, I’ve tried to hold myself to the standards of the various successful authors I’ve idolized. Harlan Ellison referred to himself as a “blue collar worker” and would write entire stories in front of audiences on the fly. Octavia Butler said “write whether you feel like writing or not”. Stephen King advocates for 1000 to 2000 words a day. Shonda Rimes advises creating a routine, associating writing with something positive you do as a habit, like listening to music or drinking coffee. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor advertise their writing podcast, Start With This, by saying “the only bad writing is not writing”. Perhaps most relevantly to my Lawlor memory, Neil Gaiman said you can’t write fiction by waiting around for inspiration to strike, because that’s not how the process works.
This is all valid, and makes perfect sense given these writers and their pedigrees (it feels worth noting that almost all of them are from the USA, a country that fetishizes tireless work in all forms). They are all professionals, used to being attached to multiple projects at a time and the deadlines that come with them. But it feels contrary to the moment, or at least to my moment. And ironically, realizing this is finally getting me to write again. It’s led me to what seems like a pretty stupid question: can not writing actually make you a better writer?