Shouldn’t This Be…Fun?

Quoth Not Having Fun: A lot of the time, I find the act of writing to be pretty much agonizing. I mean, not like “severe acid burn” agonizing, but at least unpleasant enough to make me not want to do it. I know we’re all told that good things are difficult and work is work, but shouldn’t writing be…more fun than this?

As a person who hasn’t felt like writing this site in over a month, I feel your question all the way to my lazy, duplicitous heart that prefers napping to artistic expression.

I distrust writers who claim to love 100% of their working process, largely because anybody that happy about anything is clearly delusional. I distrust them, but I also envy them for the same reason I envy those animal people in the Richard Scarry books, just showing the fuck up to their jobs all cheerful and shit.

I’m guessing Sergeant Murphy here isn’t on his way to bag and tag a torso in the farmer’s field.

On the other hand, I also distrust (and pity) writers who claim to hate most of their writing process, or who brag that they like “having written” more than writing, or who crow that old canard about cutting open a vein to bleed on their typewriters. They remind me of the blowhards in the office who work on Sundays pretending to save the world.

If I had to guess at a healthy percentage of enthusiasm versus despair in writing, I’d guess that anything less than 70%/30% is edging into the territory where it’s tempting to ask just why the fuck you’re doing it.

You really have two basic options for why you’re writing:

  • You’re doing it BECAUSE you genuinely enjoy the act of writing (playing with language, performing characters, capturing vision and experience), but you’re just stuck on this particular work or in a generalized funk of depression.

OR

  • You’re doing it DESPITE hating writing because the result you are working toward (sharing a vision with the world, telling a hard-won truth, awakening the proletariat) usually makes that hatred worth enduring. Except right now.

In both cases, the issue is often that you have lost contact with why you want to write in GENERAL, or why you want to write this SPECIFIC thing.

Here are two refocusing exercises that I do sometimes to remember what I’m writing for.

Why Are You Writing at All?

  • Think back to when you first had an interest in writing, back when it was “fun.” What made it fun? What were the pleasures you found in it? What reasons brought you back to the page?
  • Find three to five of your OWN favorite works. What did you enjoy about writing each one? What drew you through when they got tricky?
  • What can you do differently to make your work these days more enjoyable? What do you need to remind yourself of each time you write? What do you need to forget or ignore?
  • Are you overly fixated on your slim odds of success in writing? Welcome to the club. Those odds aren’t going to go up by hating it.  

Why Are You Writing This Thing?

Consider the project you’re working on.

  • What drew you to write it in the first place?
  • What does it have in common with some other work that you love? Does it share a style, a setting, a voice, a genre, a structure with something else? Are you experimenting with that?  
  • Who do you want to read and enjoy it (or at least find it provocative)? What feeling do you want to evoke in them?
  • Will it have some impact in the world? Does that matter to you?

(I hasten to point out that the answers to these questions do NOT have to be artistic or noble in any way. You can say, “I want people to laugh so hard at my story that they shit their pants” or “I’m in this to get laid and paid, either order,” and that’s wonderful. Have at it.)

The issue, Not Having Fun, isn’t that writing (like all human effort) can’t always be a frolic in the fields. The issue is that you’re NOTICING and DWELLING on it right now. You’re letting outside factors like fear and doubt and economics overwhelm the tiny spark that got you started in the first place.

Most of writing is a cultivated delusion that your work will matter to someone. If all else fails, you can at least do your best to make sure it matters to you by either enjoying the act or enjoying the possible result.

How Can I Level Up in My Work?

Quoth Anonymous: Sometimes people refer to “turning a corner” in the writing of their fiction, like they’re leveling up. What does that mean and how do I do it on purpose?

Wow, Anonymous, you’ve eerily picked the exact best moment to ask this question because fifteen years ago on this very day, I submitted a story that was the beginning of my OWN turning point.

What a coincidence!

“Turning a corner” is when your skill takes a significant leap forward that feels sudden but almost certainly isn’t. It means that you’ve realized something about how you work and learned to apply it in a way that produces a noticeable increase in “quality,” whatever that means.

Maybe the work is simply better written or easier to follow or more personal or filled with deeper feeling.

With luck, you’ll turn corners several times in your writing career or at the very least, you’ll make a long slow arc toward improving with every new work. But sometimes it feels like it comes suddenly, and that’s what we’re talking about today.

What’s required for a turn? Let me share my experience:

A punch in the face that destroys your creative complacency…

On the first day of critiquing manuscripts at my six-week Clarion experience in 2006, one of my submission stories was among the first we discussed. We hadn’t had time yet to write onsite, so this was one that had gotten me ACCEPTED to Clarion in the first place.

That story received a critical curb-stomping so savage that its broken teeth are still probably lodged in the carpet of that room at Michigan State. I’d like to think it had a little to do with nervous people trying to show their editing chops, but my story may well have been the cosmic affront to all literature as everyone said it was.

Enter the Hexagon! Twenty writers enter…and twenty writers leave, slightly less happy.

After my twenty-one peers had each had their say, all I could do was thank them in a warbling voice and say that I was here at Clarion exactly to write better stories.

That night, I walked around campus embarrassed and angry. For the previous decades, I’d been told by dozens of teachers that I was a good writer, not because I was a good writer but because I was a better writer than their many students who didn’t give a shit about writing. I’d taken their praise literally and managed to learn nothing to improve.

I’d needed more punches in the face and fewer pats on the back.

(Not literally. I got plenty from my father.)

…followed by a dark night of the soul…

This step may be optional if, unlike me, you’re not a neurotic mess trying to justify his existence on the Earth by entertaining other people.

I spent time in the MSU library writing in my journal about whether I was meant to write or whether I should take the hint and go on to something I was better at. Unfortunately, years of caring mostly about writing meant this was probably the best bet I had.

Unsure what to do, I called my friend Jason to give him an update on how Clarion was going. On my way to Michigan, I’d stopped to see him and some other friends in South Carolina and showed them some photos of an abandoned mental asylum I’d broken into earlier in the year. It had been a creepy place.

Yes, that’s an actual picture.

Jason listened to my dilemma and said, “Next time those people give you shit, look around that room and ask yourself which of them has the sack to break into an abandoned fucking mental asylum. Then consider THEIR advice.”

Which, yeah, put some things in context for me. No, not to ignore them…just to remember that I was the one with skin in this game, and I had to choose what I took on as criticism.

Really, this phase of your turn is figuring out if you’re willing to commit to doing what it will take to improve your work.

…and then an honest assessment of what you’re doing badly…

I suspect a lot of new writers get so hung up on whether they’re “good” or “bad” at writing in general that they don’t consider the many gradations between. It’s easier to throw up our hands and say we suck than to look at our work page by page to see exactly how.

Luckily, this guy was around to tell me EXACTLY what was wrong with my work.

When you refocus from yourself as the problem (“I don’t deserve to be a writer”) toward the story as the problem (“What can I fix here?”), that’s when a turn can happen.

For me, the issues my peers detected (and that I agreed with) seemed to be that I was too quick to avoid feelings with humor, my narration was too cold and mean, there wasn’t enough detail to feel like a story, and I couldn’t plot to save my life.

That sounded about right to me.

…and what you’re doing well…

In my journal at the library, I grudgingly allowed that I was pretty good at dialogue and at imitating people’s voices. Oh, and insinuating stories for readers out of fake found documents.

…so you can consciously practice to improve.

I call this stage “Fix It or Fuck It”: are you going to make changes to your technique, or are you going to write around them?

I did a little of both. I began to emphasize emotion, perception, detail, and experience in my stories, and I also experimented with voices that weren’t exactly like mine to tell them idiosyncratically.

Plotting…I let that ship sail. But not immediately, because I wrote four more terrible stories at Clarion where I tried to follow the advice we were getting about structure. For my last story, I just gave up and submitted a fake set of theater reviews for the apocalypse written by Dorothy Parker.

The feeling when I submitted that story was, “Fuck it. I’m going to keep doing what I do, only better each time,” which was Kelly Link’s advice to me during the last two weeks of the workshop.

It helped, too, that I wrote the story for a very specific audience, taking on the empathy to entertain her specifically. That became another principle in my new practice: imagining what an audience would find interesting or pleasurable or scary.

On a thunderstorm-y afternoon, my story was the last for critique…and almost everyone seemed to love it. Perhaps that had less to do with the quality of the story than their relief that I hadn’t wasted six weeks of our time, but I was happy either way.

That was the story that started the turn. I mean “started” very slightly, like maybe 5 degrees. But after that, I sold every story I wrote forever and ever.

No, alas, I didn’t. It took some more experimenting, and eventually there were two other stories as part of that turn toward what a “Will Ludwigsen story” would look and sound like. Some would call that “finding a voice,” which is not a term I like to use because each story has its own voice.

What I say instead is that sooner or later, we each find the kind of story that we can pull off semi-reliably because we’ve found ways to accentuate what we’re good at and to fake what we’re not.

That’s what a turn is: realizing that you can control what you write and then finding the next level of faking how to do it.

How Can I Sell the 10% of My Soul I Don’t Use All Day?

Quoth Todd: What is your advice for good writer day jobs / careers that allow a fruitful healthy writing life? After transitioning into a “creative” career, my writing output dropped off. I find myself using that narrative energy at work instead of on the page. While I love my career, writing remains important to me—and I’m left wondering how to find a balance without having to go all in with one or the other. Is that even possible? Thank you so much!

Thanks, Todd, for the great question!

When I graduated with my undergraduate English degree in 1994, I was delusional enough to imagine that I’d go on for a Master’s and PhD for a life of teaching college literature with plenty of time and intellectual energy to dabble in letters at my gentlemanly leisure.

So the “day job” backup plan I had for writing was a career that was actually LESS lucrative and stable than writing.

For various reasons, I ended up in an office instead. For the first ten or so years of my working life, I was horrified that every passing moment in a cubicle was draining the lifeforce required to write vibrant, world-changing fiction. I often walked during my lunches or hunkered in the stairwell with my head in my hands, wondering if I’d ever escape. I worked in bursts of dramatic usefulness and skated by the rest of the time.

There’s only so long that can go on, and I’ve been lucky to have two bosses in a row who “got me,” understanding that I need to be creative and entertaining to get work done. Once they got me, I kind of got me, too.

It turns out that I like entertaining people with flamboyantly amazing things, and I can do that with non-fiction during the day and with fiction at night. They feed one another in a strange way: doing big cool things at work gives me the confidence to do the same at home, making it normal, just something I do.

How can you get there? Here are some questions I wish I’d asked myself at the start of my working life:

  • Setting aside your artistic ambitions, does the day job you have suck even if you WANTED it to be your career? If so, find another one, end of story. If the job and the people are toxic, you aren’t getting ANYTHING done, much less art.
  • Do you get energy from working with people or from working alone? If you’re stimulated by people, a good day job would involve interacting with them. If you aren’t, you’ll need something more isolated.
  • What kind of writing would you like to do?
    • Is there any hope that a day job could RELATE to it in some way? A lot of my hoaxing stories come from writing ostensibly non-fiction corporate communications. I’m really good now at making absolute bullshit seem plausible.
    • If there isn’t that hope, can you find a job that uses completely DIFFERENT creative skills? Visual if you’re a writer, writing if you’re a musician, musician if you’re a sculptor, etc.?
  • How much physical work can you endure or enjoy? There’s definitely something to be said for the kinds of jobs that require very little expressive creativity, but many of them require hours of standing or lifting or steering a backhoe. Bukowski was a mailman. Could you write after sorting mail all day?
  • What kind of lifestyle are you willing to accept? Will you feel more free to create if you’re always hustling for the next gig, or do you think stability would be better? Neither is a wrong answer, just something to know. How much stuff do you want to buy? Do you need to own a car? Do you want to own a house? Just because society wants you to want these things doesn’t mean you have to.
  • What kind of social class are you willing to accept? A friend of mine has been an assistant manager at a convenience store for the last thirty years. He makes enough money to fund his interests, but not many people call him “sir.” Does that matter to you? To what extent does it matter or not matter? Be honest with yourself and don’t feel you’re not dedicated enough to your art if the answer is, “I want to be middle class.”
  • How do you define “a good job”? For me, that means it:
    • Accepts (even appreciates!) my weirdness and creativity.
    • Respects my talents in communication.
    • Rarely (but not never) requires long days to finish.
    • Places me in contact with interesting and creative people who want to do cool things.
    • Pays me some decent bank, as the young folks say.
  • On your best day of writing, how long REALLY could you write? Almost certainly not eight hours or even six, but probably more like four or even two or less…which is fine! It’s good to remember that a day job can’t steal your whole soul.

The answers to those questions will help you in seeking a new job or accepting the one you have, I think. After about a decade of thinking that an office was killing me, my answers to those questions led me to conclude that:

  • I enjoy the freedom to write whatever I want instead of endlessly hustling.
  • At my best, I only write two to three hours in a day anyway, and it’s still possible with discipline to get those hours in even with a day job.
  • I need more stability than I do adventure so I can have the adventures in my head.

The rest came down to adjusting my schedule to a working life. If you’re finding that your job is exhausting you, it might be worth writing BEFORE you go to work. (Several of my stories were written in conference rooms at 6am before my day started at 7am.) Now, I write in the evenings after dinner, usually for about ninety minutes and somewhere between 300 and 1500 words.

Really the only choices we have as artists in our current society is trying to evade the working life or adapt to the working life so it works for us, with all the effort each entails.

I think the first step is deciding what kind of life you want to live and what kind of art you want to create, and then build backwards what you need to get there.

Good luck!

Is There a Way to Stay Visible Online While Preserving My Emotional Health?

Livia asks:

I think it’s become mentally and emotionally burdensome to be a writer nowadays, what with the internet sort of shoving the details of everyone else’s writing journey in our faces while we’re struggling to stay true to our own unique pace and milestones as artists. One must always be online and commenting, or risk being seen as an unsupportive and selfish asshole. How do you maintain balance and distance between what seems to be required of us as writers nowadays (promotion! community! etc.) and what writers typically need (silence, space, distance) in order to create and evolve?

Wow, that amazing question hits me hard because I have nothing but mixed feelings about promotion and community.

The lifelong attitude that has all but doomed me to obscurity has been, “If I have to tell you I’m awesome, I’m obviously not awesome enough.” The corollary idea to that, “If I have to convince you to let me into your tribe, I obviously don’t belong there,” hasn’t done me any favors, either.  

Both of those are deeply neurotic ideas gifted to me by my scamming bullshit artist of a father. I’d rather not succeed than succeed by fakery…which I’m doing quite well!

I am, in other words, basically a cat: I want you to pet me, but I ain’t coming over there.

However, I do know enough anthropology to realize that all communities require a show of commitment to join and stay inside. I guess our ape-ish ancestors needed to know they could trust us not to bail when things got tough. Back then, that might have required, I don’t know, picking and eating a lot of nits and fleas.

Today’s equivalent is social media, but every time I post, I wrestle with the sincerity of it all: am I posting because I have something to contribute or because I want people to know I’m alive and buy my shit? I really don’t want it to be that, but maybe I’m cleverly fooling myself.

I go through this exhausting test of my soul every time I post.

My compromise is to behave like I do with normal meat-space friends and acquaintances, checking in on them at regular intervals and responding if I have something interesting to say. It means that my “footprint” and “reach” are expanding slowly, but then, why have a bunch of fake friends?

Here is the cascading list of priorities that has been working for me as a creator in the modern world:

  1. First as a fan and friend, I want you to maintain whatever level of mental health (or neurosis, whatever) you require to produce the weird-ass work that’s important to you. That’s your first job as an artist, to protect and cultivate that by any means necessary. There’s not much point in promotion or networking if you can’t get anything written that matters to you.

    The minute that social media threatens the mindset for your work, bail out for as long as it takes not to feel that way. The peanut gallery can wait.   
  2. When you DO engage on social media, I suggest engaging selectively by imagining your contacts in tiers:
    • Close professional friends, people with whom I have shared a meal while talking about things BEYOND writing, like murders).
    • Professional acquaintances, people with whom I talk mostly business and writing but who COULD be friends.
    • Assorted randos for whom I hope the best even though I don’t know them well enough for a seamless interaction.
  3. Set yourself a “social maintenance” schedule, though it doesn’t have to be that formal.
    • I check in on close professional friends probably a few times a week and comment on their stuff.
    • I check in on professional acquaintances maybe weekly or every other week, commenting if I have something interesting to say.
    • I let assorted randos come to me, when I choose the level at which I plan to engage.
  4. Post your own stuff when you think of something interesting or helpful to say. 
  5. Be okay with your audience growing a little at a time instead of sudden bursts.

The main thing for me at least is not to do anything solely for the purpose of advancing my career. I don’t post vapid compliments unless they are SINCERE vapid compliments, and I don’t contrive things to say so people know I’m still alive.

I know there are agents and publishers now who insist on a social media presence, and I have no idea if I have enough of one to count. All I can do is the same thing I do with my writing: be authentic and win my readers in ones and twos.

It would be exhausting to fake being someone else.