(No) sympathy for the devil

Never expect sympathy from a writer if you’re feeling blocked, particularly if you’re a dilettante. A passage from David Markson’s Springer’s Progress, in which two writers (Lucien Springer and Lippman Pike) conduct shop talk in a bar, illustrates my point:

“Morning, Loosh.”

Twelve-seventeen. “Morning, Lipp.”

That visage meant to be somber?”

“On purpose. Might convince someone to talk me out of the leap.”

“Poor lad. Enlighten the sensitive poet?”

“What’s news? When am I going to get around to finishing that scabrous book, is all.”

Miscalculation there, Springer’s too late to retract. Son of man, seek not solace in the tavern of thy peers. Sensitive Pike’s all glee.

“Ah. And just what book are you reading, Lucien?”

This attitude is partially self-defense—writers and editors feel put-upon and belittled for a significant part of their waking hours. Writing is the one form of work that almost every American thinks he can do, “if I could just find the time.” Most people don’t think they’ve got a mathematical proof in them, or a great new invention, or the moral stamina to be a firefighter, but everyone think she’s got a book in her. I’m a book editor, but—after one too many dull conversation—I no longer tell strangers that, lest I hear a spiel about “the story of my life that I’m gonna get down on paper, one of these days.” There’s a sort of weird condescension about the writing life—everyone thinks it’s in them, that all the writing would require is the time, so few people really value how hard writing actually is.

Usually, when friends say they’re having a hard time writing a story or getting a blog post finessed, I have a decided lack of sympathy. I hope it doesn’t show. I smile and say something like, “you should get back on the horse,” and try to steer the subject away from writing. I don’t get paid to write—in fact, I’m paying TypePad for the privilege of publishing—but I consider myself a writer, among other things. And my sympathy towards dilettantes is close to Pike’s.

Billy Mernit, over at Living the Romantic Comedy, is decidedly gentler and more useful. At least, he initially holds in his snarky responses better:

Here’s what works—and I have this not only from my own experience but pretty much all the writers I’ve read and known: commit yourself to a fixed writing time. One hour minimum, if your life is truly so jammed that it’s all the time you can steal. One to three hours first thing in the day is a popular slot. I’m not alone in finding the just-out-of-dreamland quiet, pre-conversation, pre-world-at-large time especially productive. You may be a nightbird, by inclination or necessity, and that’s fine, too. But whatever it is, train your psyche to “show up for work” at a designated time (and perhaps even, place) six days a week.

That’s good, no, great advice, and it’s the only writing advice I can think of that applies to every writer or would-be writer on the planet. He’s got great advice that’s specifically geared towards screenwriters (though some of it applies to the rest of us) as well.

The writing life is not universal—there’s a different working method for every writer who ever existed—which is why I link to more interviews with writers than I actually read. But Mernit offers sound, grounded guidance for those who want to write, and not just have written, something. Go read ‘em both.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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