Quoth Digging Ditches: I know you’re a big Ray Bradbury fan like I am, so I’m curious what you think of his quote, “The first thing a writer should be is – excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.” I feel like I’m nowhere near enthusiastic or feverish enough to write.
Well, Digging Ditches, the first thing you need to know is this:
Ray Bradbury was full of shit.
Now don’t misunderstand me: I love his work and treasure his enthusiasm, and he remains one of my favorite writers of all time. All things being equal, it would be nice to love our writing hours more than loathe them.
But I suspect Ray was playing a character for much of his life, a science fictional Jiminy Cricket in short pants reminding us that “gee whiz” is the fuel of the human spirit.
So too is work — dull, messy, confusing work that still has value even if we’re not bouncing off the walls like Daffy Duck while we do it.
What you’re feeling, Digging Ditches, is something that all artists eventually discover: there’s nothing particularly special about any given session of your art. Most days by definition are average, some are awesome, and some really suck.
When you find yourself lost and confused and worried about the massive mess in front of you, that’s what it’s SUPPOSED to feel like. The good stuff is on the other side of the bad, and if it’s in the way, it’s part of the way.
That’s cold comfort, I know. I’ve spent my entire writing career wondering what’s wrong with me, wondering why I can’t do this more consistently with greater zeal, rocketed forward by inspiration.
In fact, that fruitless pursuit for deranged artistic glee is something Ray gave me from his book Zen in the Art of Writing with the quote you mentioned. I’m not mad at him, but that sentiment belies another of his much better insights, which is that we shouldn’t think too much about our work.
When you’re worried about your own experience good or bad, fun or agonized, you’re looking down at your feet too much to walk forward.
It’s easier said than done to ignore your own expectations; I’m not a particularly skilled Stoic. Yet I find my best work is usually beyond this fuzzy cloud of self-consciousness that lives in my forehead, and I’ve been learning how to let it hover there while I slip around it.
My advice for you is to think less about your own expectations, to remember that what you’re experiencing isn’t a symptom of something wrong…it’s just what the act entails.
Remember that episode of The Simpsons when Mr. Burns gives Bart a giant Olmec head of Xtapalapaquetl? The family is starting at it, and Homer asks what it’s supposed to do. Marge says:
Whatever your writing heart is supposed to be doing, it’s doing it now. Just keep working.