The real work of writing

I’ve had a lousy January. I hope yours has been better than mine.

Recently I’ve rediscovered, during a week of deathmatch cage battles with the next book, that working through this feeling is where the real work is. When a week of writing sessions have gone poorly and faith is low, that’s when my spine, if I still have one, is revealed. To choose to keep working anyway even when it’s not going well. If I pick projects that are always easy, I’m not learning anything. If I don’t hit some walls on a project, I’m not sure I want to be doing them at all. This is a platitude at the beginning, easy to say and believe that you believe. But then you hit a rough patch, and life is all question marks.

For years I’ve collected pithy quotes about how to handle moments like this. They take up half a whiteboard in my office. Little sayings, some mine, some borrowed, for how to get over the various bumps that come with a writing life. But those quotes just sit on their ass. There is always still a choice: do I sit down again and try one more time, believing I’ll get further than the day before, or go watch TV? Play with the dogs? A thousand things seem suddenly seem all so inviting.

When things are going well the choice is easier. Writing wins cause it’s fun, personal, often therapeutic and rewarding. There’s no magic in that choice on the easy days. But on bad days like this one, when you can hear the blank page laughing from the other room, when the memories of writing a chapter, much less a book, feel like they must belong to someone else, what will I choose?

For big goals the bad days matter more than the good. Anyone can work on the good, easy, fun days, but the bad? Well, that’s the question. To believe I’m committed to the work, I have to show up on all days. Every day. And feel my feelings but not let them stop me from showing up at the desk and taking my swings. I’d rather strike out than not show up at the plate. If I’m not willing to strike out, then it’s time to find something else to do.

Using one of my old tricks, this missive has let me cheat my demons by writing about them, and perhaps now I can get back to work. Wish me luck.

13 Responses to “The real work of writing”

  1. Anthony

    Just this morning on the drive to work I was listening to a podcast containing an interview with Charlie Kaufman. In it he was asked about how much he writes per day. His answer was that he doesn’t necessarily write a lot (or at all) every day but that the ideas he needs to write about are always running through his mind. He said that his movie “Adaptation” was in part a capture of his process and he realises now that it IS his process and he doesn’t beat himself up as much now for not progressing the physical act of putting pen to paper as often as some would like.

    I found it an interesting interview. Unfortunately I don’t have a direct link to the podcast. It is in the Creative Screen Writing podcast on iTunes.

    But, having said all that, there still comes a time (even for Charlie Kaufman) when the words need to be committed to some medium and regardless of how much incubation ideas have had in the mind, it can be still be a daunting task. So I wish you the very best of luck it getting your writing mojo working once again.

    – Anthony.

  2. Phil Kirkham

    Good luck – hopefully writing the article followed by good wishes from your readers weill help

  3. Dorian Taylor

    The more I do this kind of (knowledge) work on a self-actualized basis, the more I notice three important things:

    First, for projects in which the labour (if it can be called that) is near-exclusively intellectual, conceptual integrity is the single most important component to maintaining momentum. In order to achieve conceptual integrity, I have to understand and agree with the direction I’m taking, I have to see value in the objective, I have to be able to see a clear path to the finish — including the very next step, and I have to have the wherewithal to complete it.

    Second, I’m finding that every action I take is either part of a plan or a response to an interruption. Some interruptions are unavoidable but plenty of others aren’t. Moreover, the cost of switching contexts back and forth to handle the interruptions is substantial and often overlooked. To exacerbate things, a compromise in my conceptual integrity makes interruptions that much more appealing. The way I dealt with this was to reserve one computer exclusively for interruptions and another for concerted work.

    Third, I’m beginning to suspect that I shift periodically back and forth between fundamentally craving exhilaration through productive experiences and craving stimulation through consumptive ones. That said, on some days, especially after a long work binge, no degree of conceptual integrity, wherewithal or lack of interruptions is going to save me from wanting to veg out on the tube (or tubes) or just go do something — anything — else.

    Anyhow, I commiserate. This is something I’m actively working to reconcile. That said, it’s time for me to get back to work as well.

  4. Robby Slaughter

    Good luck! If it’s any motivation at all, your track record for the last two books means that no matter the topic I consider the next one a must-have.

  5. Alex C

    Hey Scott, I know the feeling all too well. While I am an infrastructure consultant – I am a self employed knowledge worker. And then there is the SharePoint and Design work. Well, in summary, I deal with much the same. Proposals, Design specs, strategies to generate revenue, etc.

    My trick – and it works every time:

    1) The brain is asking for a break. Let it have one. It will let you know when its ready.

    2) When you have *some* energy – go one dish at a time.

    One dish at a time is from a story I think ii in one of Dale Carnegie’s books – where a pastor wonders how his wife is going to get through the mountain of dishes from a big dinner. His wife answers: “One Dish at a time”.

    Oddly enough, whether it’s chores my wife expects of me, or routine mundane tasks I hate doing, business chores, or a fun project that turned into a chore – one very small step at a time typically does it for me. Something magical happens when you take a step back and notice you have made significant progress.

    Hope this helps.


  6. Subhash

    Ciao Scott! We love your books :-) You have done a great job in the past, and will easily overcome this situation soon. Don’t worry too much about it. Probably taking a short vacation might also work.

  7. Dwayne Phillips

    Yes, writing is fun for some of us. I am one of those. I feel better at night on days when I have written something – anything. There are days when writing is excruciating – excruciating to start. Once started, well it feels much better.

    One pithy statement to try – BICHOK Butt in chair, hands of keyboard. Sometimes the most difficult physical position to assume.

  8. Pawel Brodzinski

    For me consistency was always soething which was helping me to go through the most painful and boring tasks. Even when I feel totally sick just thinkinking about some unpleasant task I keep trying every day until I’m finished. Usually I use some distracters on my way, but I make myself feeling uncofortable knowing that the real work still waits for me.

    The funny thing is this approach takes away pleasure of things I usually enjoy, so I deal with unwanted task sooner to get my joy back.

  9. Scott

    Thanks for the support everybody – much appreciated.

    My lousy January involves more than writing – the new book is going well, just this last week has sucked :)

    Anyway, again, the comments help a ton. Appreciate it.

  10. Claire Giordano

    Just make yourself stay at your keyboard until you write–that’s the trick, I think. And perhaps the other causes for your lousy January will actually make your writing even more compelling, more human. Good luck, Scott. –Claire

  11. Scott

    Thx Claire.

    You know it’s funny. The word ‘just’ is so small and obvious. Just do this. Just do that. It works great in ads, and as advice, but its not useful when the thing in question, in the moment in question, is the last thing in the world I want to ‘just do’. It’s sort of like saying ‘just cure cancer’ or ‘just break her heart’ or ‘just go to the next galaxy and conquer the universe’. The word just is supremely practical, and I get the spirit of it, but it’s simultaneously a cruel word – it doesn’t explain why something that seems so simple, feels so not simple.

    But I do get the spirit – I myself gave the exact advice you’re giving me :)


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