Writing scares me. Getting my ass in the chair and the Work-In-Progress Word file open is a goddamn struggle, every single time.
It’s like my head is filled with a bunch of really mean, sarcastic squirrels who don’t like me very much,
and I have to get each one of them to shut up even though they’re wearing body armor and keep ducking down behind these fat flood-watch sandbags of inertia and angst.
Oh, and they’re probably French.
That they are also zombies and radioactive no doubt goes without saying.
So, yeah, a head full of Kevlar-encased carnivorous undead glow-in-the-dark scathingly articulate plutonium-oozing Catherine-Deneuve squirrels who know me down to the last molecule of unworthy marrow: Fabulous.
I may be more squirrel-infested than you are, or less. I think we all have to play at least a little mental whack-a-mole in order to get down to work.
My squirrels remind me that I don’t have a backup job or health insurance, and that if my fourth book sucks butt–which it inevitably will, if I even manage to finish it–I will be unable to learn how to operate an espresso machine at Starbucks, and that I will therefore be doomed to labor on well into my toothless nineties wearing support hose and a McDonalds uniform.
Probably in Antartica.
(Yes, I am aware that there are no Eskimos in Antartica. This just means that my job at McDonalds will be more lonely.)
I am not alone in this, I know. Gene Fowler once said, “Writing is easy. You simply stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
(I first heard that from Douglas Adams in a speech he gave at an ABA breakfast in Anaheim, about seventeen years ago. And he didn’t credit Gene Fowler.)
The basic gist here is that in order to write, I have to keep reminding myself to kill my squirrels. Here are ten tips for squirrel maintenance that have served me well in this regard, even though I don’t always remember them.
Number One: They’re Only Squirrels.
Really. Not to mention imaginary.
It’s a negative soundtrack of your own devising. It’s not the voice of The New York Review of Books, Your Mother, or Fate. Anne Lamott called it Radio KFKD, and rightly pointed out that it’s bullshit.
Don’t let it stop you from getting your ass in the chair and opening the Word file. You are allowed to write crap. You are allowed to write a shitty first draft, and a shitty second draft, and as many steenking-piece-of-crap drafts as it takes.
The best novel you can ever write will be the result of small, sustained efforts, repeated over and over.
It will not be the product of continuous days of brilliance, with The Choir Eternal singing praise in your ears throughout. It will be built in layers. Many, many, many layers.
These efforts will at times feel infinitisemal, as though you are trying to unearth Pompeii with a bent spork and broken fingernails.
Some of these infinitisemal efforts will suck. That is inevitable, and it is okay. You will fix them. You do not have to turn straw into gold by lunchtime, or dinner, or even breakfast tomorrow.
Gandhi said, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” That’s your daily mantra.
Guy de Maupassant is credited with saying “Get black on white,” meaning just spill some ink on the paper.
Start. Pick a word and go.
I just re-read Stephen King’s On Writing. He relates an anecdote about a friend asking James Joyce what he’d managed to write that day.
“Seven words,” said Joyce.
“Well, James, that’s pretty good for you.”
Joyce shook his head. “But I don’t know which order they go in.”
What they say in AA is if you don’t know what to do, Do The Next Right Thing. It might be tiny, you might not know what comes next. Just do the next. right. thing.
We’re all digging with Sporks. Embrace the Spork. The Spork is Life.
Number Two: Writing is Like Working Out
If you’ve blown off exercising for a while, getting started up again sucks. The first day you feel like an idiot–you’re sweaty and ungainly and everyone else in the room is faster/stronger/better than you are.
The second day is worse because now you’re sore from the first day, and besides which the instructor lady is obviously a bulimic Nazi bitch who hates you.
But the third day… well, maybe the Stairmonster didn’t make you feel like barfing after only five minutes this time, or you actually finished the full sequence of leg-lift inner-thigh-torture things without collapsing to the floor like a lukewarm pool of spilled Hollandaise.
Writing is like that, too. Day one is a root canal, day two is a root canal with back spasms… but day three you might think up something funny, or have a few good lines of dialogue, or really nail the way newly delivered palm trees with their fronds tied up in the air:
kind of look like Pebbles Flintstone:
Whatever… day three you’ll have a little something to let you know you’re getting your mojo back, I promise.
Number Three: Watch Some Stupid TV. After You’ve Written.
For the past two nights, I have been watching the CMT series about tryouts for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. This has helped my mental state immensely. I’m serious.
Here’s why: 99.9% of the chicks trying out for the squad are are nubile, gorgeous, great dancers, and have these huge smiles like they’ve got Vaseline on their teeth (they probably do have Vaseline on their teeth, if my Miss America trivia is at all trustworthy.)
600 of them showed up for the initial tryouts. Circa 150 got picked for a second round. Maybe 30 of those got to go to cheerleading camp, and another 15 of those got cut over the course of the next eight weeks of grueling workouts and vicious dance hazing.
Those final 15 who got cut? Mostly it was because they were nervous.
They didn’t throw caution to the wind and go for it, didn’t have fun, didn’t get outrageous and over-the-top with the whole thing.
The ones who made it were the ones who just shut up and did it–said to themselves, “Holy crap, I’m at fucking DALLAS COWBOYS CHEERLEADERS CAMP! What a trip! BE HERE NOW!”
The ones who thought about it too much froze, and missed out on the experience. And went home.
The ones who just went for it? They took criticism, and asked for help when they were called into the office. They said “yes ma’am” a lot and got better. And better. Bit by bit, rehearsal by rehearsal.
And they never stopped smiling.
Also, it reminded me that as hard as writing can be for me, it sure beats having to be a professional cheerleader.
If I had to smile that hard, my lips would fall off.
Seriously, aren’t you glad we don’t have to look this enthusiastic throughout Bouchercon?
Plus I can’t dance for shit. Not even with a bottle of tequila in hand and a gun to my head.
Number Four: Read a Really Crappy Book
If you’re struggling with your writerly self-esteem, read the crappiest book you can lay your hands on. I’m talking vampire e-porn, or the ugliest paperback in the drugstore rack.
Something with a bad ersatz Fabio on the cover and a lot of overly-serifed swirly fonts in gold is good.
Something where every woman’s hair is “a deep auburn,” and they talk about “his manhood” a lot.
Better yet, open up an Ayn Rand novel and read the dialogue aloud to yourself, preferably in a Sesame-Street Swedish Chef accent.
You can do better than that. You WILL do better than that. You already *ARE* DOING WAAAAAY BETTER THAN THAT.
Lather, rinse, repeat as needed.
Number Five: Do Something Mindless But Slightly Engaging for a While
I’ve heard it said that when super-computer designer Robert Cray got stuck, he’d dig tunnels in his back yard. Serious tunnels. Great Escape tunnels–with wooden struts and stuff.
There’s something to be said for doing some mindless shitwork that engages your front brain but leaves your messy subconscious bits free to play around on their own. Some of the best ideas I’ve ever had came while I was driving my kids back and forth to school for three months in a car with a broken radio.
The driving was just the right amount of engagement for my internal editor/critic to be absorbed by, but the rest of me was bored enough to start free-associating in kind of wild ways. Worked like a charm.
Raking leaves might work. Walking on a treadmill with no music could, too. I hear that some people swear by long showers for inspiration.
You want something that takes just a little concentration–probably with a slight amount of sensory deprivation and some sort of physical engagement. Distraction, basically, but not all-engrossing. The idea is to free yourself up to fly a little.
Think Steve McQueen stuck in The Cooler with his baseball and his mitt.
Number Six: Play “The Galaxy Song” a Couple of Times
Number Seven: Dude, Count Your Blessings Already.
First of all, you are not a little kid in Guernica when the Germans are testing out how well bombing civilians works for invoking general terror.
Neither are you getting strafed by Jap Zeros in a rice paddy in 1939 Nanking, with nothing to protect you but a straw hat.
Yea verily, I doubt that you are starving in Armenia,
Or chained in the bowels of a boat on your way to a torturous life of horrid indentured servitude,
Or being pillaged by rampaging Vikings at this very moment.
Additionally, there is probably NOT an IED strapped under your desk. You just have imaginary squirrels in your head.
Remember: It’s only writing–not famine or pestilence or doom.
In all the times throughout history that you could have been born, this one is pretty damn good. There are antibiotics, for instance, and if you get sick, it’s a good bet no one will try bleeding you to release the bad humors.
Plus, if you’re reading this, you not only know how to read, you have access to a computer. The universe has indeed smiled upon you.
Number Eight: You Can Make it if You Try-igh-igh
As God is my witness, you can finish a book (or books)!
You may have to write it seven words at a time. You may not know what order they go in, at least right away. But if you get your ass in the chair and open the file every day, it will happen.
I don’t care if it’s for fifteen minutes at a stretch… you need to assume the position for inspiration to find you. You need to be typing.
I also don’t care if you start out typing “all work and no play…” etc. over and over again, until you figure out something better (though I recommend staying away from axes and creepy empty hotels, generally.)
Number Nine: Cornelia Says Relax
So does Ginger Rogers.
Number Ten: Fill in the Blanks
As Max Ehrman wrote,
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
‘Ratis, what works for you, when your squirrels are restless and your hypos have the upper hand?
Inquiring minds want to know…