Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Benefits of Distraction

Sometimes writing is a war against distraction. Social media's the number one culprit for me, and I know I'm not alone. And of course the election has a lot of folks wound up with anxiety, and how can you write freely when your mind is preoccupied with people who exist in reality and not just in your head?

I've always been a daydreamer, so my writing has always been my distraction from current events and whatever is bothering me. I still enjoy the odd movie or television show, and I am always reading a book--it's part of the job--but I try my best to make the fantasy world in my head my escape hatch from the real world. It helps make writing less of a chore and more of an enjoyment.

Anxiety has been a problem for me since childhood, and I've used all the forms of self-medication out there. Some of them I still do. But the one that's always worked for me is immersing myself in a story and letting myself be free with it. Writing without expectations, or for any particular audience except myself. It doesn't always produce highly commercial material. I have an English degree with honors and I also love ridiculous action stories and pulp tales, so I often amuse myself with ideas not everyone else will "get," but I try to make them entertaining for anybody. The references and homages are lagniappe for readers who are familiar with them. I don't do it to show how clever I am, it's just a "what if" for me, and as Stephen King says, most stories exist as answers to a "what if" question.

So many writers don't seem to enjoy writing. It's become a cliche, and a bad one. It's the suffering artist trope for people who aren't starving. Writing may not always be easy, but if it's as torturous as some claim it to be, they could save a lot of trouble and jump naked into a sticker bush instead. And this isn't meant to shame those sharing doubts and struggles. We should be free to share our problems, but we're doing young and new writers a disservice by painting it as a lifetime of mental anguish. Is it a tough row to hoe? It can be, and I respect writers who make a go of it, whether full-time or with a day job. The business side of it is rough. But the work, we all began because we enjoyed it. And at some point, you need to get back to that.

It's like the old joke about the bear hunter, who has the worst luck. The bear gets the drop on him, and offers him a choice of humiliation or death. (You can Google it, if you must.) And each year he goes back, set on avenging his pride, and the bear taps him on the shoulder ... by the fifth year, the bear says, "Admit it, you're not coming out here for the hunting." And that's how I feel about people who complain about writing all the time. Are you doing it so you can play the tortured artist and get sympathy? Like the John Banville article that caused the kerfuffle a few weeks ago, when he used writing as an excuse for bad behavior. (Julian Gough, like Joanne Harris and David Simon, has a fine response to that nonsense).

I'm terrible at sports, so I'll use the martial arts metaphor. You start because it's fun. I suppose this is playing catch, as a kid. Then you struggle to become the best you can, you compete. But at some point, maybe you aren't a hall of famer or a sensei on top of the mountain, but you return to doing it for enjoyment. In my writing career there's a lot of struggle ahead. I'm only getting started. But I'm bringing the lesson I took from ten years of getting my ass kicked on the mats with me. You've got to learn to enjoy the struggle. And that's how it is with my writing. The piece I'm working on now has evolved and I'm just about ready to finish it, but I struggled a lot with what the story was. A lot of anguish for a five thousand or so word story, really. (Sometimes they write themselves, this one made me think, the hardest work of all).

This post will appear after the election, but it was written Monday, the day before the country made its decision. And the story was the perfect distraction from the unending spectacle we've come to accept as politics. They'll be covering Election 2020 before the votes are counted. What better distraction from it than your own fantasy world, where you're in charge? Put that teeth-gnashing apoplexy to work. Otherwise the bear wins.


Dana King said...

"But at some point, maybe you aren't a hall of famer or a sensei on top of the mountain, but you return to doing it for enjoyment"

Well put. I was a professional musician for quite a while, but only after I quit, set the horn aside for several years, then came back to play in a community band did i remember why I played in the first place: I enjoyed the physical act. That's the only reason to do anything that doesn't act as the primary means to put bread on the table. (And even then one should actively seek a balance between reward and discomfort.)

Holly West said...

Good post, Tom. And after last night's results, I need all the distraction I can get.