New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #10: Maintaining Some Semblance of Sanity

New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #10: Maintaining Some Semblance of Sanity

I’m going off the rails on a crazy train.

Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”

 

Last October, I posted an article on pandemic fatigue, about how 2020 had been exhausting.

Ha ha ha! The pandemic was only seven or eight months old by then! Who’da thunk it?

I must be some sort of optimist at heart, though, because I never imagined we’d still be in the middle of this crap another year later. Good grief.

So this week I decided to pose a question to my fellow writers and readers as I wrap up my “Writer Problems” series with part 10:

How often do you question your sanity?

 

The One-Eyed King

There’s an old proverb that reads, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” At times like ours, those of us who really feel like we’re a little off need only look around to realize how much saner we are than many, many others. It’s truly remarkable.

As an artist, I’ve been profoundly aware for a long time how weird, or strange, I am to others. Some of that comes from conversations, especially about dreams. Mine are in color, with dialogue—the whole works.

Recently I recalled a dream I had as a young boy. I was at an airport in the dream, only I was not inside but on the tarmac. Well, under the tarmac, actually: a flat, transparent tarmac with red and blue lines intersecting it, like one of those anatomical transparency sheets of the human circulatory system in an old science book. I gazed up from beneath this tarmac at the planes overhead. There may have been dinosaurs.

And that was before I’d ever even taken a drink or drug.

I recalled this dream while recounting a more recent dream to my wife, who is much closer to what I’d call a “normal” person than myself. The recent dream involved my mother and I chasing cockroaches. I know there was some other wacky stuff in there, but it doesn’t make much difference that I can’t remember it. All my dreams are surreal, and usually disturbing to at least some degree.

 

Tortured Artists and Other Myths

Recording artist Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco has often stated he dislikes the persona of the tortured artist. Says Tweedy, “I think artists create in spite of suffering.” In other words, romancing the idea of a crazy or tortured artist is wrong, even dangerous.

I get where Tweedy is coming from. Although I’m far happier today than I was as my high school’s Class Poet, or while wringing a poetry collection out of myself for a Master’s thesis, I think I was able to create all my best work in spite of life’s slings and arrows.

And even though I’ve never claimed to be the picture of mental health, I feel like I’m better now than I’ve been during many times in the past. As a baseline, I simply acknowledge I’m not too tightly wound, and maybe that helps my art. It’s hard to be objective about it all.

Are you relatively sane? A little nuts? I’d love to hear your comments on this topic, or on the “Writer Problems” series as a whole, in the comments below.

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New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #9: Distractions, Disruptions & Disturbances

New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #9: Distractions, Disruptions & Disturbances

This week’s blog post has three sections: distractions, disruptions and disturbances, as if they were three unique items—which, of course, they can be.

There’s a common “writer” meme that reads, “Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet.” I think it was likely adapted from an old quote from E.L Konigsburg, “The difference between being a writer and being a person of talent is the discipline it takes to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and finish.” Or Roald Dahl, “Writing is mainly perspiration, not inspiration.”

Whatever the source, it’s easy to get distracted. I’ve seen a zillion suggestions on how to avoid the lure of the internet: write by hand, write on a typewriter, and, my personal favorite impractical suggestion, write on a word processor (presumably purchased in 1993) with no internet connection.

 

But What About Legitimate Disruptions?

In many ways, I find disruptions even more challenging than distractions. Whereas a distraction can come from within—your own habit of thinking about anything other than your WIP, a tendency to jump over to check Facebook “just for a second”—a disruption can be anything that comes from without. Phone calls, minor emergencies, illness…in short, any interruption that isn’t self-generated.

At times, such disruptions are brutal. If they take you away from your work too long, you can lose something valuable…from a dialogue scene that flowed like water to a plot hole you were about to resolve.

And then there are the disturbances.

 

“When Angry, Count to Four; When Very Angry, Swear”

Mark Twain’s famous quote was practically a mantra for most of my adult life, and at my age I’ve probably sworn more times than Frank Zappa. But there are disturbances of types other than anger. Worry, in particular, is a character defect of mine that started in childhood and lasted well into adulthood.

One thing that has helped me a lot with the external disturbances I make internal is a quote from a 12-step group. I first read it in 1989, and it’s helped me occasionally. The sooner I remember it, the sooner I can calm myself the heck down:

“When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situationsome fact of my lifeunacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.”

And yes, I hate the expression “It is what it is.” (No kidding, Captain Obvious!) Still, if I can tweak it to “This is where we are,” or “This is the situation,” it helps me deal with it. 

To sum up:

Distractions: Because I find these are usually self-inflicted, I have to be disciplined enough to steer myself back to the task at hand. Scheduling blocks of time for writing helps in this regard. 

Disruptions: Can’t be predicted. Again, I try to steer myself back to where I was. If that doesn’t work, I take a break, and hope I can pick up the thread upon returning a second time.

Disturbances: Perhaps the most challenging, as they can appear any time, and range from physical problems to garden-variety worry. For these, I take a break for as long as I need to, and focus on self-care, reading positive stuff, and so on, until I have to move on to the next task.

That’s it for me. What about you? Any suggestions for writers on dealing with distractions, disruptions, and disturbances? Feel free to comment below.

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New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #8: Forgetting Your Best Ideas

New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #8: Forgetting Your Best Ideas

We’ve all been there: lying in bed, on the edge of sleep, when a brilliant idea floats in from the ether. Maybe it’s a fully-formed snippet of dialogue, or maybe something technical, like a major plot point. And before you drift off to sleep, you have to get up to write it down, orit’s gone.

Maybe the idea won’t wait until you’re trying to go to sleep. You could be out with your spouse or partner, a group of friends, or even in a business meeting. This wonderful idea pops into your head, but it would be awkward or inconvenient to write it down. What do you do?

 

Take the Hint, Accept the Gift

One of my favorite writers is Hunter S. Thompson, who had a great, all-compassing expression: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” When it comes to inspiration, my advice has a similar structure: Take the hint, accept the gift.

I’ve been on both sides of the equation. Typically it’s when I’m close to falling asleep. (See my post on insomnia for more on that writer problem.) While I may not get much inspiration during the dayI’m naturally best at editing in the morning, creating copy in the afternoonsome of my most awe-inspiring ideas have come right on that edge of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep.

And yes, I’ve done both: selling myself the lie that I’ll remember in the morning, which I never do, or getting up and groggily writing it all down. I’ve regretted doing the former every time, but never regretted doing the latter. That’s how I’ve learned to accept these gifts when they come.

 

What If I’m With People?

It’s a fair question. Whereas rolling out of bed to write is one thing, walking away from people abruptly is quite another. Or do you just whip out your smartphone and start tapping away?

Personally, I’m a big proponent of the bathroom break for awkward situations. While a restroom might not be the most romantic place to jot down a few ideas, it’s infinitely preferable to ignoring a loved one or business associate. And no one can accuse you of being rude for answering nature’s call. They don’t have to know what you’re really doing in there, do they?

As funny as all this may sound, it’s serious stuff for us writers. Sure, we don’t want our sleep disturbed, or our relationships damaged, but the muse is not convenient by nature. I say it’s best to respond whenever possible.

What about you? Do you sometimes postpone a good night’s sleep, or interrupt a romantic dinner, with a quick visit to your WIP? Let me know in the comments.

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New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #7: The Elusive Search for Balance

It’s Labor Day today, and what are my wife and I doing? You guessed it: laboring!

I’ve just finished a massive job, editing a manuscript for a 90-something client. Hey, God bless him, right?

And God bless me for having the intestinal fortitude to get through the most challenging editing project of my life. Last night I pushed myself to finish the last ten pages, for the sole reason that I didn’t want to face them today or tomorrow.

 

About Labor Day

I wanted to write extensively today about the labor movement, the eight-hour day, employer-provided healthcareall those great benefits I used to have when I worked a J-O-B. But I’m too tired from the work I do now, running my own business.

In all honesty, I found some of the above mentioned client’s ideas to be truly repugnant, e.g., placing greater value on an older person’s vote than a younger person’s vote. As the wife of a hard-working immigrant who’s paid taxes since a month after she arrived in the U.S., my client’s outrage that immigrants have the audacity to send money home to relatives was…well, let’s just say my blood pressure went up a tad.

But I got through it by keeping my sense of humor. I was reminded of comedian Bill Burr, talking about elder Americans’ scandals for “old school” thinking and language:

You never talked to a grandparent and asked the wrong question, and all of a sudden it went down this crazy road? What did you think he thought? This guy’s parents were part of the generation that finished off the genocide of the Native Americans!

 

Work/Life Balance for Writers

Meanwhile, my wife—now an American citizen, I’ll have you know—is working a double today. No eight-hour shift for her, even on a national holiday, nor for me either.

And my topic for the week? Finding that elusive balance as a full-time writer?

I don’t know what to tell you. Freelancing can be feast or famine, and you have to knock every project out of the park. I spent almost 40 hours editing that manuscript which, if it had been well-written, self-edited and proofread to begin with, would have taken about 15. But the dude is over 90, so why not let him have his day?

So…balance? If you’re married and/or have kids and you’re a real writer, try not to be a shitty spouse or parent. I guess that’s about the best I can offer today!

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