Living Inside Your Head

Writing is an internal activity, even though it produces an external artifact.

So much if what we do as writers is done inside our heads. There isn’t a moment when we’re out in the world where our latest story or the latest topic we want to write about isn’t lurking around in there. I’ve often joked, except it isn’t really a joke, that if I do anything for more than an hour, I’m probably going to write about it.

Writing is a lot like singing, your instrument is your body. Singing is something you can do anywhere, without any special equipment. Writing is basically the same way. Even when you don’t have something to actually put your words onto, you can compose them in your head and reproduce them later when you get to a writing implement.

The trouble with carrying your instrument around with you wherever you go is the tendency to internalize everything around you, to let the world, your emotions, your moods, your level of energy, affect the work. Sometimes this can be good. The external and internal emotional world can serve as fuel to really passionate activity. And other times it shuts us down, and makes it impossible to get anything out of our heads.

Right now I’m on a bit of a burn out from the news of the world. It isn’t that I don’t want to be engaged with what is going on. I actually think  we’re going through a pretty important moment in our country now, I just can’t always be a part of it and get anything good done. When life is stressful, it can be hard to take in the negative things without that being reflected in your work. Again, maybe there’s a way to turn it around, and part of being a strong writer is being able to find a way to write under any circumstances. But at the same time writing is such a finely tuned instrument, that sometime the smallest disappointment or disagreement can gum up the works.

And sometimes we need to get out of our own way, and just get words onto the page. I spent probably five minutes writing a sentence, then immediately deleting it, just on this one blog post. Writing 500-600 words a day is something that on the one hand comes as second nature to me, and on the other is a constant struggle every day. Do people care about what I have to say? Am I making any sense? Should I be more topical or less?

Drink beer when you’re trying to write something for the first time, and coffee when you go back to revise.

A lot of writers have gone to chemical alteration to put themselves into the proper writing state. I’d be afraid for both legal and biological reasons to try anything sterner than caffeine or alcohol, and playing with what time of day I write. Sometimes I’m more creative when I’m tired, and sometimes I’m more blocked. Energy can be both a good and a bad thing. It’s great when you’re on a roll, but it also can send you down an endless loop of doubt and rewriting if you hit a bump. With tiredness comes apathy, and even though that can seem like a negative emotion, sometimes its good not to care overmuch. You should be passionate about the project, excited by scenes and chapters, and maybe even bits of dialog, but there are days you just need to get the framework in place for when you can fix it later. I used to think first drafts were the easiest because your brain wasn’t locked in a rut, but actually when you do revision enough you can find ways to improve something that was truly dreadful the first time. Just seeing words on a page is encouraging.

I fear this may be a bit of rambling, which comes with the territory for stream of consciousness writing. My point is, know how things in the world, what you drink, what you say, what you feel, affect what you want to write. Then act accordingly. And get more sleep than you think you’ll need. You’ll feel better. We all like to think we’re geniuses who’ll stay up all night sipping whiskey, and smoking cigarettes while typing up a masterpiece. But most of us need to take care of ourselves.

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