I’ve written several times on my writing process and workflow. I farm and stockpile ideas as the need arises or the mood strikes. Then, daily, I write a rough draft, proofread yesterday’s draft, polish what I proofed yesterday, and publish or pitch my piece from the day before. It goes like clockwork.
Except when the clock winds down. And stops.
All that sounds good in theory, and I try to practice every day, but frequently, that’s not quite how it goes. What often happens is I go through separate and distinct stages of writing. It goes like this.
Did you see The Neverending Story? If not, you should, whether you have kids or not. It’s a great tale full of wonderful creatures. But the primary (or secondary depending on the point of view) story is about the world of Fantasia slowly being devoured by an evil force called “The Nothing.”
And like Atreyu and Bastion, I face The Nothing more often than I want to admit. If I am lucky, the nothing in my world is a blank screen. A thirty-two-inch wide expanse of white pixels and a small vertical line in the upper-lrfgt corner, slowly blinking on and off, taunting me.
Unfortunately, on many days, I don’t even get that far. For you see, opening up that big, blank sheet of nothing actually requires a small degree of hope. Or faith. Faith that soon enough, I will spew out a series of words that chase that little blinking cursor around the page.
But there are too many days when I am reminded of another grown-up kids story, Watership Down, by Richard Adams. This story follows the adventures of a small group of rabbits. At the beginning of the tale, the group is much larger. But this is a brutal epic that frequently kills off its characters.
And the most frequent cause of a hare’s demise is when it goes tharn. This is the name Adams gives to that state of frozen terror a rabbit enters at pretty much any threat. Perhaps they are crossing the road when they feel, then hear, and finally see the impending doom of the hrududu, the name the rabbit gives to cars and trucks. The rabbit freezes in fear until it is inevitably mown down.
While I’m not likely to be killed by fear of writing, I do understand the lack of motion that fear can bring on. I don’t have a good thought and no idea what I will write today, so I sit frozen without even the strength and motivation to open up my writing tools.
As Paul Atreides learned in the last of my literary references this morning, on his way to becoming Bene Gesserit, Fear is the Mind Killer. Based on my experience, I can tell you that the nothing holds greater fear than any sandworm.
But, spoiler alert: Since those who follow me know that I have produced a fresh piece of writing daily for about nine months, so I find a way to overcome these obstacles.
Or maybe the way finds me.
In the second stage, we leave fantasy fiction for the more mundane realms of eight grade science and lawn maintenance.
In our last home, we had three beautiful river birch trees alongside the house. At least, they would be beautiful looking at them in someone else’s yard. In ours, they provided easy access to our attic by every squirrel in the county. At the same time, the massive surface roots made growing grass impossible as they stretched toward our crumbling foundation.
So, since I knew a guy, I had them whacked.
The result of this arboreal genocide was a pile of birch mulch in my front yard. A very large pile of mulch. When the guy asked me if I wanted to keep the mulch to use in my flower and shrubbery beds, it seemed like an excellent idea.
When I walked out one frosty morning with a rake, shovel, and two five-gallon buckets, it seemed like a stupid idea. But there I was. As I began raking shavings from the former birch triplets into my buckets, I noticed smoke rising from the pile. At first, I thought it was steam rising from the ground’s warmth into the cold air. As I dug deeper and could see wood shavings that looked burned and ready to ignite, I remembered that eighth-grade science class.
Where I learned about spontaneous combustion. I recalled that piles of mulch and haystacks were the two things the book used to illustrate the concept. I don’t remember the science behind it because that particular nugget of knowledge hasn’t come up again after passing the test.
But I do remember that combustion requires three things, fuel, oxygen, and ignition. What I don’t know is how this pile of mulch was about to catch on fire while missing two of those elements.
What I also don’t know is how that blank screen can suddenly ignite into a roaring flame, seemingly without input.
But there I’ll be, staring at the nothing without a clue, when suddenly, a spark of an idea will ignite the first sentence.
And without fail, that’s all I need. One sentence. The rest just flows out of that spark over the nothing in a blaze of spontaneous combustion. At that point, I’m in the zone. I frequently have no idea where the piece is headed. If I am writing fiction, I never know what will happen next.
And when I finally write that last sentence, I somehow know that the fire is put out for one more day. There it is. I have written something. Or I wrote something. Anyway, it got writ.
And I’m done for the day with that piece. I close it quickly, slamming the door on self-doubt or further editing. Tomorrow is another day, and that’s when I will proofread the article and put the words in their proper places.
And tomorrow is soon enough. Because today, I move into the final phase.
Contentment and Joy
As writers, we like to say we write because we have to. That, of course, is bullshit. We don’t have to do anything. I could be playing video games right now or streaming Netflix. But here I am writing.
Because I want to.
But why do I want to? It’s work. Sometimes, it’s damn hard work.
I do it for three reasons. The first, as I have said before, is you. All of you. The people reading this, many of whom read my last piece and will read whatever I write tomorrow. As I have developed a following, I feel an obligation to deliver.
I realize there is a certain amount of conceit in that feeling. It’s not as if your lives will suffer if I don’t publish anything tomorrow. You’re not going to lapse into a sense of despair if you don’t get your daily dose of Darryl.
But, whether or not this obligation exists only in my head, it’s there none the less. So I will continue to deliver.
Until I don’t.
The second reason is that writing gives me a release. I’m not much of a talker. If I need to say something important, I have to write it down. Otherwise, the idea will never be born. These random ideas are all bouncing around in my brain where they will wither and die unless I put them on paper. Or pixels. Whatever.
The third reason is one of the oldest and strongest motivators known to humankind, positive reinforcement. When I finish a piece; when I have written that last sentence, I feel contentment and joy that only a few other things bring me. When I successfully play a song on my guitar.
When my bride smiles at me.
Maybe it’s endorphins. Maybe it’s dopamine. I don’t really care about the chemical origin, but the need to create it is more potent than any drug.
And most days, it’s easier to come by.
All I have to do is write.