The idea—irresistible to two passionate fishermen—was to take a long walk up a wild river, traveling light, fly-fishing all day, tenting at night. They would feast on fresh-caught trout grilled over a campfire, with vegetables roasted in the hot coals. Paradise!
Instead, three days in and more than a day’s walk from the car, Craig and his fishing buddy were huddled under a tree, an awkwardly strung tarp keeping them not very dry. Rain had been falling steadily for over 24 hours. During the night their tent had started leaking. They had caught no fish since the previous morning, and they were down to three potatoes and one green pepper, with no way to cook them.
As they ate their potatoes raw, Craig said, “This isn’t really much fun, is it.”
“No, Craig,” his buddy replied. “This isn’t any fun at all.
I know that feeling from writing: what had seemed like a great idea is fizzling on the page. I’ve wandered deep into the metaphorical wilderness anticipating paradise, only to end up cold, hungry, and not having any fun at all. The chilly fingers of doubt and disappointment might grab my pen halfway through a first draft, or when I’m deep in revision, or sometimes even before I start to write. Carrying on with my story-in-progress suddenly has all the appeal of gnawing on a raw potato in the middle of nowhere in the rain.
Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to begin with. Maybe I should give up on this one, start something new. But every new story, no matter how promising, is apt to produce its own raw potato moment.
Maybe I should just give up writing altogether.
Of course I don’t mean that. Like all writers, I’ve had to figure out—for and by myself—why on earth I would choose to add to the world’s burgeoning slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts.
Having dealt with that question, I’m left to contend with the next: how do I cope with the times when my work seems so hopeless that I intensely resist facing the page?
On the good days the writing is a feast; every word, delicious. And the work I get done, when I feel like that, might seem just as delicious the next day… or not. Feeling good while you’re writing does not automatically mean that the writing will be good.
The most important thing about that statement, though, is its corollary:
Feeling bad while you’re writing does not mean that the writing will be bad.
All writers—even the best and most successful among us—sometimes feel frustrated, apathetic, insecure about our work. That’s what I remind myself when I finally manage to carve out some precious writing time only to find that my strongest compulsion is to do anything but write. I’ve learned what to do to overcome these feelings: Write. Simple as that.
Easy? Easy is another story. There’s the little matter of having to figure out—for and by yourself—how to complete the mind-page connection when your resistance is high. All the exercises, methods, triggers, self-imposed quotas or other motivating resources are only useful if you actually sit down and apply them. They’re like shiny lures in your tackle box: no matter how pretty they are, they won’t catch anything if you don’t put them in the water. On the days when writing is like a slog through a stinking swamp, plagued by the whining mosquitos of doubt or—more dangerously—when you “just don’t feel like it,” you simply have to find the impetus to write anyway. There’s no way around it. There’s no magic formula that will make it easy every time. Nothing will guarantee you a direct line to the muse.
Actually, in case you haven’t heard, the muse is a bad friend, lazy and unpredictable. Forget her. Forget about inspiration. Forget about mood. The mood you’re in has virtually nothing to do with the quality of your writing on any given day. Listen to Joyce Carol Oates: “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’ In a sense, the writing will create the mood.”
So don’t wait for the muse. You can’t depend on her. When you find yourself wading into the swamp, just remember two things: 1) No matter how you feel about it, there’s decent writing in there somewhere. 2) If you stop, you’ll sink.
Here’s the good news: while it may not get easier, it gets better. You can figure out how to trick, cajole, or force yourself to do the work even when it seems futile. You just have to open your tackle box and be willing to experiment, to find out which lures work best for you when the conditions are miserable.
Meanwhile, on the days when you’re socked in with brain fog, when your work-in-progress—if you can even bring yourself to look at it—fills you with lethargy and despair, perhaps you can take comfort, as I do, from Ovid, who probably knew what he was talking about when he said, “Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be fish.”
Illustration by Josh Quick.