A Response to Berthold

Mark Paxson

Here’s my response to Berthold’s post about the difficulties of a writer.

Most days, it’s a real struggle for me to get started on writing even a paragraph in one of my stories.

This is me. I have plenty of free time these days, and each day begins with my solemn vow that I will write today. Even if it just a paragraph. I will make progress, no matter how small. And yet, most days pass without a single sign of progress. Why? Well, that’s the mystery of many things, isn’t it?

Once in a great while, I’ll be struck by some inspiration and then it’s just a matter of getting the words down as fast as I can, but that’s rare.

These days that doesn’t happen much for me. It’s one of the things that concerns me. When I first started writing, I frequently spent my non-writing hours still living in the story in my head. Thinking about it, writing it mentally, and then when I got to my laptop, having no problem writing more. Now, however, I rarely live in whatever story I’m working on. And when inspiration does strike, it’s frequently as I’m drifting off to sleep. I say to myself, “Okay, remember this when you wake up.” I rarely do.

Instead, with all of this free time I have these days, I surf the internet, check Twitter out one or five times, my email, some blogs, CNN, ESPN, and then I do it all over again. Or I choose to read or bicycle or cook. Why?

I’ve written about this before a number of times. Writing takes energy and when there are distractions that allow you to “engage” but do so in a less taxing way, in a way that doesn’t tap into those energy stores, well, the distractions win all too frequently. I’ve become convinced that one of the single biggest reasons writer’s block hit me and has yet to release its grip is the energy issue.

For a number of years, I worked in a stressful job and continued the job of raising my two boys. There were many stressors along the way. Although I was able to write a lot in the evenings and on weekends for a few years, those stressors eventually overwhelmed me. When I got home from work, I wanted to do as little as possible. So I just surfed the internet, read and went to sleep. For weeks and months.

And now, those habits have become ingrained in me, replacing the writing habit I had for those few years. I’m still struggling to break these habits and return to writing. Why?

I have to consciously force myself to stay on task and write something down. If I manage to do that, most of the time I hate what I’m writing up until I finish, at which point it starts to seem possibly decent. But the whole time I’m doing it, I feel like I’m doing lousy work, and moreover, it takes all my willpower to even do that.

Why is this? Writing is supposed to be what I like doing. No one is forcing me to do it—it’s what I want to do.  But then why am I strongly tempted to avoid doing it, like it’s a job or something?

Exactly. That inner critic, the one who remained silent for the first few years of my writing journey, began to speak up. To literally yell at me — I mean, seriously, the echoes of the inner critic’s voice are still echoing in the corners of my mind.

And I struggle with the idea Berthold expresses here. Writing is supposed to be fun. If it isn’t anymore, than why am I doing it? Why indeed? The only answer I have for that is that I enjoyed writing stories for a period of time and I haven’t given up on recapturing that magic. Of being able to write a chunk every day or almost every day and to see the story spinning out ahead of me and knowing that I can do this and it’s going to be incredible when I do. I’ve lost that feeling. Can somebody find it for me? 😉

The simple and obvious explanation is that writing is active. You have to consciously do something to make it happen. Whereas reading the news or watching cat videos is passive—you just find your way to the site and put your mind on cruise control.

Yes … all of these distractions we have are mostly passive. When I first started writing, social media was somewhat in its infancy. Twitter did not exist. Blogs were few and far between. The internet in all its forms had not yet become such a pervasive presence in my life. But then it did and all of this technology provides wonderful opportunities for us to “engage” but to do so passively.

My next-door neighbor has had all kinds of hobbies over the years I’ve known him, from shooting guns to building model airplanes to mixing drinks to, yes, playing video games. And he doesn’t seem to need a huge amount of willpower to make himself work at any of his hobbies. Why is my hobby different?

I think there is a fundamental difference between those types of hobbies and the “hobby” of writing. Which, to be honest, I don’t consider writing to even be a hobby. It is something else entirely.

There is no creativity needed in shooting a gun. Nor is there much needed in building a model airplane (which basically is just following instructions and putting the pieces together. And while these are “active” pursuits, like playing video games, they are not necessarily mentally and emotionally active like writing and many other creative forms.

I compare it to one of my newer hobbies. I’ve taken up acrylic pour painting. It’s a fascinating creative outlet for me. There are countless different techinques that can be utilized to create different designs and looks. Countless color combos. Countless of a whole lot things.

And while I struggle sometimes with “wanting” to do it, the struggle is nothing like with writing because there is an element of acrylic pour that is about letting go. There is only so much I can do with the techniques and colors before the paint does its thing with very little input from me. As a result, it is not as mentally or emotionally taxing as writing. Because writing a story is entirely dependent on me and what comes out of my imagination. I can’t just mix a few words up in a cup and pour them on the paper and let the words and paper take over to complete the story. It’s that pressure that comes with writing that creates, in part, the difficulties I have with wanting, once again, to sit down and try to write a piece of fiction.

Ta-da! This explains the mystery of why writers procrastinate. Procrastination is something you do when you are assigned a task by other people, and writing feels like that because that’s how we’re trained to regard it. It’s the same reason we all procrastinated when our teachers assigned us to write a paper on such-and-such-thing-no-one-cares-about.

Maybe. Probably. The question of audience is one of the things that has held me back the last few years. Dissatisfied with the small number of readers I have had with my last few books, I have questioned why I continue putting this much effort into the thing when the thing isn’t very widely read.

But, on the other hand, I don’t necessarily know that I write for my audience. I’m still picking at ideas for stories with the idea “can I do this?” I don’t typically think about the audience and what they’ll think while I’m writing. My internal thought process, my internal motivation for the stories I write revolves around whether I can pull something off the way I want to when I come up with the idea.

Now, it’s possible, if not likely, that part of “the way I want to” comes down to whether or not readers will like it. In fact, I can’t deny that, since virtually everything I write I publish, either on my blog or in book form. So, yes, there is some dependency on the audience for what I do, but … well, I just don’t know if “writing is for somebody else” is necessarily the driving force behind my procrastination.

So my advice is: don’t worry about making sense. In fact, I’ll go even further: actively try to avoid making sense on the first draft. Just put down the most basic, sub-literate version of what you want to convey. You’d be surprised how hard it is to not make sense—your unconscious mind will keep you at least within saluting distance of it most of the time. After that, you can just iterate until your visceral idea has been refined into something your readers can understand.

Sigh … if only it were that easy. 😉

As a pantser with a healthy inner critic, I’ve never mastered the art of just writing. The couple of times I’ve tried NaNoWriMo, or similar exercises, I haven’t made it very far in any of them because I simply don’t write that way. I wish I could be one of those writers who writes a couple thousand words a day without a care in the world, knowing that they are going back to it and editing the hell out of the thing to get it in tip-top shape. But I don’t. I write slowly, editing as I go, pondering what has already come and what will come (which, as a pantser, frequently isn’t known until it hits me in the head). I put the pieces together as I write. Tinkering here and dithering there, and eventually I manage to squeeze a story out of the ether. And once I figuratively type the words The End, I rarely go back and do much editing myself. My first complete draft is frequently pretty much my final draft — except for those things my beta readers and others point out to me in the reading before publishing.

Oh, to be able to write just to write…


  1. Chuck Litka says:

    Talking about living within the story, struck a cord with me, Mark. It is not too much of a stretch to say that at least my first three books were transcriptions of daydreams – people, settings, scenes I’d gone over in my head time after time for months, years even – that were then woven into something like a story. It is a wonderful way to write. On the other hand, my last three or four stories were designed from the ground up to be stories. And even though designed as stories, I often had to stop and figure out what to do next to get to the ending. It worked, and I had fun, but I miss living a second, imaginary, life, with the excuse that I’m dreaming up my next book. I’m writing a novella for Amazon’s Vellla app, mostly as free advertising, but after that, I’m going to dream up a more ambitious novel – and take my time to dream.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. kingmidget says:

      Let me know how your experience with Vella goes. I’m curious about whether it changes the dynamic for us indie authors.


      1. Chuck Litka says:

        I will. I’m writing a simple space opera novella in 19- 20 1,200-1,400 word episodes. Sort of like the old fashioned newspaper comic strips — a scene an episode. I can usually write the first draft of each episode in a couple of hours, so its not too demanding. I don’t know if I will continue on with it — I doubt it. As I said, I’m mostly doing it to get my name in front of readers who don’t go slumming in the free book section. I don’t expect it to be lucrative. It’s an iOS app, so Apple will get their 30% cut off the top of every token purchased in the app, and Amazon and the author splits the rest, i.e. the usual 35% cut for $1.99 or below books. But it’s free advertising.

        Liked by 2 people

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