“If a short story doesn’t pour smooth from the start, then it never will.”—John Updike
Creativity moves at different speeds.
Sometimes a story will spring forth, fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus and you’ll feel like it’s all you can do to keep up with the muse whispering in your ear. This is the best feeling in the world. This is divine inspiration.
If you’ve ever listened to Radiolab, this fast creative process has a lot in common with improv. You show up, and it happens, and it’s magic.
But sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes you have an idea that you know is going to be great, but when you sit down to write it won’t f***ing come together. You do take after take, you hang out in the periphery, you try to sneak up on it, you try jumping in and no matter what, it’s an unreadable mess.
Sometimes a story can take months, years, even decades to write. You work on the story, you get stuck, you put it aside and work on the story again. What’s going on? Is your muse out on vacation? Is it writer’s block?
Joyce Carol Oates says she knows the solution to writer’s block, and I guess we have to believe she does considering how much she’s written. She says writer’s block is caused by some problem in the mind can’t consciously solve, and that the solution is to put the work aside for a bit until the subconscious solves the problem.—Rust Hills, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.
The problem with Joyce Carol Oates’s solution is that you as a writer might think that “putting the work aside for a bit” means not working at all.
You see, the thing about being serious about your art is that you have to show up every day, regardless of whether your muse does.
To be prolific, you should have a bunch of stories in your rotation. You work on one, get stuck, put it in a drawer, start working on another one. This way you continue to improve while your subconscious continues to mull over that first story. You have to keep your tools sharp and in good repair so that you’ll be ready for that day your muse descends upon you to offer you a gift.
As you heard from that clip, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how Robert Frost earned his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” after working for months on a huge epic poem. “I think the angels reward people who are at their desk at six o’clock in the morning working,” Elizabeth Gilbert says. And then, after months of sweating and working on his epic, he was given “The Road Not Taken”—a short, sweet pearl of a poem that had nothing at all to do with his epic. But it was still a gift, and it was still magic.
I think it’s important to point out here that just because a story comes easily, does not make it better than one that was hard to produce. Plenty of writers (myself included) have kept track of their writing by keeping a notebook of how much they wrote on any given day and taking note of whether writing came easy or hard that day. The crazy thing is, if you read back over your writing, you can’t tell the good days from the bad. It seems like you should be able to, but you can’t.
The truth is that any day you got to your desk, IS A GOOD DAY, regardless of your subjective perception of how it went.
Case in point, let’s look what Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, and what he had to say about his experience writing Carrie.
For me writing has always been best when it’s intimate, as sexy as skin on skin. With Carrie I felt as if I were wearing a rubber wet-suite I couldn’t pull off. […] I had written three other novels before Carrie—Rage, The Long Walk, and The Running Man were later published. Rage is the most troubling of them. The Long Walk may be the best of them. But none of them taught me the things I learned from carrie White. The most important is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard,either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on whether you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
And Carrie rewarded him for his efforts by sky-rocketing him into the stardom as one of the greatest and most popular living American authors.
In summary, you should celebrate the easy days. Thank your lucky stars that your muse has gifted you with it’s blessing.
But on the days your muse doesn’t show up…well, you’ll still be here, hammering away at your keyboard…like you do every day.
On Writing: A memoir of the craft, by Stephen King.
Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, by Rust Hills.
Becoming a Writer, by Dorthea Brande. (I definitely recommend this book if you are interested in hearing about, what she calls, “the dual-personalities of a writer.” Conscious/Subconscious, Muse/Workaday.)