I have my baby brother to thank for this post (OK, he’s 32, not a baby at all, but still, he’ll always be the little guy my other brother and I dared to eat toothpaste mixed with shaving cream and tomato sauce, for a mere twenty cents. It’s a wonder the guy’s not in therapy.)
My brother is a busy physiotherapist, but when he’s not working on other people’s backs (and my hat’s off to him, there’s NO WAY I could touch a stranger’s nekkid flesh without first demanding they take an anti-bacterial bath) he is hard at work on his music. (Insert shameless plug for the sibling – go to his MySpace page if you’d like to sample his wares but please, ignore his Bio. Apart from the bit about the psychedelic red and blue baby blanket, it’s complete crap; the product of an over-active imagination and over-exposure to Monty Python as a child. But I digress …)
His first love is the classical guitar. He’s played a few gigs over the years and although I may be biased, I think he’s pretty damn good. The trouble is, a few years ago the combination of hours of guitar playing and hours of back-cracking finally caused his thumbs to break down. And because he needs those thumbs to bring home the bacon, he had to put his guitar playing to one side. In the meantime he branched out into composition, with the aim of securing a gig composing scores for movies, television, radio, that sort of thing.
This has all be going well for him. But when I spoke to him last week, he said he’d recently seen some of his guitar mates perform, was amazed at how much they’d improved in the years he had not been able to play, and that he was so inspired, he’d decided to edge back into guitar playing again.
Great! says I. Ah, not so great, he muttered. You see, the trouble is that whenever he sits down to practise, he is so daunted by the mountain of work ahead of him that he gives up before he even tunes the six-string. “There’s just so much I have to do,” he said quietly. “It’s impossible.”
This is the exact feeling we writers face when writing a novel. It is fun, exhilarating, but man, it is also a long, hard process. If all you see is the mountain of work ahead– the first draft, the second-third-fourth-fifth-ad infinitum drafts, the querying of agents, more revisions, being out on submission, more revisions – it’s only natural to feel like running away, screaming; to think that writing a book worthy of publication is impossible. And when your head gets into this kind of space on a regular basis, scrubbing toilets becomes a much more attractive way to spend your time.
I admit, I’ve done my fair share of toilet scrubbing when I’ve looked at the mountain and thought, “I can’t do this, it’s too much, it’s too hard!” But I’ve come to realize that if I can make myself ignore the mountain, I can conquer that panic. What’s required is a little mind-trickery; discovering ways to mess with your own head and trick yourself into writing, when every cell is screaming out “NO!" And, at the risk of exposing myself to be an even bigger head-case than many of you already suspect, I’ll share a few of the methods of self-trickery I use to con myself into writing, when it all seems too hard.
Break the work into smaller chunks. Some days, the thought of writing makes my head ache. Too tired, too busy, too lacking in inspiration … it’s too hard! But instead of giving in to my instinct to flee from the study, I’ll tell myself, “Come on. Just do something. Go back and edit that last scene, or just type up the notes you scribbled in the middle of the night when inspiration struck, or think of an opening sentence for your next scene. That’s it. Nothing more. Easy-peasy.” So, successfully duped into feeling the pressure is off, I sit down at the keyboard, start to fiddle with the little task I’ve set myself … and nine times out of ten I’m sucked back into my book and before I know it, I’m writing new words and an hour has flown by.
Dangling carrots works well, too. This is when I tell myself that if I write for half an hour, or the morning, or whatever, then I can have a big, fat reward – a cup of tea with that slice of cake I’ve hidden from the kids; the cat-nap on the couch; the rest of the day curled up reading a novel. Whatever treat is sufficient to con me into gluing my butt to my chair.
A truly effective method of mind-trickery is to channel my mother and give myself a bloody good talking-to. I remind myself that I will never, ever, know if I can finish writing a book, let alone polish up something publishable, if I don’t actually sit down and WRITE. And that no matter how daunted I am, I’ll feel so much worse if I don’t give it a go.
And when I’m struck by the inevitable self-doubt, the feeling of what’s the point in trying because I know I just really suck, I force myself to get off my butt and go stand in front of the book shelf for a good long minute. I’ll look at all those hundreds of spines, and remind myself that each and every one of those authors probably started off not knowing whether they could actually write a book. And that the only way they found out was by actually doing it.
Nuts, hey? But I wouldn’t be anywhere near finishing my SFD without deceiving myself at least some of the time.
How about you? What mind-games do you play, when you need to ignore the mountain and motivate yourself to write?
And Mike, if you’re lurking – SWITCH OFF THE COMPUTER AND GO PRACTISE THAT GUITAR!
P.S. Don't forget, your comments will put you in the draw to win your choice of my books of the week this Friday. See here for details!