I woke up this morning with the unbelievable drive to read a book, read a book, read a m-****ing book.
(Sorry, I had to quote that song. Consider that the first use of real profanity on this blog. I’ll keep it to a minimum, promise.)
It’s not as though I don’t get the urge to pick up a book any given day. I think one of the driving forces behind my interest in writing is my almost insatiable appetite for books. In fact, the happiest way for me to spend an afternoon is browsing a book store, lost in the various sections in an attempt to discover some tome I’ve never seen before. But today of all days, I woke up with the urge to read, not write.
I’m staring down the barrel of a deadline that is, for all intents and purposes, tomorrow and all I want is to pick up a book and lose myself in a good story. Is it the drive to procrastinate that’s keeping me away from my work? Is it some self-sabotage instinct? Not this time. This time, I believe, it is the voice of the inner muse reminding me of one glorious notion: others have walked the path before you and more will come behind. See what they’ve done in the past and are doing now and be reminded that it can’t be that bad.
The line – it can’t be that bad – has always come with a particular voice in my head since I was in high school. One of my favorite shows, Babylon 5, had the most brilliant character in it in the form of Centauri Ambassador Londo Molari. His accent was some kind of Eastern Europe space hodgepodge and when he spoke, he let vowels drip like wine. In one episode, he consoles a morose Security Chief Garibaldi by telling him a story about how in his intensely stressful life, he was once sitting in a strip-joint and couldn’t concentrate on the dancers due to his inner angst. Suddenly he looks up and there is a beautiful dancer there, looking at him. She leans down, kisses his bald dome-y head, and says, “Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad!” That little moment of stripper-provided wisdom stuck with me for years, especially spoken from such an awesomely tragic character as Londo in such a hilarious scene. Because sometimes you need a reminder from the weirdest or most off-beat places that it really can’t be that bad.
I had prepared an article for the blog about the isolation that can come from being a writer, especially when one is like me and tends to find the best writing times in the dead of the night. I wanted to talk about the difficulty of telling friends ‘it’s cool, go out, I’m going to stay home and work’ when you want to be there yupping it up over some beers, but your manuscript is calling. I was going to jam on messed up circadian rhythms and the secret joy of finding your muse hiding at the bottom of your second cup of coffee at two AM when nobody is around to witness your discovery and triumph. Then I got an eyeful of Chuck Wendig’s latest blog post about caring less as a writer and I sat back to think, really think, about what can be taken from the lessons I’ve learned lately about being a writer.
First and foremost, I’ve learned to shut up and stop complaining about being a writer so much.
Let me be clear about that statement. Being a writer is no easy roll of the bones. It is an often thankless, uphill battle against your inner demons, resource (time/money/patience) management, and the ever-capricious well of ideas. It can cause you no end of strife either internally or with your family/friends. Hell, it can cause strife with total strangers when they read your work and suddenly you’re in the middle of a flame war online about the true meaning of words like ‘misogyny’ or ‘feminism’ or, y’know, where you put an apostrophe in a sentence (because people just like to fight over ANYTHING but ESPECIALLY grammar). And talking to your friend/significant other/whatever about what is going on in your head is healthy to a certain extent – it’s called sharing and helps make us well-adjusted little keyboard-tappers.
But behind all the fighting and the fretting and the problems writers have, there’s an inherent magic that I think we keep forgetting about. The act of creation that writers embark upon is, at the risk of sounding way too hippy-like, a beautiful one at heart because creation is beautiful. And when we sit down to make the choice to be creators, we take upon ourselves the task of bringing something new into this world.
I’ll highlight that important bit there that we often forget about: we take upon ourselves.
A brilliant editor I know, John Adamus, once told me that the first step in being a writer is making choices. I also amended that in my head to the first act of being writer is making the choice. When you sit down to the laptop, when you pick up a pen, you are choosing to take up the chance to make something new. There’s no writer chain gang, shackling us to our desks, demanding it’s ten thousand words before your opportunity for parole. And then, shortly thereafter, you make the choice whether or not to fret yourself to death over the very same choice. It’s all within our power to control and those inner stressors we put upon ourselves are within our power to control if we would just, to quote Chuck Wendig, care less.
Those outer stressors, like money and time managements and friends who wish we’d come around more and parents who ‘just don’t understand’, may be more outside of our control than our inner workings, but it’s still our choice where we put our time and our resources. We make the hard choices to find time to be a writer if we want to. We take the power of creation upon ourselves. And then, when we need to outgas some of our self-imposed internal worry, we crank about it aloud and make it part of our creative process. Sit down, write, fret, grouse, get back to work. I took a hard look at that cycle and thought to myself: which parts of these actually serve the creation process and which don’t? I can tell you, it’s those two in the middle that don’t vaguely resemble work.
I spoke last night with my best friend Andrea who recently completed training to become a doula. For those who don’t know what that is and think that’s a very funny word, a doula is someone who helps with childbirth and yes, it is a hilariously funny word. (It always reminded me of Aanold in Kindergarden Cop trying to pronounce ‘tumor’ – tuuumah!). She just went through her second birth yesterday and we caught up as she recovered from the strain of the whole thing. I marveled at her ability to go into a room and help a woman bring another life into this world and told her so – the very notion of the whole childbirth process freaks me out so badly I can barely listen to her describe it. Yet she made the choice to take up a calling to help bring new little people into this world, and as she talked about the long hours and the worry and the shouting involved (there’s a lot of shouting in coaching a birth apparently, just like on TV), I marveled at the excitement she had for all of it and the pride with which she spoke about the entire affair.
Suddenly, all of my complaints about my long hours behind a keyboard went away. I was just helping to bring some sentences and ideas into this world and all I had to worry about was getting them in the correct order to convey ideas and (hopefully) some proper grammar. I wasn’t standing in a delivery room, worrying over a new life coming into this world. If she could find the joy in the midst of stress, the accomplishment in the middle of BabyDefcon One, then what was I missing? Why did I let my stress overwhelm my creative joy? Why was it inherently part of my process?
I won’t go into why I stress about writing here. It’s a long, drawn out conversation that, in it’s own mental Olympics way, can cycle into that woe outgassing cycle in it’s own way and that’s not where I’m going with this. Instead, I’ll say that in the light of perspective, the little things that drive us to neuroses about our writing can be put into silence if we make our choices and keep an eye on where we fit in what I call the chain. That’s where the books come in.
For a writer, reading isn’t just the act of doing research on the greats in the field, or a chance to lose yourself in the work of your favorites. It is a chance to realize that once you picked up the pen, you are among a peerage that stems back to the first time someone chiseled something into a rock for fun and said, “Hey, Caveman Joe, you gotta read this!” You’re among those who made the choice to spin words out of dead air into strings of new reality that spark the human mind the moment they touch a reader’s eyes. And you’re burdened with the idea, just like they were, that if you don’t bring your particular vision to the world, who will. That book in your hand should remind a reader that there are others out there who could look at your stress and your inner demons and say, “Hey buddy, I feel you” and mean it. You as a writer are not alone and in the end, whatever it is that’s holding you back internally and setting off the monkey on your back, it can’t be THAT bad. There are real-world concerns to stress over that need to be focused on, sure, but the woe we generate over our creative selves sometimes needs the perspective only a good book can give.
Or, y’know, a kiss on the head by a beautiful, wise stripper. But if those are in short supply, take your revelations where you can get ’em. I’m sure trying to.