On how to write stuff

Here’s a thing: I haven’t really written a thing in, oh, I don’t know how long. I scribble in notebooks every day, but almost none of it is coherent or particularly intentional beyond a sentence or two. Mostly I’m in it for the beauty of the line (it’s the line of beauty!), for the variation of an italic nib as an ascender reaches its peak and swooshes down again. That’s a bit of aesthetics, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But writing something? Actual honest-to-dod writing, with sensible paragraphs linked together to form a nourishing narrative or develop an argument? Not so much.

I’ve had times like this before. Much of my twenties, for example. After a blinding burst of writing from May of 1988 to somewhere in the early ‘90s, my muse got up from her chaise longue and said “Forsooth but I am fucking off for the duration” and left, florid vocabulary in tow. And again, in March of 2003, my writing bone recalcified (?) after I started a blog as an outlet for my dull day job. That period of creativity lasted a solid twelve years or so.

Lately though? I won’t, can’t, you can’t make me, create. Unless I’m pressed. More like squeezed, nigh obliterated, Juiceroed into paste. It took me a year to write a thirty-minute radio script. It takes me months now to finish a 500-word piece on fried chicken. I have more drafts than the Winchester mansion (which I assume is very drafty on account of its many windows and unreliable building practices). It’s not just recreational writing either: for work, for anything else, I can barely form a sentence that doesn’t immediately get deleted. Articles are hell. Emails are torture. Slack messages are a kick to the groin. You get the idea.

The most infuriating thing? I’m good at it. I know I’m good at it. Everybody else knows it. Aidan, they say without prompting, you’re good at this. Some even offer to pay me actual money to do it. When I revisit my drafts I think Hmm, this one could use a little work but the sentences are as solid as anything else I’ve seen lately. But then the anxiety rises through my fingers and I close the document. What fun. The urge to close this piece, unsaved, never to be seen again, is so strong that I can feel it pushing at me, a thousand tiny hands pushing me away from my words. Screw you, tiny weird hands. I’m pushing back.

Hey, that would be a great line to end this piece. Near perfect. But I’m also pushing back against perfection here, because perfection is a monster that’s nothing but a million mouths set on hairy legs running after me and saying things like “Why isn’t everything you write a stealth villanelle?” and “Why haven’t you written a villanelle you fucking loser?” and “Why are you annoyed your tweets aren’t getting more traction and why are you wasting your time on twitter?” and so on.

Okay then, here are a few things I can do to get my writing thing happening. No guarantees, because there’s no telling when I might look at the screen and be overtaken by depressive nausea at the thought of making words with a keyboard:

1.       Write with intention. Don’t just start typing or writing with nothing in mind. I know there’s a school of thought that encourages that kind of writing as an equivalent of psychic muscle stretching, but that really doesn’t work for me. That kind of writing immediately locks into a tightening spiral that chokes me out after a paragraph. After more than 40 years of trying this out, I know it’s not for me. Write with a goal, a scenario, a constraint in mind. See what happens.

2.       Turn the computer on to write. Turn the computer off when not writing. See what else can get done in that crazy unthinkable time when the computer isn’t on and constantly feeding you with stimuli.

3.       In the same vein, read fewer online articles. Read more books. So much of my reading these days consists of skimming websites for articles that it feels more like a dopamine reward system than a genuinely enriching or enjoyable experience.

4.       Do not worry what the internet will think of your writing. Not the literal internet, or even literal people on the literal internet, but the internet’s phantom voice, a condemnatory chorus that has slowly formed into a metaphorical person who takes everything you say literally and argues against it in bad faith. That metaphorical person is an asshole.

5.       I hate lists of four things. So here’s a fifth thing for no reason, which is my final resolution: write without reason. Intention, yes. Reason, no.

Okay, that’s it. Away I go to publish this thing.