Lessons from ReaderCon23 Part One: Why We (don’t) Write

On my other blog, I have personal notes from ReaderCon23, but as this one focuses on my creative efforts, I will focus on the lessons I pulled from the various panels there. I think the first, and greatest lesson, is “You are not the only one, boyo!”  It was a theme in the “City and the Strange” panel which also resonated with all the writing panels as well. Every writer, from the newcomer in the back row taking notes on his “Clarkesworldmagazine.com” spiral notebook to the vet sitting on the panel. The troubles anyone who writes, professional, semi-professional or aspirant, are the same.

The first panel, Managing Motivation to Write, was hosted by Steve Kelner, who wrote Motivate Your Writing. He started with a quote from Kipling: “There are nine-and-sixty ways of composing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!”  Through this panel, and his “Seven Deadly Myths of Creativity” he charted different ways we motivate ourselves to write, or to do anything, and the ways we sabotage that motivation.  The first point he kept coming back to is writing has to be something we love, and something which brings us happiness.  We wouldn’t do it otherwise.  But when we start buying into the myths about how one should be a writer, or what one should be doing with their time, it can remove motivation and undermine desire. That which made us happy can start to make us unhappy.

So what does keep us going? Setting realistic goals, managing them, and learning to spot motivation degradation and turn it around.  But most important of all, we have to remember none of us take the same path to a final destination. Isaac Asimov famously wrote ten hours a day, six days a week, and then rested for a few hours on Sunday. That’s not a disciplined writing style – that’s obsession.

But let me break this down by the myths he described (with my own comments):

  • The Muse: “I have to wait for my muse to arrive before I can write anything of value!”
  • Solitude: “I must have total, monastic silence when I write!”
  • Discipline: “I must sit down every day and write 500 words of polished prose, lest Micky Spillane come in and break my knees.”
  • Similarity: “If I don’t work to the same pattern as Hemingway, I’m a failure!”
  • Spontaneity: “Writer’s don’t doodle! Words are lightning strikes of creative perfection.”
  • Heredity: “I come from a long line of chartered accountants. It’s just not in my genes!”
  • Worthiness: “Obviously, I am not worthy of a muse, as words do not flow onto the page like phlegm from my nose.”

Hopefully my less than loving commentary has pointed out how amazingly silly and yet downright dangerous these myths can be. They will kill your motivation.  Writing is not easy, and no one has the same patterns for doing it. Joe Haldeman told me about a colleague of his who had seven (SEVEN!) typewriters in his house. If he was having trouble getting started at one, he’d grab the page and start writing at another. Others would take a long walk to think out the writing before starting, or do a little longhand work before typing it up.

Jeff VanDerMeer collected an entire book of strategies on how different people invoked very different methods to work writing into their lives. It’s called Booklife. The fact there is a book about different ways to live the writing life just proves the point: there is no one way to write, and keep writing.  Everyone has their own way of doing it, and follows their own path.  We are not bound by the rules of convention when it comes to writing we are bound by that which helps us write and makes us happy.

And if writing like Mr. Earbass fromThe Unstrung Harp or settling down while big-band era jazz plays in the background and a cup of tea cools beside you works, then follow it. Just remember this:

Happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. It’s easy for us to get caught on the immediate rewards (pleasure) and forget about the long-term joys (happiness). I get caught in this trap, hungering for a short term reward and forgetting a longer term joy.

Writing is more than putting down prose on the page – it’s also planning, researching and other acts of creativity. If you need to spend a paragraph or two writing out what happens next, or discussing with your character why they need to do XY and Z, then go for it.

Give yourself permission to just write – you do not have skip right from your first draft to perfection. That’s a trap. Imagine your first draft as the big splashes of color Bob Ross first used when creating his paintings. Your next draft is just another layer. And then you put another atop of that. And then another. And lastly, happy trees.

You’ll find your way to the page, eventually. And the trip is often very worthwhile.

Next time: ReaderCon 23 Part Two – Motivate Me (and get me out of bed)

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