Sometimes what you want to write is different from what you know how to write

excited
Alright, fine. You caught me. This post is just a grab-bag of random musings.

I think most writers have the experience that, the longer they write, the more their writing moves away from their personal life. It’s not that your life gets boring to you, it’s just that you write yourself out. You’ve handled your own preoccupations and now you’re kind of bored of them. For instance, I don’t know that I could ever write another story that dealt with my experience of alcoholism as directly as “Tomorrow’s Dictator” or “The Cheap Crusade.

But that means you start writing about stuff that’s pretty different from your life, and it leads me to naturally wonder: Why am I writing this? Do I really care about it?

I’ve been having that thought about the last YA novel that I wrote, which is kind of about a fictionalized Britney Spears character who starts hearing the voice of God. I enjoy the novel, but I can’t say that I feel like there’s alot of myself in there. When I re-read, I couldn’t really hear myself in the main character’s voice.

Which makes me wonder, where did this come from? Was it real? Or was it simply a mechanical exercise: the deployment of my skill to create something that feels and reads like a novel, but lacks that holy fire which turns it into something worth reading?

Hard to say.

Nowadays, I find myself more and more edging away from things just because I know how to write them, and I feel like if I did go through and write them, the result would be mere self-parody. I worry about that. I write so fast that I not infrequently fall into the trap of repeating themes and character types and even entire story elements. For instance, so many of my books and stories have riots in them. Plenty of writers have gotten a lot of mileage over working with the same people and the same milieu (Jane Austen and Edith Wharton come to mind). But I don’t think that I have enough sublety to be successful in that vein.

If you’re going to write about the same stuff over and over again, you need to paint with a very fine brush, so that each character and situation shows subtle nuances that are different from the other times you’ve done something similar. For instance, Mr. Knightley fulfills a very similar role in Emma to the one that Mr. Darcy fulfills in Pride And Prejudice, but there’s enough difference there (Mr. Knightley finds himself drawn to Emma’s childishness in a way that Mr. Darcy never would be) that it doesn’t feel like a rehash.

I am not sure I could do that.

On the other hand, I also don’t want to just be writing all kinds of random crap that I don’t really care about.

Woe.

I suppose the solution to this problem (and to every other artistic difficulty) is to just keep listening to my heart.

Actually, the heart isn’t as useful a barometer as one would think, because it’s so full of fear and trepidation. The heart is addicted to inertia and finds reasons to nay-say even the best ideas. I think the solution is to listen for one very specific thing: excitement.

Sometimes I am finding it fairly easy to write something, but I’m just not very excited about it. Other times, I am finding it incredibly difficult to write something, but I somehow can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve learned that on the former occasions, it’s best to abandon the work, while on the latter occasions, it’s best to keep going.

“Keep going” is pretty useful advice. It’s astonishing how often the solution appears if you’re just willing to agonize over it for a few days. Of course, I guess it’s not guaranteed. Junot Diaz agonized over Oscar Wao for five years before the solution (began to) appear.

2 thoughts on “Sometimes what you want to write is different from what you know how to write

  1. sunscald

    Matt Bell posted a random quote on FB (can’t find it now or I’d link) referring to this feeling as “urgency.” Which ideas produce the urgent need to write about them, and which ones feel like finger exercises? “Sometimes I am finding it fairly easy to write something, but I’m just not very excited about it. Other times, I am finding it incredibly difficult to write something, but I somehow can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve learned that on the former occasions, it’s best to abandon the work, while on the latter occasions, it’s best to keep going” seems entirely right to me.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Glad that it resonated with you. Yep, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling, but ignoring that feeling of urgency is even more uncomfortable. A person can lose months working on bullshit when they’re busy ignoring the thing that their heart is telling them.

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