How to Not Write

With National Novel Writing Month in full swing, I think now is an opportune time for some words of encouragement:

You don’t have to write. Not even a little bit.

Three years ago I was an absolute mess. I didn’t feel like my writing career was going anywhere, and what was worse, I didn’t like my writing. Getting even a paragraph out was a strain, and the crap I ended up with wasn’t worth the effort. I’d recently gone through a messy breakup, I was working at a restaurant, and it was winter in Chicago. I didn’t have the energy to make any kind of progress, and I hated myself for it.

At the time I was re-reading “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin. The book chronicles the entire life of a brilliant physicist who suffers — at about the same age I was at the time — a period of exhaustion, illness, and despair just prior to a great discovery. Seeking some kind of reassurance, I wrote a letter to Le Guin. I told her I wanted to be a writer, but that writing felt pointless to me, that I felt defeated and depressed.

I sent that letter not really expecting a reply, but she did write back. Her letter said, in part:

“Don’t try to go against the flow, to work when work seems futile. Let it be. Let the block stay uncarved, or the word be unwritten — until it wants to take shape, to speak. What nobody in America teaches any more is how not to act, not to keep busy, how to wait … My guess is, you need to be still while your strength is gathering; and when it has gathered, you will know the direction you need to go — and you’ll go on there.”

This is the precise opposite of what I would have gotten If I’d written to one of the many motivational writing bloggers out there. More likely I would have gotten an exhortation to “just keep writing, no matter what” or to “treat it like a job.” This are the refrains we hear most often from writing teachers and mentors. It is the received wisdom of the field. It is also, I think, incredibly harmful both to our sanity and to the ultimate quality of our work.

I can think of no better example of this than George R. R. Martin, doubtless one of the most successful writers of our generation, who is now under tremendous pressure to finish the sixth book in his series. In this post announcing that he’d missed his optimistic deadline for publishing the book before the sixth season of the Game of Thrones HBO show aired, Martin said, half jokingly, that the reason he became a fiction writer rather than a journalist was because he knew deadlines would kill him. This glib pronouncement reveals what I see as a truth for many fiction writers. We got into this “business” because we wanted to pull off the ultimate con: to get paid for doing something we would do anyway, for free. Working when work seems futile transforms our labors of love into unlovable labor. When we turn writing into just another job, we’ve failed at the con — we’ve conned ourselves.

In the linked article, Martin says something else I think is important. He actually repeats it a couple of times: “sometimes the writing goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t.” Sometimes we’re busy. Sometimes we don’t like what we’ve written, and we have to go back and change it. Sometimes we don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. If even a writer of Martin’s caliber and acclaim acknowledges these problems, it’s clear that these roadblocks exist regardless of a given person’s talent. They are not failures of resolve. They are not things we can simply “power through.” They are real parts of the creative process for many people, and we do ourselves an immense disservice by ignoring them. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that the quality of A Song of Ice and Fire is in part due to Martin’s willingness to take his time, to create rather than produce. It takes discipline to work, yes, but it takes wisdom to rest.

I’m writing this as much for myself as for you. Right now I’m pretty much right back where I was three years ago — between school, work, and mental health struggles my life feels like one long crisis, and the idea of trying to write a novel on top of all that only fills me with bad feelings. And because I’ve been told that “writers write,” the bad feelings generate even more bad feelings. If I don’t want to write this novel right now, am I really a writer? Have I given up? Will I ever succeed? Will I end life alone and unfulfilled, dreaming bitterly of what I could have accomplished if only I’d tried harder?

When I think these things, I have to remind myself of Le Guin’s letter, and find peace. I have to remember that I have written things before, and will write again. I could go away from writing for a year, or two years, and still have many years left to write. I could live on a boat for five years and not feel guilty for abandoning my craft, as long as I believe in myself enough to know that this exhaustion is only temporary, and that things will change, and that the writing will still be there when they do.

So if you don’t feel like writing right now, don’t. Do what’s in front of you. Finish your chores, go to work, deal with your family, see a doctor. Eat, sleep, and drink water. Remember that your life is valuable even when you are not sacrificing yourself to the work. Go dancing, or play a videogame, or see a movie, or have sex, or sew a costume, or wrestle a dog. Your writing is made of your experiences, so all that stuff is writing too. Write small things — a poem, or a tweet, or a thinkpiece — if and only if these things bring you joy. Also read, obviously.

And remember: this is not a guide to curing writer’s block. You do not need to be cured. You are okay. The writing can wait for a bit while you take care of yourself. Because it’s not that “writers write,” as we love to say. It’s that writers will write. We will. When the time is right.