September 16, 2013

Writing Daze: Thoughts on the Writer Mythology, Pt. 1

There are so many mythologies around being a writer or an artist. By "mythology" I don't mean to imply a lack of accuracy or truth--just the idea that our culture has built up certain expectations about the way artists think, live, and work that may OR may not be true for everyone. It's always interesting to get a hint of these mythologies when talking to someone about my creative work, or when fielding questions at a reading or a school visit. Whether the setting is formal or informal, similar types of preconceived notions seem to come up.

For instance, one of the major sources of the "writer mythology" (that is also applicable to the "artist mythology") is a certain mysticism about the process. I know that there are artists and writers who actively encourage the idea that there is an almost magical intangible something going on when they create. As someone with a pragmatic streak, I have long thought that this is ridiculous.

Having said that, I have since learned it is quite difficult to actually answer questions about process without either 1) boring your listener to death, 2) confusing them because your process only makes sense to you, or 3) making them look at you askance because you can't explain your process coherently at all. The vast majority of MY writing process consists of staring at my computer screen for hours on end, typing out words or attempting to type out words. And then there's the part where my brain does things, sometimes seemingly on its own in a rather inspiring fashion, but mostly because of me beating it with a metaphorical stick and forcing stuff out regardless of perceived quality. Lastly, there's the part where I ask my friends and family an array of random bizarre questions that make me sound possibly psychotic. Oh, and sometimes I draw charts.

And I haven't even touched on the part that involves stimulating or relaxing beverages, extremely sneaky procrastination, and bribing myself with treats. (Apparently this whole division of labor is something that I'm minorly obsessive about documenting in cartoon form.)

Faced with this WTF-inducing mishmash that does not remotely resemble what most people call an actual job, I am starting to understand why so many writers just get all mysterious about the whole thing when asked what it's like to write a book. It's SO MUCH EASIER to simply tell people it's the "magic of the creative process" or "the mystical forces of the subconscious mind" than talk about how you spent ten minutes surfing the thesaurus for the perfect word that quite possibly does not exist, or how that one sentence still sounds weird even though you rewrote it seven times, or how you're now afraid of being on a terror watch list because you bookmarked so many websites describing how to make napalm (true story).

Maybe that's why I always find it so fascinating to hear about other people's writing processes. The actual ones, not the public versions. It's interesting to me to see that contrast between mythology and reality. And, in a way, it makes those few moments of magic that are there, seem even more magical.

More on writer mythology next Monday...


LinWash said...

Great post. Interestingly enough, since so many people I know think that just about anyone can write a book, they've seldom asked me how I came up with the books I've written. Some might venture, "How long did it take you to write it?" But that's as far as the conversatin goes.

Sarah Stevenson said...

You're right--there are those who think anyone can write a book. I have encountered some of those, too.

I feel like, in a sense, yes, it's true that many people are in fact capable of penning a book-length manuscript. Not everyone is capable, however, of revising that manuscript, again and again, or viewing it with a critical eye in order to make it the best it can be. Of course, that's another aspect of the mythos: so many people want to "be writers" and "have written" stuff, but not so much with the actual work of writing. :)

Chris Desson said...

I hear you. I'm always in awe when a writer pumps out three books in a year. How is this even remotely possible? It slays me.

That said- I think authors are vague to keep up the mystic. Fans don't want to hear how their favorite writers ignored everyone in their lives and didn't sleep, shower, or change their clothes for weeks to compose their "masterpiece."

Anonymous said...

Great post, Sarah! It's nice to hear someone else uses self-bribery to completes tasks -- I'd actually forgotten about that -- note to self--use a movie as a bribe. :)

tanita✿davis said...

What? Your characters aren't, like, speaking to you??? How can you be so prosaic!?

Yeah. For me, it's involved with sometimes looking at Google Images - if I'm not careful, for, like hours. And, asking Teh Internets how fast someone's collarbone might heal - I'm sure I'm on the same Watch List; I ask a lot of violent questions, and Google keeps track - and looking at old photo sites, and occasionally the OED - and yes, asking people random questions.

Occasionally, I study recipes...

Yeah, "mystical elements" is sounding better and better.