So there’s this book called “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” by Anne Lamott, and it’s fantastic. I highly recommend picking it up, if only for the anecdotal stories. Anne is a brilliant writer with a calm, engaging style that makes her advice all the more resonant. She’s someone who “gets” what being a writer is all about. And why shouldn’t she? As I was reading it last night, I kept nodding thinking yes, yes, this is exactly what it’s like.
“…as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable…”
I don’t think you can really say you’re a writer unless you sit there night after night and wonder what you’re doing with your life, where your degree has gone, and how you’re going to pay the bills. If there isn’t some anxiety building in the back of your mind as to whether or not you’re going to make it and oh-my-god-what-will-the-world-think-of-me, you simply aren’t putting your heart into it.
I think we’ve all been there. It’s terrifying, but that gives us fuel. At least, it does for me. I reminds me that the only thing that can pull me through is myself, and I know I’ve got my back. Anne suggests that all you have to do is write enough to fill one little picture frame.
When you sit down to write, all you have to do is tell enough to describe what you can see inside that little picture frame. Just that much, that’s all. So it’s not insurmountable, you aren’t climbing Everest, you’re just going for a walk. You’re stretching your legs, seeing what the world looks like today. It’s not scary, it’s exciting. And yeah, it’s often a matter of viewpoint, you can definitely psych yourself out and into a place where you can’t write. So relax.
“E. L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
And I have to agree. Which is difficult when you’re writing an epic space opera novel, but it’s still true. It builds up piece by piece, bit by bit, until you’re there. It’s the old brick by brick analogy. When I was a kid, I loved to play with Legos. I remember one day they were scattered all over my room from a great afternoon of castle building, and my mom told me it was time to go and I had to clean up. I looked around the room and was completely overwhelmed. How could I possibly clean up all of those Legos? I tried picking them up one at a time and putting them into the bucket, and I realised it would take me forever.
My mom laughed and showed me how to start in sections and scoop the Legos up into big piles, then dump them into the bucket that way. I was done in no time, and it changed how I approached room cleaning and Legos and life forever. Don’t sweat the small stuff with your writing. It’ll come together, I promise. Just put the words down on the page, let it flow, and you can clean up the mess later. It’s far easier to let it flow than it is to tug it forcefully out of yourself, striving for that right word or phrase. That’ll come later. Just get the ideas out and down and move on. Don’t be afraid to write badly, you’ll know the difference afterwards far better than you will in the heat of the creative moment.
In any case, I suppose all this is just a little pep talk for myself, really. Keep going, keep it up, and don’t worry what it’s all mounting towards. If you put in the effort, the time, and your heart is in it, you’ll succeed. And why wouldn’t your heart be in it? You’re writing because you want to, right? No one’s making you. So have no fear. Your story will be told, even if you have to drive all night through the fog with only a few feet of visibility and no idea where you’re going. You’ll get there.