Anyone who tells you that writing is easy wants to relieve you of your money — or doesn’t object to the production of drivel. Writing is a kind of blood sacrifice, an act of pulling out a line of words from the mind of the writer and affixing it to the page in a manner that is reminiscent of the method for extracting a Guinea worm — which can be wrapped around a pencil over the days required for the process, so the analogy is all the more apt.
If this sounds too gruesome, I recommend choosing something other than writing or tropical medicine as a way to spend time. And yes, to use the Twitter hashtag, I #amwriting, specifically a fantasy novel. Does that sound grand? See the first paragraph. Whoever said that writing is like driving across the country at night, only able to see the little bit ahead that the headlights show, left out some details. It’s like driving at night on a wet road that’s only now being constructed with other cars coming and going and trying to carry on a conversation by text message.
That’s a messy figure, as it should be. Distracted writing feels a lot like distracted driving and just as dangerous, if only to one’s time, reputation, and self-esteem. But the reality is that the distractions that dump me out of the flow of words can achieve surprising good.
I’ll admit that I’m grateful to have grown up before the inability to act as if industrial education is fascinating became a medical condition to be drugged away — except by caffeine. Caffeine is an essential nutrient. A high pressure flow of words is the kind of thing that corporations may want when they need ad copy or excuse documents to present in court, but creative work, whether essays or fiction, is not the sort of thing that comes together well on a timetable — unless the author is Isaac Asimov.
Or Christopher Hitchens, about whom Salman Rushdie once said that his friend had such a journalist’s dedication to his craft that he could get thoroughly drunk at a party in the evening and then go home to write three thousand words to meet his deadline. But for those of us who have to fiddle with knobs and aerials to hear occasional snatches of the Muses’ song, distraction is a tool to be used, rather than to have used against us.
Writing is as often a log jam as it is a flowing river, and the stack of written words already on the page has the quality of inertia — I had to erase the first draft of this essay to write something better, and this sentence has been typed over three times, but I feel like Abraham called upon to sacrifice Isaac when I have to bring myself to toss out the words I had generated. The forward momentum of a piece feels good when it happens, and yet some of the most rapid progress occurs when we’re flying off a cliff. When my cat jumps up on my lap or when I need to refill my glass — of whatever stimulant to thoughts I’m drinking — this gives me a chance to take a step back, take a step to get the blood moving about, and let my thoughts — and the words on the page — run loose for a minute.
It’s up to each writer to work out how much distraction is helpful. The music that I’m playing, for example, is a good aid to forward motion. That which my neighbors play is a provocation. A Twitter conversation can inspire article after article or can pull me away from other writing. And the wretched spam calls on my telephone make me want to search for curses against those who have the nerve to pull me away from my keyboard. But the notion that a writer must have a silent room is one that I advise thinking through before believing.
One last point: My cat made me write this.
(Please send help.)