Though I don’t know this for sure, I believe most of the people who read this blog are also writers. Yeah, that’s probably a grand total of like four people (I know I have three who subscribe, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they actually read the posts), but still…you take fame where you can get it. Or, in my case, maybe it’s notoriety.
Anyway, the point being, I don’t have to tell you how hard writing can be. Some days, you sit down at the keyboard (or take pen in hand) and it comes easy. It’s like dictation, or being a court reporter: the characters speak for themselves, and you don’t have to figure out what they’re gonna do next cause they do it for you. All you have to do is manage to keep up and get it all written down (the major reason why I don’t use pen and paper; I have enough trouble keeping up when I’m typing).
But then…there are those other days. The days when you pound your head on the desk—for starters—stare at the blank monitor/paper (or monitor that looks kinda like paper, if you use Word like I do. Thank God I don’t have to feed real paper into a roller anymore. I never could get them straight first time), and wonder what the hell you were thinking.
Write? A novel?
What a laugh! You can’t even string two words together, unless it’s some version of I go. And even that feels like you’re pushing it and brain cells might well catch on fire if you keep it up. You think and think, you try out different things in your mind, you consider just giving up on the current story and moving on to something new and maybe even entirely different. (That’s not always a bad thing. It’s basically how I got started writing crime fiction.)
Maybe you even consider trying to invent something like Ex-Lax for writers: something that’ll make the thoughts come out a lot easier (isn’t that a tasty visual?).
But nothing works. The page taunts you, and when you think about the 4,000 words you wrote the day before, the frustration level goes into the red. Something’s gotta give or, in the immortal words of Montgomery Scott: “I can’t hold her together, Kepten. She’s givin’ all she’s got!”
Water boarding? Puh-lease. Bring it. That ain’t nothin’ compared to sitting in front of a demanding blank canvas. You wanna see some renditions to object to, bring your bad self over here and partake in this.
So, why do we do it?
Well, I can’t answer for anyone but myself. That’s not me being PC, it’s just the honest-to-God truth. Different people do it for different reasons, but I suspect that it all boils down to this: we can’t help it.
What that means for me is that, if I go for a while without writing, I literally can’t go to sleep at night.
Oh, sure, I do eventually. But I toss and turn with sentences and even snapshots of scenes running through my mind. It’s the creative urge, and I suspect it’s why cavemen started scaring the crap out of each other around the campfire at night: good ol’ Ug, he’s just gotta tell us the one about the mammoth that got away. Again.
Okay. Same old story, told for the umpteenth time. Ug’s audience could probably recite the thing word-for-word. Ug saw this, decided to tell about the time he escaped a saber-tooth tiger. Voila! A series is born! Centered around a man of action, even if that action was to run screaming from the big, toothy kitty-cat until it happened to fall in a nearby tar pit.
That’s storytelling, man! The fire gleams in his eyes as he tells it, and he has a captive audience. Of course he does. They’re not going out there in the dark. That cat has cousins.
Of course, not everybody liked it, and you gotta wonder if Ug killed the first critic. Maybe that’s how critique groups got started: killing the critic gets even worse reviews from other critics, so let’s polish that sucker up before we tell it again.
And stop repeating some of those words. It sounds…um…repetitive.
We’ve been telling stories probably for about as long as we could, well, string two words together. Maybe the first one was the original Quest for Fire: “We go. Get hot thing.”
Okay. Maybe that one’s got too much description and needs a little editing, but you gotta start somewhere.
Sometimes it didn’t work out so well, but Ug kept at it, because he had to. Cave floors aren’t that comfortable to being with, even when you throw down a couple of animal skins, so anything that kept him from going to sleep had to be taken care of.
That meant a new story.
It’s not different today. Well, a little. We have to wrestle with a larger vocabulary, but it really doesn’t change things. Sure, we know more words, but stringing them together the right way is still a bitch.
There’s also the fascination with your subject matter. The last thing in the world I want to do is lead a criminal life, but the mindset of someone who does is fascinating to me. Partly, it’s in that rubbernecking, car wreck kind of way, where you know you won’t like what you see, but you gotta look anyway. I get that with the serial killers, a subject I’ve followed for years.
But I don’t truly know what spurs someone to live outside the law, so the character I write best is Lyle Villines. He’s pretty much a criminal against his will. He started out just for some extra cash, but once he was drawn in, he discovered it’s kinda like stepping off into quicksand: the harder you try to get out, the deeper in you sink. That’s what’s happening to him in the third novel (which I wasn’t sure I would ever write, but I think I’ve got enough of an idea to go to a fourth novel with him, and a good Ledbetter novel to boot): something that was a subplot in the first book has now come back to bite him in the ass. And he’s gotta do something about it.
I tell stories because I have to. No, nobody’s holding a gun to my head or even twisting my arm. At least, not anyone external. But, if I don’t tell my stories, it drives me nuts, and I lay there in bed at night wondering if I’ll ever get to sleep.
I guess it’s the adult version of having a story read to you when you were a kid, except in this case, I have to tell myself stories so I can conk out. And, despite how tortuous it is when the words won’t come, those sessions when I’m getting finger cramps from trying to keep up make it worth it.