Writing is more a marathon than an inspired sprint

When I was younger, I loved writing stories. The spark of inspiration, the rush of motivation, how it felt to create something from nothing. I thought writing a novel would feel the same, and that it’d be no time before I could churn out one, then another, then another. That isn’t quite true.

A heads up to my 10 year old self, turns out writing (at least a novel, or a screenplay) isn’t so much an inspired jump from A to B, but much more akin to a long marathon or an uphill hike. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just took many years of learning that writing is way more than simply following the energy of the initial spark into a finished product — it’s endurance and perseverance and habit building and churning out words through a dozen layers of doubt and self criticism. You wouldn’t ask someone to sprint a marathon, fully energetic from start to finish, and you shouldn’t have to ask yourself to be fully confident and inspired and done with a novel in a month either.

I wish it was true that writing a novel or a screenplay could be just taking that initial huge excitement from an idea and have the journey simply be an act of inspired improvising from start to finish. But it’s helped me a lot to learn that that isn’t true. It’s believing in an idea enough to carry it to the end, through all the instances of staring at a Word document and driving yourself up the wall at 3 am.

It’s helped because it taught me not to be discouraged when I’m exhausted in the middle and end up wanting to drop a work in progress novel 120 pages into it. It’s helped because it taught me the importance of planning and structuring, to give myself a road map from start to finish. No matter how much I might be in love with an idea at the start, that inspiration isn’t going to be the backbone and blueprint that keeps me going after I’ve dedicated weeks to a novel and the initial excitement has receded into what feels like a loss of interest, but what really is an ocean of self doubt.

Almost no one feels that initial confidence about a novel or screenplay or writing project mid-way through it. It’s probably a guarantee that the author of a beloved favourite novel faced the exact same lethargy and doubt halfway through writing the first draft of their book. It is almost inevitable that doubt and exhaustion seep in someway down the line, and almost inevitable that you’ll reach a point where all you want to do is drop the project and give up and start again. That is probably the most important point to keep going. Just because you’re tired of it — having stared at that document for the good part of maybe several months now — doesn’t mean that it’s something to drop. It doesn’t mean it isn’t still the same inspiring idea that excited you from the start.

You can’t expect yourself to still have a sprinter’s starting line energy 5 miles in — you drink some water and keep going. You pace yourself, writing every day or every other day if you can, even if you want nothing more than to lie down in bed and question every word you’ve ever typed. You pull yourself through the mud. Create a time (right after breakfast, right before bed) and space to go a few more steps forward each day, until it becomes habit to do so.

Just because it takes time and effort and you’re staring a good amount of self loathing in the face every time you open up that Word document, doesn’t mean that your novel, or screenplay, or any writing project you’re pursuing, isn’t a race worth finishing.

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