Wednesday, 11 August 2010

When life intrudes

Writing is hard work. It doesn't look like that to someone watching from the outside. That's why biopics about writers dwell on every other aspect of their lives except writing. That makes sense. Who wants to watch someone sitting at a computer staring at a blank screen for hours on end? The conversion of soaring ideas into prosaic reality is incredibly difficult and requires tremendous concentration. It isn't easy. Not by a long chalk.

Unfortunately, there's this nasty thing lurking beyond the writing desk called "real life" and it has a depressing habit of intruding on the writer's world with unwelcome regularity. Sometimes it's the need to earn a living. Other times it's the demands of family. It might be a wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend who is getting genuinely sick of all the time and energy that this person they love expends on what seems like a hopeless dream. Sometimes those demands become so overwhelming that it seems as if being a writer will get chucked into the bin along with wanting to be a cowboy or an astronaut.

Life demands sacrifices and many times we have to sacrifice our dreams for the good of those around us or the necessities thrust into our laps. But that doesn't mean that your dreams have to be buried for all time. Maybe it just means that the dream needs a little adjusting.

Okay, maybe the need to go to class or find a job means that you haven't the time to write that great novel that you have in your head. Maybe the needs of your kids means that you haven't the time, energy, or money to blast off wave after wave of query letters to editors in hopes of making the big sale that will spark your writing career. That doesn't mean it's the end. It only means that if you let it. Look at your plans, your goals, your options, and you'll soon find that there's a chink in that brick wall in front of you.

You can't write you novel this year? Then one way around it is to change your time frame. Figure out how much work you can realistically do on your book and adjust your deadline accordingly. Maybe it will take two years or three. The journey may take longer, but so long as you are still moving forward you'll get there eventually.

You can't find any time to write at all? Okay, can you make notes? Tuck your Moleskine in your jacket and scribble your ideas on the bus. Play with the plot outline at lunch. grab those little moments and use them to their full. That's what they're for.

Maybe one problem that is stopping your career is having too much on your plate. I often find that I spend so much time trying to drum up business for my freelance work that I sometimes feel like I never have a chance to actually write. How can I work when all the things I have to get done don't and I put them off until the next day and the next until everything grinds to a halt under a growing pile of unfinished tasks? That's when I go to my endless to-do list and start prioritising and cutting. It may mean admitting that I have to suspend my writing for a while. It may mean that an aspect of the business will have to coast for a bit. I might even have to take a holiday for a couple of months to tend to matters. But the writing is still there when I get back.

Perhaps the problem is that your project is too big and ambitious for your current resources. Maybe you can't write that definitive history of Rolls Royce aircraft engines because your wife is threatening to divorce you if you don't spend enough time with the kids for them to stop asking her "Who's that scruffy guy?" There's always the alternative of turning your research into a series of articles or a blog. It may be a roundabout way of writing the book, but it still gets you there.

Whether it's longer deadlines, smaller goals, simplifying the work load, or taking a holiday, the hardest part is attitude. After a while, writing becomes part of one's identity. You start to think of yourself as a writer and having to pull back from that can be hard. It's even worse when economic necessity means exchanging impoverished wordsmithing for a "real" job. This is particularly hard if you've actually had some success as a writer and then hit a dry patch. It can feel like selling out or failure or admitting that you've been wasting your time. Maybe it even feels like the world is telling you that you don't have any talent and should wise up. Maybe, but that will only become true if you let it. Everyone has setbacks and writers more than most. Art is never appreciated and in our very commercial, materialistic world writing isn't very highly regarded unless it can turn a profit or attract patronage. However, the former is hard and the latter rare and often exacts a high price. If the world forces you away from your pen, think of that setback as just that; a setback. It won't be forever and with time circumstances must improve. If mere optimism isn't enough, then consider it as experience, research, gaining new insights into life and the world that you can turn into words.

But what of time lost? What about years to the locusts? What about all those novels, stories, plays, articles, and scripts that will never see the light of day. That is a problem, but always remember that quality is vastly more important than quantity. Homer only wrote two books, but what books they were.

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