So: I also run this blog called “terribleminds.” Is that the word for it? “Run?” I write it? I curate it? Whatever — let’s just go with, “I pull blobs of dubious writing wisdom that get caught in my brain filter and smear them on the Internet’s walls.”
This blog, which is nominally focused on writing, obviously draws a lot of writers of various experience levels — from the never-written to the never-published to the often-published.
The after-after party with Chris Horne, Chuck Wendig, Paul Barrett (photo by Paul Barrett)
And with writers — particularly those from the more inexperienced end of the spectrum — come questions. Questions of how to *do* this thing that we do. Some questions are very specific: how do I make my characters pop, how do I outline, how do I write a query letter?
But then there’s a category of question I like to think of as, “Questions From The Department Of The Overwhelmed, The Bewildered, The Insanely Frustrated.” These are questions that are *gibbered* more than *asked* — if one were to ask such a question in person it would sound like, “Whuh? How do I… what do I? Wh… where do I begin? How do I start? Muh? Guh?” More a series of squeaks and whimpers that ultimately culminate in communicating a feeling of helplessness, confusion, and abject frustration.
Thing is, I understand this sense of helplessness.
We step up to the blank page — this snowy tract of tabula rasa that hasn’t earned even a single footprint across its virgin expanse — and the potential overwhelms us. Or, it has me, at least — once upon a time upon starting a new story I’d feel like I was standing drunk on the ledge of a skyscraper. Vertigo overwhelming as if even typing one letter would send me dropping down in that cavernous wordless abyss. And this sense of woozy dizzy gonna-fall-itis is compounded by the heavy burden we put upon our own shoulders — that burden of potential, of a story that has all our hopes and dreams shoved into it, a story that to earn its place in our lives must do more than merely exist, a story on which we hang our lives, our careers, our families, our futures, OH MY GOD I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS I CAN’T BREATHE THE PANIC. It’s enough to make you curl up on the bathroom floor and pee your pants.
These stories are like children, in that way — we want everything for them. We with our uttermost desire hope they’ll go out into the world and cure cancer and solve the down economy and grow up rich and happy and maybe be a lawyer, too, and a nuclear physicist, and don’t forget about that litter of hyper-successful darling children and grandchildren, too.
We see our stories like we see our children. We just want the best for them. We want them to be great. We want them to win awards and climb to the top of the bestseller mountain and maybe, just maybe they’ll change somebody’s life and in the process help earn us a big fat sack of cash which will allow us to buy a jet-boat or an oil drum full of 18-year-Scotch or hell, maybe a jet-boat that runs on 18-year-Scotch.
So: this frustration, this wordless soundless exhortation of terror and performance anxiety — I get it.
And to those who have it — and, in fact, to all writers everywhere — I offer a piece of what initially must sound like the most horrible advice in the world:
That sounds foolish — we enter into this thing because we love it, because it’s a part of who we are and because it is an expression of our very being.
And yet, my answer remains the same: care less.
Because here’s what you have to understand:
You’re not curing cancer. You’re not disarming a ticking time-bomb. The lives of a hundred adorable schoolchildren do not hinge on the quality of the tale you’re telling.
There’s no real risk to writing except your time. (Well, and maybe your sanity, but let’s be honest — the fact that you chose writing as a profession suggests an already disintegrating mental health score.) In fact, you get as much time as you like. Writing is one of the few careers out there where you can take the time you need to finish the work — and, even then, you have an unlimited number of do-overs and take-backs to fix the story in post. You get your first draft and as many drafts as you need to make the story what you always hoped it would be.
You free yourself by caring less. By dumping the dueling goblins of Fear and Expectation out the back of a C-130 into the mouth of an open and active volcano.
It’s certainly helped me, this attitude. I come to the page knowing I can’t control the publisher, the audience, the sales figures… or the lack of sales figures. I can’t control what editors want, what trends are popular for the next 17 minutes, what the 800-lb gorilla known as “Amazon” is going to do. I can’t control whether Barnes & Noble hangs itself in the hallway closet or whether the Big Six publishers start putting clauses in their contracts about how, upon publication, I am to donate until them my least favorite body part. I can’t control any of that.
I can only control what’s right in front of me. At the start of the day it’s not about fine art. It’s about fingerpainting. It’s about gleefully making mistakes. It’s about letting failure be an instructional manual written in scar tissue. It’s about reducing pressure. It’s about obliterating expectations and unloading the burden. It’s about caring less.
Because when you care less — when it becomes as much play as work, when a bad day of writing doesn’t feel like the fucking apocalypse, when you realize you can jump off the cliff just to see what waits at the bottom — you work better. You work faster. You work in a way that puts you and your story first on the page.
To those who are saying that this *still* sounds like a bad idea, that it seems like instead the answer would be to care more — after all, how can you possibly care enough? If this is a thing you want to do and a thing you love, well, why not give it all the caring you can possibly muster?
To that I answer: it’s because we can smother the things we love by caring too much. Sometimes you gotta let your kids play in mud. Sometimes you gotta let a dog be a dog. Sometimes you have to let your story just be a story.
So that, I maintain, is my answer to so many writing questions:
And write more.
And have fun doing it.