Slowly finding my balance between using this abundance of downtime and staving off the howling loneliness. This is a great time to look up and take all the advice anyone who thinks they’re a writer has for you: be kind to yourself, take as long of a break as you need, return to what makes you happy, etc. All of it, every trite and threadbare line.
I’m coming out the other side—or just getting past the first couple of checkpoints—in okay shape. I’m retraining my focus and attention span. The largest and most important habit to break is grabbing my phone to check social media during a dull moment. I’m pretty good at realizing what I’m doing and setting my phone down immediately, but I’d rather stifle the reflex in the first place.
I’m doing a couple things to help strengthen my focus. One is rereading one of my favorite books, the Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe. I keep a collection of his and Vonnegut’s work on one shelf, because I refer to them whenever I have a question about writing. How much character action do I need to describe? Help, all my sentences begin with a character name and an action verb! When do I need a paragraph break? How do you transmit emotion through monologue? Wolfe and Vonnegut know everything, for my money; YMMV. I could probably stand to study some Hemingway, if I wanted to expand and solicit varied opinions, though I think Raymond Carver and Shirley Jackson are more my style. Anyway, I’m rereading this series because it blew my mind when I first read it. The plot is great, but the technique was what upended my world. It was the first moment I realized what else literature could be capable of. But I need to stress: this combination of herbs and spices is designed for my tastebuds. I can’t recommend this book to most people because it hits them the wrong way. It’s too much, it’s purple prose, it’s heavy and dense. Not everybody enjoys really smoky ribs and tearing them off the bone, and that’s fine. The Book of the New Sun is a special glowing exception to the universe that sits well with me, and it’s the only book I’ve reread so many times.
My philosophy is that there are too many books out there and not nearly enough time to read a fraction of them, so there’s no time to reread a novel. But this is wrong thought: read what you fucking like. Reading time should be a pleasure. If you enjoy finding the endless pursuit of what’s new and novel, that’s fine. Many people do: all they want is what’s new, what’s different, the latest thing to come down the pike. The scent of newness is the addictive drug they chase. For me, Wolfe’s writing is a cozy little house in the deep woods, far away from everything, and I’m going to spend a lot of time there because it feeds me. I’m savoring each line, and that’s different for me. Any time I find myself zipping through a paragraph to get on with the story, I halt and rewind and study each line to understand how much is being communicated there. Wolfe chooses his words carefully; I’m currently blowing three or four sentences to equate to what he sculpts in one. That’s a trick I need to learn as a writer, an important trick.
The other thing I’m doing is reading a book called The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. You’ll find many people over 40 will likely be familiar with this; younger than that, and if it’s not on Nintendo Switch, Tik Tok, or 4chan, it may as well not exist. Cameron treats her book as a spiritual exercise, which some may find off-putting. I’m not particularly religious, so I don’t care for all the references to God, but the lessons are useful so I overlook this. It’s also a weeks-long course, so there’s some new technique or discipline to practice each week. She presents two concepts: morning pages, where you wake up and go straight to your notebook and just write as fast as you can for three pages. Write every angry, confused, resentful, hilarious thing you have in your head, bearing in mind there are no repercussions, you’re going to throw the book away in the end. You don’t even look back at what you’ve written. And if all you can write is “I have nothing to write,” great, do that for three pages. But you have to leap/crawl out of bed and go straight to your notebook and start writing.
I’ve been doing this for almost two weeks. Today I exhausted the ink in the pen I was using for this; good thing Americans think nothing of throwing perfectly good stationery away on the sidewalk, which I salvage and add to my collection of pens from dozens of trade shows and conventions and whatnot. One down, 999 to go. But I’m writing by hand, and I’ve written more by hand in the last two weeks than perhaps the entire year previous. I’ve started to look forward to it, just scrawling away for three pages (I do two because my pages are so damned large). Yesterday I had a breakthrough about my writer’s block, and today I had one about my relationship. Which… is kind of scary, but I embrace it. And I’m getting better about focusing on the mission and not picking up my phone when my thoughts slow down for a second.
I’m just waiting for this practice to lend itself to creative writing, which it hasn’t done yet. I haven’t written anything for fun yet, no stories in weeks. I finished my May commission but that’s it. Not only have I deactivated all pressure to write anything, it’s almost like I resent the thought of it. I don’t enjoy being online, I’m not curious about what’s coming next, and I certainly have no personal conversations to tie me to harbor. I may as well not exist if I’m not producing, so… I’m not existing for a while.
The other lesson Cameron puts forth is the concept of an artist’s date night, where you clear everything else away and just indulge in your artistic craft, whatever it is. I was kinda doing that already, in the previous few years, when I’d have hours-long writing binges, fulfilling three ongoing commissions at a time, updating my Patreon with ongoing series, populating my blog and working on stuff for sale. So I think I’m good with the concept of a writer’s date night, except now I’m not creating, so I can’t imagine what it would look like to try to do something like that now.
Having those under my belt, I’m starting week one of The Artist’s Way, and I have no idea what comes next. I’m looking forward to it, though. And I’m rereading my favorite series, as slowly as I can. I have a stack of library books I’m not even touching. Sometimes I wonder what I am, if I’m not a writer, but then I remember it doesn’t matter at all. In any sense, on any level, it absolutely doesn’t matter.