Failure To Produce

Here's how a day's writing might go:

You plan to write, say, at ten in the morning. You make yourself some coffee first. While it's brewing you notice the newspaper beckoning you from the kitchen counter where your spouse left it. So you have to read all about the terrible earthquake in Tibet, the helicopter crash in Kenya, and "Dear Abby." Then a friend calls, wanting to chat. She's all broken up because her boy didn't get all As in kindergarten. It's now ten forty-five. Got to get writing. But first, a second cup of coffee, finish the paper. Find out what's up with Doonesbury.

Eleven. Sit down at the ole word processor. Nothing seems right. Gotta adjust the blinds. Turn on some light rock on the radio. Stare at the screen. Too cool in the room. Go get a sweater, come back, sit down, stare at the screen. No bright ideas come to mind. Get up, get third cup of coffee. Clean up breakfast dishes. The cat wants out.

It's now eleven forty-five. Almost time for lunch. If you start now, you think, it'll be lunchtime just as you get rolling. Better start after lunch.

So you watch a "Leave It to Beaver" rerun.

After lunch you sit down again. Get some nice music going on the stereo. A full coffee cup. Get the blinds adjusted just right. Get on a lighter sweater. Reset the thermostat. Let the cat in. Then, just as you get going, the mail comes. How can you write with all those letters calling out to you to be freed from their envelope prisons? So to the rescue you go.

The bank has sent a check back. It irks you that they say you're overdrawn when you're not. You want to straighten it out right now, but damn it, it's time to write.

So you sit down to write. The checkbook calls to you from the other room. It must be balanced and balanced now. How can you write your novel with an unbalanced checkbook calling to you?

And so it goes.

If it isn't the checkbook, it's your looney brother, who wants to cry on your shoulder because he scratched the. fender on his new Honda. Or the windows need washing, the floor needs cleaning, the lettuce for tonight's salad went limp.

Well, at some point you have to decide what you want out of life. Crisp lettuce, clean floors, a balanced checkbook, or a novel on the rack at the 7-Eleven store. If you have decided you want to be a novelist, the novel writing will have to come first; you won't be able to let the time slip away. When it's time to write, it's time to write.

What if the lawn needs cutting? You say, the lawn will have to wait. And the car won't get washed and the groceries won't get bought. The writing comes first.

Does that mean that you have to live in a pigpen and never play golf? Of course not.

But if you've decided you have fifteen hours a week in which to write, and you've set aside those fifteen hours, those are the hours you write and nothing short of a burning house or an emergency appendectomy should stop you from using those fifteen hours to write.

This kind of failure to produce is called time slipping away. Time can slip away in little slivers like the icicles you break off that form in your freezer, or it can slip away in huge chunks, like icebergs breaking off from a glacier.

There's another kind of failure to produce. It's called "writer's block."

In How to Write a Damn Good Novel I included a short discourse on writer's block in terms of fear of failure and fear of success. I now have a completely different view of it.

Writer's block, I believe, comes from a subconscious wish to be a martyr. Blocked writers are the Saint Sebastians of the writing profession.

What would you think if you heard this story:

A bricklayer by the name of Big Jake Johnson goes to work one day. He works for High Rolling Builders and they're building a subdivision outside of Dallas. Big Jake is known as a real artist among bricklayers. Fancy fireplaces and patios a specialty. One bright, clear October day he shows up to work a little late. He'd stopped by the park, he says, to admire the pigeons. Nice colors in their necks.

Anyway, his hod-carrier has mixed up the mortar and has lugged a pile of number four bricks up the hill to the back of a mansion High Rolling is building. Big Jake is supposed to lay down the brick walk going to the reflecting pool by the tennis court.

So Big Jake has his cup of coffee and looks at the blueprints. A vague feeling of fear comes over him as his fingers trace the lines of the blueprints. He keeps staring at the blueprint, then at the pile of bricks, then at the mortar. Soon, drops of blood begin to form on his forehead.

He drops the blueprint and goes to the foreman, who sees him coming and already is nodding his head.

"Bricklayer's block, eh?"

Big Jake sadly nods his head. "I just can't do it today," he says. "Who knows, I may never be able to hold a trowel in my hand again."

The foreman lays a comforting hand on Big Jake's shoulder and tells him how sad it is.

Okay, so Big Jake goes home and drops on the couch. His wife, Orinda, says, "What's the matter, hon?"

"Bricklayer's block."

"What's that mean?"

"I just can't seem to do it today."

"Do we still get paid?"

"How long is it going to last?"

"There's just no telling."

"Sounds like plain lazy to me."

"Hey, if writers can get writer's block, then I can get bricklayer's block."

Orinda goes into the kitchen, gets out a rolling pin, goes back in the living room and whacks Big Jake with it, right on the crown of the cranium, requiring thirty-four stitches.

And Big Jake never had bricklayer's block again.

If you've ever met someone "suffering" from writer's block, they will tell you all kinds of stories of how they sit and stare at blank paper or their computer screen and they just can't produce anything, no matter how much they try. If only they could, the implication is, they would produce masterpieces. But their genius will not let them proceed: They are stopped by their own human frailty, because nothing but the image of perfection that is in their mind would do (their standard being so much higher than that of us unblocked mortals who are writing crap), but it just refuses to gush out.

You see, of course, what writer's block is doing for them. It's allowing them to get sympathy for this terrible affliction and at the same time pass themselves off as a genius without ever having to submit anything to public scrutiny. Don't let them get away with it.

Whenever I meet one of these tortured souls I tell them I have another way of spelling writer's block: C-H-I-C-K-E-N.

The blocked writer is not afraid of success or failure. What he or she is afraid of is that the writing will not stand up to the writer's own standard. Whose does?

To avoid such traps as time slippage and writer's block, look at writing the way a real bricklayer looks at his job. Writing is a job. It takes time and effort, the same as any other. Set yourself production goals. Three pages a day will get you a 270-page draft of a novel in three months.

The writing of a novel is a two-stage process. The first stage is to draft it; the second stage is to correct what you do in the first stage. Writing and rewriting. Draft it, then edit it.

A lot of so-called writer's block comes from a confusion of these two processes. Don't edit it until it's all written down. When you write a draft, don't look back. Turn off that editor up there in your brain.

Make the decision that you will never be caught in the trap of nonproduction. From now on, you will write, write, write, write, write, every day of the week and every week of the year.

And to do it well, you should write with passion. Which is the subject of the last chapter.

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