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Writing Life: Jack London’s Club

May 15, 2010

Did you write your daily 500 last week?  Unless you’re already a career novelist (and perhaps even if you are), it’s likely that you did not.  It was a crazy week–right?–and you just didn’t have time.  Here’s the interesting thing: you’re both right and wrong.

You’re wrong about not having “time” to write 500 words a day, but you know that already, so I’m not going to dwell on it.  All the same, you didn’t do it, and you know that you’re not just lazy.  It’s not a matter of priorities, either; writing is deeply important to you, possibly even more important to you than bathing, and yet there are still a number of days (maybe all seven?) that you did not actually create.  You did some editing, you worked on a query letter, you researched agents or publishers, but you did not tell a new story, or even a fragment thereof.  You can’t even call it writer’s block, because to be honest there were a couple of days when you didn’t even plant yourself in the chair with the intent to write something new.  What’s going on there?

In my experience, the primary obstacle to daily fiction writing is lack of motivation.  Not lack of motivation to be a writer, but lack of motivation to write.  Motivation to be a writer is what sends you to pore excitedly over agents’ web sites, read this and other blogs, and subscribe to Publishers Marketplace.  But motivation to write–true inspiration–is what you frequently lack, and you worry that it may be your fault.  Once again, it is and it isn’t.  You have more control over inspiration than you think you do, but you’re not at fault for having no idea how to control it.

Unless you’re the offspring of a literary genius, you probably did not become a speculative fiction writer because you felt obligated by external pressures.  Most likely your parents do not shake their heads in disappointment when they find out you are working 9 to 5 at a job with health benefits instead of sitting down and dreaming up alien biologies and systems of magic.  So what drew you to make up stuff and write it down?  Inspiration.  Compulsion.  You had something rattling around in your head like exploding popcorn and you had to get it out.  What happened to that compulsion?  Can you get it back?  You can, but only by doing the things you did naturally as a child and have had beaten out of you since then.

1. Read for fun. This, you say, you definitely don’t have time for.  And that, I would venture to guess, is a major reason you’re lacking in compulsion to write.  I’m not talking about “market research” or even plain old research.  Don’t read with your writer hat on, or “read in your genre” or anything else that has even the faintest whiff of vegetables about it.  Buy a book you have no logical reason to read except that you really really want to. The kind of book you might be embarrassed to be seen reading but will stay up until 2 a.m. with anyway.  Even zoning out and watching movies or television dramas can serve the same purpose.  Other people’s stories fertilize soil that you’ve leached of all its creativity by harvesting crop after crop and never putting anything back into the system.

2. Ask questions. This goes beyond reading the newspaper or a scientific journal and asking yourself “what if?”  You need to ask questions of actual, living people.  Not even necessarily “experts.”  Make a point, at least once a week or so, of striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know all that well (or at all) and channeling your inner 4-year-old by asking him a ridiculous number of questions.  What do you do for a living?  Do you like it?  Why?  What is your boss like?  What’s the best part of your job? You may think this seems like a surefire way to drive someone crazy, but 99% of people absolutely love talking about themselves, and the other 1% are CIA agents or in the Witness Protection Program, so you may want to cultivate those friendships as well.

3. Set an automated away message on your comfort zone. Remember how, when you were a kid, you just couldn’t wait to get out of the house and roll around in the grass, or peek through the fence at the neighbor’s scary dog, or go on a field trip to that place with the dinosaurs?  When we’re children, our parents and teachers encourage this because they recognize that our brains are still developing.  As adults, we fall into routines, and no one encourages us to break out of them because they feel we’re finished growing and have nothing more to learn.  If you want to write fiction, speculative fiction in particular, you need to blow your own mind on a regular basis.  The “how” doesn’t matter.  Ride a bike to work one day instead of driving.  Get a cheap motel in a neighboring city and stay there all weekend.  Spend a couple of hours somewhere that terrifies you.  Eat food from a country you couldn’t confidently locate on a map.

In short, the key to rediscovering the compulsion that led you to be a writer in the first place is to actively engage yourself in life, in stories, and in other people, the way you did as a child when those first stories came tumbling out of you despite yourself.  True inspiration does not come from deep within your genius mind – it comes from treating yourself to life’s pains and pleasures, and living with a sense of awareness, of participation.

Bottom line: if you’re having trouble coming up with 500 new words of fiction a day, it’s not your fault.  I’m guessing no one ever told you that when it comes to writing, discipline alone isn’t enough.  Inspiration is vital, but it’s also not beyond your control.  To quote Jack London, “You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”

So go out there this weekend and start swinging; then come back and tell me all about it.

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