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Writing Is Hard – Part 1: Re-Ignition

Truth be told, writing comes rather easily to me. That’s true at least inasmuch as I seldom struggle with the mechanics of a sentence or to express an idea with relative clarity. I credit this to myriad sources, including a family adept at using the English language, a series of fine teachers in elementary and high school, and to the fact that I was all but constantly reading books between the ages of eleven and fourteen or fifteen; after that I still read heavily enough, but also did the other things teenagers do. Like whittling and leather tanning and such. And also, sure, there’s aptitude. We all have our strengths and stretches. Expressing ideas in writing is easier for me than for many; completing simple mathematical equations is, on the other hand, impossible.

So why do I say that writing is hard? Because when it comes to the type of writing in question, which is, FYI, narrative prose, the simple fact is that writing is hard. Especially when one has — like I have — spent too much time away from it.

A few years back, I wrote a novel. Then I wrote another one. Then I started working on another one right at about the time the first one was published. I finished the third a little before the second book was published. By that time, my wife and I had a one year old son. Children are wonderful, but having a child does afford you as much free time as not having a child. By this time, I had also transitioned out of working in a traditional office and was a full time freelance writer, as I have been for the past six years now. Between the effort I expended writing all day in the form of articles for various websites, product descriptions, customer emails, page copy for a major food distribution company, and marketing materials for various clients, at the end of each day, the last thing I wanted to do was write more. Writing fiction, which had once been my release, became a daunting task. After writing thousands of words of copy during the daytime, the evening writing sessions I had once found energizing and productive became a source of frustration. And eventually, they just went away. Which is putting it poorly, because of course things we do don’t go away, we stop doing them. Excuses, excuses.

Anyway, at some point a few years back, I stopped writing much fiction. I completed a short story or two, and I slowly polished and edited the book I had finished when my son was one sometime after his second birthday. Then I handed it off to a few trusted people for edits. The returned manuscript sat on my proverbial desk for a year and a half. Yep. A goddamn year and a half. Why? Because of inertia, plain and simple. When I was writing every day, be it during my lunch break at work (first novel) or at home in the evening, often after my elementary school teacher wife went to sleep (second book), writing was a necessary part of each day, as essential to me as is the workout to the athlete, the rehearsal to the musician, or the tallow rendering for the person who really loves making candles and who just doesn’t feel whole without rendering tallow. (What?)

Anyway, I stopped writing every day. At some point, I was hardly writing fiction more than once a week. If that. Where has that left me? Well, with two abandoned manuscripts, to be honest. The ideas were (or are, I should say) decent, but they weren’t inspiring enough to get me, well, inspired. Not truly inspired, anyway; not excited enough to sit back down in the chair after the work day spent writing only to write some more, even it was going to be on my own terms. Then, at some point, something occurred to me: it wasn’t the plot lines or the characters that were the issue, it was the author. I had simply let slide the discipline and focus needed to create good long-form prose.

In the past few months, for various reasons (the dust settling after a cross-country move; growing discontentment with exerting effort writing reams of copy that don’t even feature my name; so forth), I have finally found myself ready to rededicate serious time and energy to my writing, but I’ve found that, much to my chagrin but not to my surprise, writing good prose is not like riding a bicycle. Once you know how to ride a bike competently, you can spend years out of the saddle only to hop on again and ride safely down the street. Perhaps you won’t be as fast a cyclist as you were in your prime and perhaps your turns won’t be quite so deft, but you’ll get along just fine. With writing, one doesn’t have the luxury of getting along fine. Few readers will take a look at an article, story, or any other piece of writing and think: “Well hey, this writing kind of sucks, but I bet this guy has some great stuff coming down the pike! I’ll just keep on reading until it suddenly gets good.”

I can’t say I’ve ever read any book I found middling in quality and then immediately set out to see what other works the author has available. Why would I? Why would you? We wouldn’t.

So how do I re-ignite the writing? How do I get back to a state akin to my productive heyday wherein a 45 minute writing session often produced between 1,000 to 2,000 or more words of actually quite good prose? Work. Time and effort and plowing ahead through the process of editing bad sentences and reworking plot holes and coloring up characters. Open, honest assessments of weak pages. Close attention paid to what works well in certain paragraphs and why.

But really, the only way I know I can get back to a steady output of quality prose is to keep writing plenty of prose each and every day. The shoddy work I’ll keep under wraps. Once it starts to shine again, I’ll share it. What all writers know (except maybe a gifted golden few, who can kiss the rest of our asses, of course) is that the finished product — that taut, clever book there on the shelf — is the tip of an iceberg composed mostly of sentences you can’t believe you actually wrote. The other word for that submerged morass is hard work.