I have, however, sent the t-shirt site to various writing friends, acquaintances and mentees, and I know for writers it has the exact same meaning it has to me – it evokes a sort of half-frightened laugh of self-recognition.
There is a poem by Reiner Kunze that I remember reading – in German! – sometime in the mid eighties. I can’t remember it properly and my German is something very much of the past, so I won’t try to quote it, but the gist of it was his explaining to his daughter what he was doing in the garage, in the middle of his work time. The end line was something like "Because of the distances between one word and the next."
I’m not a poet – at least not anymore – and words normally come easy to me. I’m not one of those writers who struggles for the right word every other sentence. Which is good. However, sometimes for me too the words acquire this unfathomable distance between them, and I find myself struggling to write the next word, the next sentence, the next page. In my case – I don’t know about other writers – what stops me is the terrible feeling that I’ve got it wrong and that I’m not doing the story justice. "Do I have to much dialogue?" "Do I have too much internal dialogue?" "Is it too heavy?" "Is it too light?" "Too much history?" "Not enough world building?" And every sentence that comes out must be scrutinized under the magnifying glass of self-doubt.
At its worst this feels like being immured in solid concrete walls and having to pass my words out into the world through a chinch between two concrete blocks that allows no more than a strip of paper such as would fit in a fortune cookie. At other times – and this is by no means one of those worst times – it is as though I have to write page after page, very fast, before I catch up with myself.
Better writers than I have come up with cunning means of slipping around the restraints so they can write. When I started writing, back in the stone age of typewriters, writing books often advised you to do things like write your first draft on colored paper, because then you know it’s not the "real" one. Others advised leaving a page, started, on the typewriter so that you didn’t face the empty paper in the morning.
Better writers than I have succumbed to blunter and more harmful methods – alcohol. Drugs – and methods that would never do anything for me, because I’m not put together that way – transcendental meditation. Hypnosis.
So why am I thinking of this now? Because it’s one of those weird times where, through synchronicity, both I and two of the people I mentor are involved in projects that scare us. They’re all completely different, mind you, but they’re all things I’ve never tried before.
It’s funny, because looking at their work, I can tell that they’re both doing some of the best stuff I’ve seen them do. It’s clear, it flows, it has a very strong voice. And then I look at my project and... It’s fluff. It’s such fluffy fluff I’m not sure there’s a "there" there. Characters engage in endless dialogue over stupid things.
Yeah, in a way it’s what I signed up to do. But I’m used to my novels being more controlled and layered. Perhaps that’s a mistake, who knows?
Of course I got sick in the middle of this project. I’m not the sort that believes you bring every one of your physical illnesses upon yourself, but I’m starting to suspect that getting sick is my way of stopping myself cold when I get too terrified. Who knows? The restraints are cunning enough for that.
Which I suppose means I must be more cunning – I must now get back to work and hope it will be worth it chewing through the restraints.