When Hurricane Irene paid coastal North Carolina a visit, a particularly strong wind band hovered over New Bern, NC, and dropped a tall pine tree on our roof — doing mostly cosmetic damage that we were able to get fixed quickly.
The lead-up to the storm (including the hourly forecasts of impending doom)… the storm itself… and the aftermath (the period until our house was back to normal) lasted a solid twelve days for us. My fiction-writing productivity plummeted during that period. I discovered that I couldn’t string words together efficiently with “more important” things on my mind.
I wasn’t suffering from writer’s block (if such a thing exists), but rather, as Hercule Poirot might say, an “overwhelming of the little grey cells.”
This seems a frequent stumbling block for late-blooming writers. We have plenty to time to write, but our minds get focused elsewhere on things that are obviously more important.
I first noted the phenomenon a decade ago when a number of writers in our critique group stopped making progress on their novels for several months after the 9/11 attack. One complained that an overdose of reality had “de-focused his mind on fiction.”
Because I love to collect lists, I began one called “De-Focusing Factors.” Whenever a fellow novelist complained about his/her low productivity, I listened for the reason. I eventually cataloged a diverse inventory of disruptive factors. Here IMO are the strongest:
- Momentous tragedies (e.g. 9/11, earthquakes, tsunamis)
- Immediate health concerns — of the author, a family member, or a friend
- Upcoming medical procedures (first-time colonoscopies have legendary power to short-circuit the creative juices)
- Looming book deadlines that will probably be missed
- Rotten review(s) of the author’s latest novel
- Major fights with spouse or significant other
- Heavy-duty hassles with kids — especially when the latest misdeeds have legal consequences and/or a high price tag
- Decisions to sue a local store or service provider
- Serious conflicts at church
- Luggage lost by airline
- Computer crashes that destroyed current work
- Identity thefts
- Missing personal items that are time consuming to replace (e.g. lost wallet, passport, birth certificate, car keys)
- Loss (or impending loss) of day jobs
- Costly, unanticipated household repairs (e.g. replacing a heating system)
- Approaching hurricanes (my latest entry).
Well-meaning friends and relatives who recognize the writer’s quandary usually offer one of three suggestions:
- Let the future worry about itself.
- Try to compartmentalize your brain — store fiction in one section, unhappy thoughts in another.
- Resume writing your novel ASAP… it will take your mind off everything else.
Alas, none of these sure-fire re-focusing remedies actually work for many (most?) afflicted authors. Certainly they don’t work for me.
Given that late-blooming novelists can run into several de-focusing factors each year — some at the same time — it’s a wonder that any of us manage to finish our novels. After all, who can be creative when depressed by horrific catastrophes… or panicked about money … or frightened by health issues … or burdened with a prodigal child?
As you may have guessed, that’s a rhetorical question for which I have a ready answer: “Lots of novelists who have tight deadlines to meet write like the dickens despite what else is on their minds.”
An impossible deadline can be a destructive distraction, but a merely stringent due-date can help get those little grey cells unclogged.
Writers with deadlines often work through pain … think around problems on the horizon … and do find ways to compartmentalize the grim thoughts echoing through their minds.
In fact, I believe the most valuable aspect of receiving a publishing agreement from a traditional publisher is the delivery date that the contract assigns. A deadline concentrates the mind — almost as wonderfully as the proverbial thought of being hanged in a fortnight.
Another group of writers who have to produce words no matter what are those professionals who survive on their writing income. Here, I’m thinking about the legion of freelance writers who work for magazines, corporations, and marketing communications agencies. Most don’t have the luxury to stop writing and start brooding.
It doesn’t explain their productivity in the face of extreme agitation to claim that they aren’t doing the difficult work of “creative writing.” During my two decades as a freelancer, it wasn’t the comparative “easiness” of the writing that kept me sitting in front of my word processor. (To the contrary, writing speeches is at least as creatively challenging as writing fiction.) The butt glue that held me in my swivel chair was the simple knowledge that if I wanted to make the next mortgage payment I had to keep my promises and deliver the required number of well-written words on time to my client.
Money (chiefly lack thereof) seems to be an excellent refocusing agent for many multi-published fiction writers, too. Janet and I know several novelists who depend on their advances and periodic royalties. They’ll write good words while the floodwaters are rising.
Even though the oft-told story about Anthony Burgess is a myth — that he wrote A Clockwork Orange and two other novels while dying from a brain tumor, to build a nest egg for his family — it strikes most people as perfectly plausible.
Why are many late-blooming novelists — including me — easily de-focused? I think it’s because although we want to write fiction, we don’t absolutely, positively have to finish a novel. We can change our self-imposed deadlines without any real penalty because we aren’t counting on a specific payment or honoring a delivery schedule that someone else considers important.
This absence of necessity leads to the vague feeling of inconsequentiality I hear many late bloomers express: “It doesn’t make any difference if I finish my novel next year rather than next month.”
So … where does a late-bloomer without a contract get a “real” deadline. Some authors report success with:
- NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month (just round the corner in November). Participants sign up for a literary marathon and pledge to write 50,000 words in 30 days.
- Being held to a word count requirement by a critique group.
- Writing to meet the submission date of a specific fiction contest.
- Writing and publishing a novel so that it’s ready for a future event, such as regional book festival.
I got my own head back into gear after Irene by the simple expedient of following the practical advice given by Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Don’t sit down to write a book; instead, create short, disconnected chunks of copy, confident that you’ll eventually link them together like “Christmas tree ornaments” to decorate your novel.
The same strategy works when you need to write a blog post. Like this one.