Writing as a disease

Writers compare their reasons for writing and what writing is to them using simile. Breathing is a popular one, and a good comparison. But given my own experience, it’s a lot like a disease, a recurring one that lies dormant sometimes and then flares up like malaria. It’s not fatal, but it can be debilitating during a “flare up.”

It’s not constant; there can be weeks or months when I don’t write or feel much like writing, no real inspiration, just toying around or practicing. During those times it almost seems like the lack of an urge to write is the real disease. Many writers espouse the “write every day whether you feel like it or not” and having a daily word count that it’s important to reach. This has worked for me in the past. However, I’ve gotten used to the fact that there are droughts and floods to my writing and inspiration. Instead of spinning my wheels, I just relax and go on to other things I enjoy, knowing the urge will be back again.

It can happen anywhere, but usually when I’m doing something routine that doesn’t occupy too much of my attention: showering, doing dishes (I’ve found if water is involved it seems to trigger it, can’t tell you why though), driving to or from work. My latest bout happened yesterday while driving to work.

I was listening to a song that reminded me somehow of my novel Negatives. I can’t remember the song but I was going over a few ideas I’d had for a sequel, when all of a sudden ideas started flooding in. I can’t really jot this stuff down while driving. That’s why some writers have voice recorders; there’s one in my phone but I don’t want to fiddle with my phone while driving. I couldn’t exactly pull over on the interstate to scribble something down, so I just sort of turned the few ideas over and over in my mind so I wouldn’t forget them. By the time I got to work, I had still forgotten a few details, which is maddening.

Get used to the gut fluttering of the excitement of creation mixed w/ the frustration of being thwarted by the rhythms of your everyday life. When you’re ill, people tend to understand that you can’t help it, they understand when you take a day or even a week off to recover. Not so much when you’re writing. Friends of mine and I have taken “writing days” before but you don’t really tell your boss that’s what it is when you call in. Usually I call it a “mental health” day. It’s more or less accurate, really.

It takes a really understanding person to not be infuriated with you when you flee the dinner table for minutes at a time to scrawl down a scene before you forget it (or a boss who finds your notes from the meeting were all regarding plot points in your novel). That’s another aspect of the disease: the only ones who really understand are fellow sufferers. It’s very hard to explain how an idea will bloom so intensely that it’s painful if you don’t fix it on paper. You’re afraid you’ll forget it if you don’t get it down NOW, when it’s intense. It’s as hard as holding in a sneeze. And like sneezing, sometimes once you get it out you can relax and go back to your normal life for a bit. Sometimes it triggers a flurry of sneezing, one leading to another.

Just like when you’re sick, regular life becomes more difficult, especially when your day is busy. You have to work your day job (if you have one), take care of chores and errands, go to appointments, lovingly greet your spouse and listen to how their day went without taking on the glazed look of an addict denied a fix and while tamping down the angry frustration that all these things are getting in the way of what is now less of a passion and more of an obsession.

This isn’t just confined to writing, either. Any passion can turn out like this: a scientist struggling over an equation, an inventor turning diagrams around in his or her mind, a musician trying to find that melody. I think perhaps the reason artists marry other artists is because there is an understanding of the whims of the muse and the need to go with it. Even if those you care about aren’t artists, as long as they have patience and are willing to try and understand and be supportive, you can make it work. It helps if they  have a hobby of their own to work on during your bouts of “illness.”

Another thing I’ve discovered: a flare-up in one writer can trigger a flare-up in another. This happens with me and Kris: being co-authors, we are used to bouncing ideas off each other, and a brainstorm session can result in a sudden flood of inspiration. This is a reason why workshops are so useful: another viewpoint can give you a solution into a problem or block you are having. They say writing is a solitary activity, and it is when you are actually writing things down (I’ve had to ask my husband to please just don’t talk to me for a few minutes so I can get this thought written down without distraction) but not all of writing is. After all, how can you write about people realistically if you’re never around them?

This can lead to another problem: the fear that you’re not really experiencing things directly but through an objective lens, noting emotion and expression and recording it for later use (some writers experience this disconnection during times of trauma or grief and feel guilty about the thoughts of “oh, this is what it’s like, now I’ll know when I have to write about something like this later”). But that’s another blog post.


Published in: on February 17, 2011 at 8:05 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Ah, the dreaded writer’s block. This is a little different from the droughts that naturally occur in my writing. Traditional wisdom says to write every day whether you want to or not. This has worked; sometimes I sit down grudgingly and end up more into it than the days I sit down eagerly. But I’ve never been of the “force it daily” camp. I go months sometimes with no idea at all and no project I’m working on. I used to worry that my writing days were over during those times, but some inspiration always strikes me eventually leading to what I refer to as my “floods” (see my post on Tavern Tales for more on this topic, “Writing as a Disease”). […]

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