Infinite Multiple ChoiceInfinite Multiple Choice
Nov 23, 2022
Musings on why writing is difficult, and why I struggle with it so much
You know, I think writing is hard. It is, and I'm tired of pretending to myself that it's not. On a surface level, I've always recognized it is difficult. Plenty of famous authors have admitted as much. But I've been thinking a lot about the fact that it seems to be especially hard for me, even though I'm someone who has claimed the love of writing for just about a decade now. So today, I'm going to explore that topic a bit. Let's see where I get to with it.
What Makes Writing Difficult
I was talking to my buddies Ethan, Tristan, and Sebastian the other day about art (our mainstay topic). Ethan's a visual artist and Tristan & Seb are musicians, none of them much for reading or writing. However, we were talking about the creative process -- what does it take to make something? What goes into it? When it came my turn to explain writing, I had a bit of a revelation. Or a few.
💡Revelation 1: Writing is about stamina
For me, the hardest parts of the writing process have to do with ideation, especially towards the beginning. For some, this might be the most exciting part! Good on you if so. But for me, this part is exhausting and difficult.
Next time you catch yourself in a daydream don't let it come to a stop. I challenge you to see how long you can sustain it in a coherent way. That's what writing is, and I think it can be quite difficult.
Which brings me to a wider point: writing is a craft that requires stamina. You can't do it without some. How long can you spend imagining a world, its characters, and their actions? Can you imagine all that over multiple days? Can you do it over multiple chapters? How many drafts? If you can last long enough -- then the story will exist. If you can't, then it won't. It's a war of attrition, in a way. Your will to write battling in opposition to the natural imaginary entropy that will come with time.
But that's just about the act of writing. The pure labor of the task. There is something deeper in the actual spirit of the task that also calls for some longevity of will: making choices.
💡Revelation 2: Writing is difficult because of decision fatigue
The gist of decision fatigue is that you become less capable of making good decisions the more decisions you make throughout the day, because making choices is hard and requires your brain to do quite a bit of processing.
And what is writing if not a craft entirely predicated on the practitioner making choices? A point that I brought up with my roommates was that with writing you have no physical material with which to work. It's all in your head. I recognize, of course, that Jerry Garcia, like many other talented musicians, makes plenty of creative choices while jamming out. But a key difference between playing the guitar and writing is that the physical means of practicing the craft of music influences the creative outcome.
Any chord that Jerry decides to play informs the next chord, and the next note, and springs up lots of other ideas almost immediately. But there is not an infinite number of things that could happen -- there's only a limited range (even if that range is massive).
💭 I really hope music people do not take offense - there is no artform I admire as much as music. It's a wonderful, powerful, and creative thing
The thing with writing, though, is just about anything can happen until you begin to set down some "material" -- pure stuff. A consistent world, a consistent character, etc... that will "behave" in a certain way. But it requires a lot of set up -- writing, for me, is like a big limestone boulder on a long hill. It requires a lot of force upfront, but once you get the story going it'll roll on its own.
💭 As a sidenote: I don't believe endings should be too hard. If you already have a whole story behind you, then you have enough material to come up with an ending
Anyways, the essence of writing is this: you have an infinite canvas to play with, and it is so blank it's blinding. You have no brush, no string, no materials except a spell book called a dictionary and a syntax of incantation called grammar. These incantations of yours are shaky vessels for something potent and infinite: your imagination. Your only job, really, is to use your spells in such a way that you reduce the infiniteness of possibility into something more concrete and coherent. If you're skilled then it's something beautiful.
No pressure, right? Right. Except one more thing. As you embark on your brave journey of reducing infinite nothing into a smaller something, you don't have much immediate feedback on whether your work matches your imagination, or if it sounds right. And that's a big deal.
💡Revelation 3: Writing is difficult because there's no immediate feedback
When I say immediate feedback, I don't mean someone in a writing group giving you a critique, or letting you know your pacing is thrown off by a two-page departure in the story to describe a single meal. I mean that, when a musician is playing their instrument they play a note, or a chord, and they can hear immediately, whether it sounds right. They can adjust and play, adjust and play, discovering their way to the "right" sound if they don't have it in mind already.
Same with painters. You see the results of a brushstroke as soon as you put it down and can adjust accordingly. But with writing, your medium is words, which are symbols for thoughts. There is no immediate feedback with words, except for the sound of them (which I suppose is an important component to writing). But, very often, if your writing is bad, it's because something is off of translating your story from its natural format (thought and imagination) to its new one (spell-word vessels of meaning).
That's perhaps the biggest obstacle I struggle with. Though stories are what I love most, and move me most, and fill my heart with joy and genuine excitement -- writing is an activity I haven't found easy to do recently.
I don't write as obsessively as I program, or as I write CSS for my website, or develop games. I think all those things are easier for me than writing because largely I can just fiddle around with things until they function or look right. And that's because of the feedback process. As soon as I make a change, I can see its effects and then iterate from there. That's much harder to do with writing.
And that's what makes writing so hard. So, I guess, the question is: how can I make it more fun for myself? Should I? Should I just drop it if I don't live breath and sneeze prose?
Why writing is hard for me
Truth be told, I've spent more time agonizing over writing than actually writing over the last few years. If you ask any of my closest friends, and if you ask my writing group, and if you ask God Himself, they'd all tell you that my biggest hang-up is writing. I worry about not writing, and I worry about how good I am, and I worry about if I'll ever get published or even ever write a book. I have a million false starts all the time -- announcing to my friends that I'm going to write a novel, and then not doing it.
It's not fun.
It's not fun. And I suspect that something is in fact quite wrong, because while it doesn't necessarily have to be a joy ride all the time, it shouldn't be this much of a struggle to get myself to write.
That doesn't mean that I'm thinking of quitting writing or anything like that. Not at all. But I do have to change some things around and figure out a new process. I'm likely going to have to retool my way of thinking concerning writing and overhaul my relationship with the craft so that I don't associate writing with the guilt of not writing.
So, what can I do?
Couples Counseling - Me and My Muse
I think I need to scale back a lot of my grand gestures and sudden impulses to write. That is to say, no announcing my next great story or novel. I'll announce it when it's done. That also means that rather than try to force myself to start a writing habit or anything like that, I should go small.
I could also give letting myself write when I feel inspired a shot. Don't know which one is better there, so I'll have to try both.
Either way, both of these should accomplish my goal of relieving pressure from the act of writing. It could just be a fun silly little thing I do for fun, which is something I need. Because I suspect that if I don't let writing become fun again, then I'm never going to be able to get to where I want to go with it.
Something that's helped me a bunch already is separating my writing life from my professional life. I wasn't ever a professional writer, but for a long time I was convinced that was what I needed to be. Thus, my financial success hinged (in my own mind) on my ability to write. That probably did lots of damage that I now have to scramble to undo. These days, however, I've let go of the idea that I will make ends meet by being a novelist or serial short story writer because I've found an equally important way to channel my storytelling needs - mixed reality - that will also serve as my profession. It works out! No worries there, anyways. But I would still like to do creative writing for myself on the side, which is the impetus for this blog post.
Strategies for Making Writing Less Hard
This is the part where I want to resolve some of the difficult parts of writing I mentioned earlier in this post.
The three key issues are:
- Writing is about stamina
- Writing leads to decision fatigue
- Writing has no immediate feedback
Let's see how we can go about solving these issues.
Writing is about stamina
- I could try making a novel in a brief concerted effort -- sprint not marathon
- Or I could do the total opposite -- marathon not sprint (helpful, I know).
- I could try that leaving things off mid-sentence thing to make myself more inclined to just start writing during the next session.
- Just... write more! It's like running. The more you do it, the more you can do it.
Writing and Decision Fatigue
- I could try writing after eating, since eating replenishes willpower for decision making.
- I could use more mad libs
- I could use premade or custom-made questions that might incite my imagination, and thus not leave me scrambling to come up with something
- Similarly, I could use more prompts
Writing and Immediate Feedback
- For this one, I might just have to try something my teacher, Camille Bordas, has been advocating for a long time -- focusing on the sentence. I have always "known" how important the sentence is, but I think I only just now began to understand how important it is. I might be able to get more joy out of writing if I just focus on the individual sentence more often.
- I might also want to change my approach to writing and let it be more directorial. I could try imagining that, through words, I am getting involved in the "camera-work" of story. In other words, I could try turning it into imaginary directing, instead of just describing things. This is an attitude shift -- become an explorer! Not a narrator. At least not while writing.
And I'm just about out of ideas. Please feel free to correct me, help me, or otherwise give me more tips if you have any thoughts on anything I've written in this post. I suspect I'll be doing a lot of thinking concerning writing going forward.
-- Juan Lam, November 2022