I am an authority on the excuses a writer can use to avoid writing. Time constraints make for easy excuses. Obligations to family or job provide a slew of excuses. Exercise is another perfectly “legitimate” excuse. Lack of space, lack of quiet, and lack of inspiration look like valid excuses. These are top-self rationalizations masquerading as true limitations or honorable obligations. They are lies I told myself. Excuses killed my creative joy. Are they killing yours?
Creating is scary. It is terrifying to bring something out of nothing. There is the anxiety of creative blocks, the specter of failure, the gut-wrenching realization that someone is going to hate your work. If you are persistent in honing your craft, if you share your art with others, you will experience all of these fears and more. The excuses act as a salve, a protective layer for the raw psyche. Excuses appear to give you a way out of the misery. There might even be brief moments where you believe your own justifications. At such times the panacea is perfected. Sometime between 3 AM and insomnia, you know the hollowness of your own weak rationalizations. Your horror is a night sweat soaking the sheets. A shower rinses your body clean, but the truth cannot be rinsed out of your mind. You are aware of your faulty reasoning and avoidance; you are hiding from your art. If you’re the sort of excuse-maker I was, it is at this point the despair arises. Problems loom. There is no time, there is no space! In some sense, you are right, because excuses are like cactii or goldfish, and will grow to the maximum extent of their enclosure. Your excuses might fill a house, invisible as carbon monoxide. They’re certainly cramping your soul.
Have you filled your time with pursuits unrelated to your art? Are television, drinking, and drama with your consorts supplanting your creativity? What about those intellectual all-nighters, on a balcony with your smokes? Oh, and if you say it’s the day job that’s stifling you, I’ve heard that one before, too. I used to bemoan that while I could cut out marathon sessions of DEXTER, I couldn’t cut out the day job. I remember feeling like work was an insurmountable block to my writing, and I resented the job. Never mind the fact that it’s the job that gave me the financial security to have a place to live, food to eat, and access to health care so that I could even begin to think about writing. I was not living in gratitude. I wasn’t even really living. Still, my “damn job” excuse was an excellent false justification; not many saw through it. I did, though, and now I know blaming a standard, forty-hour job is a cop-out. Maybe for you it’s not so much the time that’s an issue, it’s a lack of space, or the noisiness of your space. Maybe you have children, roommates, an apartment in NYC where your bed is your table is your ironing board. I have to call BS on that excuse, too. Imprisoned authors have managed to write novels. If a drunkard interred in a Nazi insane asylum can create, then you can certainly find some space. Sculpting and painting present more difficulty in this respect than writing, but writers, you have coffee shops, writer’s rooms, libraries… need I go on? Stop using excuses to barricade yourself away from the terror and uncertainty of TRYING. You are not here to generate excuses. You are here to generate art.
I’m reading Annie Dillard’s THE WRITING LIFE. The cover blurb from the New York Times Book Review states that THE WRITING LIFE is “full of joys.” That blurb makes me wonder if I’ve read the book wrong. Joy isn’t the dominant theme I find in Annie’s discussion of writing. She honestly dissects the despair and impossibility of writing your true vision. She shows the disassociation of living in a world that exists only in your mind, and at first only in pieces. She doesn’t sugarcoat the sheer terror and difficulty of the endeavor, but neither does she countenance excuse. Annie discusses the interesting occurrence of people who want to be “poets” because they are in love with the idea of being a poet, not because they love poetry. In one vignette, Annie relays a conversation where a seeker after the writing life is told she can be a writer if she “loves sentences.” Annie goes on to extrapolate that there is joy in creating if you go one sentence at a time. Now, finally, there is joy in THE WRITING LIFE, but only when the writing is begun, and only when all of the other “stuff” (the excuses, the self-seeking) are abandoned. The difference between those who only want the title of “poet” and those who love sentences is that the latter will suffer more. Creating is the kind of suffering that brings freedom and joy, but only if you give yourself fully to it. That means you have to stop making excuses to avoid the hard work of doing your art.
I invite my Muse by setting aside time in my day for my writing. Monday through Friday, that amounts to two and a half hours. It is not a lot of time, but I make it count. I do not wait to be inspired: I sit at my desk and I write. I do not seek the perfect writing nook: I write standing up on the commuter train on the way to my day job. My commitment to writing is sacrosanct. It is not optional. In 99 of 100 days, any excuse I give to skip writing would be a lie, a willful rejection of who I am meant to be. There are days, though, dark days where I cannot write. I am human, and I’ve missed writing sessions due to illness, or the death of a loved one. I accept that I cannot control, plan, or prevent either of those circumstances. Neither do I use them as an excuse to continue to avoid my writing desk. I recover from illness, I go back to writing. I mourn, I go back to writing. It is how I am meant to live. This is only one aspect to my writing life; I have an entire code for how I do what I do, and how I avoid the pitfalls that life invariably throws at me. I’m calling it Bring Your Joy: A Code for Creatives. I’m still finalizing a PDF you can read, print, and share, but I hope it is helpful to you.
I often think about that dissociative element of writing and wonder if my compulsive creation of stories is somehow related to PTSD and the dissociative state. Could that be why I go into mental decline if I’m not writing? That it’s too difficult to cope without my escape valve? I’m not sure, but one thing is for certain: for me (and it sounds like you), creation goes beyond a fun little thing to do and becomes a real need, like the need for sleep. If you look at it that way, the excuses not to create sound an awful lot like the excuses we use when we avoid things that are good for us. It makes sense, but hopefully it can also prompt some introspection as to why you’re avoiding it, and from there you can learn more about yourself.
I like that you’re more about focusing on the creative process and less on that whole “other side” of things. It seems to be the only way to stay sane in this industry today.
Yes, my mood and my ability to cope decline when I am not writing. I also start to have very bizarre dreams that leave me feeling exhausted in the morning. I feel like I have an underground stream of stories somewhere near my brain stem, and if I don’t lower a well to extract the stories they start seeping out in odd ways, like water bubbling through the cracks in a dam.
I’m glad you like the focus. I’m writing about the things that really matter to me. It’s part of me staying sane in a world where I’m “supposed” to write for page views and popularity.
Awesome. And true, true, true!
As I might have mentioned before, having kids made me realize how important writing was to me, because I didn’t give up… well, I gave up the “ceremony.” There would be no “perfect time” where I could sit at my desk for fifteen minutes enjoying my cup of coffee and ruminating on things before I found my inspiration and started writing. It was more like, “Okay, both kids are actually sleeping at the same time. GO!”
And I actually replied to your comment here because I will certainly chime in on the mental decline. And the dreams. My night terrors are much worse when I’m not writing (ergo, the wife is much happier when I’m writing too 🙂 ).
Thanks for the post.
Night terrors are really horrible, aren’t they?
I love your description of the anti-routine. I bet you get more quality work done on the fly than writers who rely on rituals to kick-start creativity. Your children are helping you hone the skill to tap into your source at will. That is going to serve you well, I have no doubt.
Thank you for stopping by, Paul!
I should print this post out and pin it over my writing space, Aniko! Generating excuses is something I have a truly magnificent talent for. Now, when I catch myself doing it, I’ll try to remember your Tweet!
I will try and remember my tweet, too! I can come up with any number of excuses to avoid writing. It’s baffling, because writing is what I really want to do, yet there’s this contrary force generating excuses….