The role of doing nothing

The Olympics are still going on, I think, and every year during the Olympics we’re given grisly insight into the training regimens and schedules of a bunch of teenagers and twenty year olds. These are people who’ve worked every hour of every day since they were like three years old. They are so focused and so precise. They can’t make any mistakes. They can’t let any chance slip by them.

Stories of famous musicians are also replete with examples like this. Not just the classical musicians of the world, who are infamous for their level of practice, but Malcolm Gladwell also tried to make the point, in Outliers, that the Beatles, I guess, had practiced a lot more than other bands. In literature, there are stories about people like Balzac, who wrote in eighteen hour stretches. Or Proust, who was so utterly painstaking in writing every sentence of his novel. Or Flaubert, who said, “I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in.”

Within the realm of popular fiction, the stories of hard work are usually about titanic, prodigious output. The writer who has three careers going under three pseudonyms. The self-published author who puts out twelve novels in one year. The working mother who wakes up at 4 AM every morning to write. The author who writes on his phone during his morning commute. The message is always the same. Every instant counts. You can’t waste a single hour or day. The competition is so fierce and so intense that if there is anything you won’t do, then you’ll lose, because somebody else is always willing to do that thing.

And yet, within my own writing career, I’ve found that working very hard doesn’t have quite as much relation to the quality of the output as I’d like it to have. For the first five years of my writing life (roughly corresponding to my senior year in high school and my four college years), I wrote not so much (maybe 60,000 words a year), and those years were admittedly not characterized by much success. After that, there was a ramp-up period where I was like, “Holy shit I need to get serious about this,” and I wrote 150, then 300, then 500, then 600 thousand words in a year. Somewhere in there I had about four years where I wrote every single day. This was the period during which I wrote my first book Enter Title Here.

Then, sometime during my MFA, I was just like…this isn’t working. After ETH, I wrote three novels in a single year. My agent didn’t like two of them, and the third went on submission but didn’t find a home. I found it harder and harder to be productive, so I would often write for an entire day and then wake up the next morning and delete it all.

Part of the problem was that Enter Title Here came to me in a flash of inspiration. The main character’s voice leapt fully-formed into my head during the summer of 2012. I lived with that voice for about four or five months, and then during December-January I poured an entire draft onto the page. There was editing, admittedly, but the hardest part had already been done. With this kind of example, it was very easy for me to believe that you just sit down every day and dip your bucket into the well of inspiration and it’ll come.

When it didn’t come, I wrote anyway. Sometimes I finished those books. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I revised the books I finished. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I had the awful overpowering sense that the books were bad, but I persevered anyway. Sometimes I didn’t feel that they were bad, I just felt ‘meh’ about them, and I still persevered anyway. One summer I worked for months on a book that I abandoned, convinced it was bad, only for me to pick it up two years later, re-read it, decide it had potential, work on it for six more months, and abandon again when I decided that it wasn’t something I felt justified my time.

Sometime during all of this, I stopped being so aggro about the amount of time I worked. I kept doing a few things (waking up early, working mostly in the morning, turning off my internet while I worked), but I stopped setting goals and obsessively tracking my word count. I have no idea how many hours I wrote for during 2017. I didn’t finish a book, I can tell you that. In fact, sometimes I wonder what exactly I did do during 2017.

I do know, however, that if the goal is to produce words that will be put into books that will eventually be published, then eighty-five percent of my writing days are failures. These statistics are entirely made up, so bear with me, but I estimate that on roughly 20% of my writing days I have an entirely blank slate: I’ve no idea what I’m working on, usually because I’ve just either restarted or abandoned a project.

On 40% of my writing days, I’m working on adding words to a novel that I’ll eventually abandon (I count here any book that doesn’t go on submission). The number of novels I’ve abandoned has become so immense that I don’t even keep track anymore. It’s something that happens to me all of a sudden. I’ll just realize that this whole approach is worthless, and I’ll transport the entire draft into the DRAFTS folder of my Scrivener document. Then I’ll either table the novel or start writing it anew. Usually after I’ve gone through anywhere from five to eighty openings (which usually have between 1,000 and 50,000 words in them) I’ll decide the novel is unwritable. Note that none of these ‘openings’ ever constitutes an entire first draft. Sometimes I don’t toss away an entire opening before restarting. Sometimes I’ll realize that I need to change my approach, and then I’ll go back and rejigger things without ever throwing the opening away entirely.

On 20% of my writing days, I’m working on revising books that’ve gotten at least to the first draft stage. This at least feels purposeful. Here I count the entire process, from finishing a first draft all the way through to final copy edits.

And on 10% of my writing days–that magic ten percent–I’m engaged in the process of writing a book that’ll someday (at the very least!) go on submission. What’s funny is that these books are created using the exact same process that results in all the books I abandoned. These books too tend to have lots of false starts. These books too contain thousands of thrown-away words (sometimes hundreds of thousands) in the DRAFTS folder. But somehow these books sustain my interest, at least enough that I finish them. Note, at least two thirds of the time, these books don’t sell (or even go on submission) either!

The amount of time I’ve spent, in the last four years, working in any way on things that have been or will be published (including projects I can’t tell you about yet) is, I’d estimate, less than 15% of my total writing time. And this includes edits on Enter Title Here.

For awhile I found this to be a rather depressing state of affairs, but now it just feels so normal. Every day, Rachel asks me how my writing went, and my answer is almost always “Got nothing”, “Meh”, or “It went well, but the book’ll probably fall apart in the morning.” In fact, one reason I don’t tell her what I’m working on is because in a month she’ll ask “What happened to that squirrel wizard book?” And I’ll be like, “Umm, that fell apart almost instantly. I’ve gone through like ten new books / reconceptualizations by now.”

(For me the line between a new ‘opening’ and a new ‘book’ is very tenuous. Sometimes my new openings are so different from the previous one that only I would ever be able to tell that the two are connected. Honestly, it’s just tiresome to keep opening new scrivener files all the time.)

Now I’m aware like this account makes it sound as if I’ve put in rather a lot of effort into my writing in the last four years. And I suppose that’s true. I’ve certainly exhibited a greater than average amount of determination. But as for effort? I’m not sure. To be honest, I’ve become a little blasé about effort.

I used to believe in striking while the iron was hot. I believed if you had hold of something, then you wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Now I don’t know. I find that things often fall apart, and if you write a lot of words then you’re usually just writing more words that you’ll throw away. Oftentimes I’ll write a moderate amount, and then I’ll knock off early, thinking “That felt really good, but let’s see how I feel tomorrow” and when I come back tomorrow I’ll realize I need to delete everything I wrote yesterday. The thing is, I don’t think that realization would’ve come sooner if I’d written more the previous day. In fact, I think it would’ve come later.

As someone who’s spent months and years chasing down books that never turned into anything, I’ve seen the way that effort turns into the sunk cost fallacy. You think because you’ve put in so much time, then there must be something here. But what matters isn’t the effort but the output.

I know lots of people are very productive, but if the output isn’t good, I’m not that impressed. Some productive writers are great (Shakespeare, Trollope, Dickens, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Jim Thompson). Others are at least very good at being themselves (Orson Scott Card, Mercedes Lackey, David Weber, C.S. Forester). But a lot of the writers who are producing a book a year are just writing to formula. Most of the writers I actually like are taking at least a few years to write a book, and I’m starting to realize that it’s going to be really hard for me to write a book in less than two years. Not because I can’t write the book, but just because of all the false starts I need to leave time for along the way! Once I have the first chapter, writing and revising it takes six months. It’s finding that first chapter that’s hard!

Of course, lots of literary writers take their time in writing. I mean Eugenides and Franzen and Tartt are taking ten years between books nowadays. But there’s this implication that this sort of time comes because you’re paying alot of attention to the words. And I don’t do that either. What’s the point? I can spend a lot of time worrying about sentences, but if my approach isn’t right, I’m still going to throw it all out tomorrow.

But I don’t know, maybe that’s wrong. For me, the biggest difficulty is finding my way into the voice of the piece. This voice represents the implicit logic of what you’re creating. You can’t write by using the intellect. You’re channeling something deeper inside of you. And I don’t think we really understand how to reliably get into that place. Maybe focusing on the prosody would get me more reliably to that place. I will say that almost always when I feel like I’ve ‘gotten into’ a book I’m writing, it’s because there’s something unique in the prose itself. And if I don’t have that, then no matter how well the book feels like it’s going, I often feel meh about it.

The problem is that I think sentence-level editing is ALSO governed by the intuition! It’s impossible to know whether one word is right or another word is right unless you are being guided by the implicit logic of the piece. So, for me, something like ‘getting into the words’ as a way of finding the voice seems inherently tautological.


I don’t think anyone has developed a good way of finding the place, deep down inside, that stories come from (Robert Olen Butler calls it “the dreamspace”). Authors have developed their own techniques, but those techniques seem mostly just to work for them. There’s a lot you can say about the dreamspace, of course. For me, finding it involves a certain amount of integrity: I need to understand whether this is the book that I want and need to be writing. Which means that finding the dreamspace is mostly a negative action. I fish for some words, then I bring them up and am like, “Nope, not the right ones” and then lower my bait again (no, I don’t practice catch and release–the Fish and Wildlife people probably have a bounty out for my head).

And that’s fine, I suppose. You do what you do, and if someone came to me, I’d say, “Well, that sounds like a process. Trust in it.”

The real problem, and I know it’s taken me 2100 words to get here, is that only that thirtyish percent–the part where I’m deep inside a book that I really know–actually feels like writing. And, since some of that time (maybe most of it) is devoted to writing and revising books that I’ll complete but which aren’t really right for me, the actual time that I’m in my dreamspace feels very, very small, compared to the amount of time I spend trying to get into it.

This feels unfair. I can’t help but feel that some people just slip into their dreamspace with no problems. And, moreover, it makes me question: is not-writing also part of my process? Is abandoning work a part of my process? Is writing bad words, that I get from god knows where, and put into bad novels (that I’ll never finish), also a part of my process? How does this help me? In what way does this constitute ‘effort’ or ‘training’?

Today is a great example. I wrote fifteen hundred words, then I hit a block. I had some notion of where the book could go next, but it felt a little bit wrong. I often feel this sense of wrongness when contemplating a book. Things are for whatever reason not as elegant or as simple as they can be. And I’ve come to believe that it’s somewhat pointless to put down more words when the book is like this.

Sometimes this is where the book breaks down for me. Other times I think of an approach that takes me to where it really needs to go.

I don’t know. Personally, I don’t think of the writing–the typing of words–as being important in itself. Rather, I type as a way of testing out my vision. Sometimes the vision breaks apart almost instantly. Other times it takes ten or fifteen or twenty thousand words for the cracks to show. But the process of writing isn’t the process of putting words on paper, it’s the process of refining that vision.