I’ve finally read Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. It’s all about beating the dreaded “resistance”, watching yourself like a hawk, spurning displacement activities, and getting your writing done. The book is full of incidental pro wisdom, he’s an amazing writer, and even makes writing seem like a macho version of the Last Temptation…
…but I disagree with his approach.
Partly, all this heroic wrestling just isn’t very British. Mostly, though, it’s because he treats “Resistance” as a single multi-faceted force in our lives to be tackled directly. I just don’t experience it that way, and I’m not sure that his is always a useful approach. (The caveat, of course, is that Steve Pressfield is a very successful writer and I’m just a new kid on the block.)
There are well established reasons why we have the urge to write (go read, The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain). Even so, I have this strong suspicion that writing professionally, or aspiring to do so, simply isn’t a natural human activity. How could it be? It’s a million miles from from the primal savanna, and only obliquely related to story telling. Instead, Writing has to be a meme ; a self replicating mind parasite that subverts the existing human hardware.
Replicators, as Dawkins keeps reminding us, are selfish, not interested in the well being of a specific host. There’s a fungus that makes dying rats seek high ground, so the spores can spread. Our own human genes make young men do stupid things in order gain status or impress mates.
My working theory is that Pressfield’s dreaded Resistance is really the brain’s firmware Meme Security Software at work. It’s there to prevent toxic memes from making us lose status by looking foolish, and from causing us to fail to eat, support our young, or breed.Similarly, Writing-the-Meme has evolved to pass itself on. The host doesn’t even have to produce a novel! They can just attend workshops, angst in coffee shops, make writing look cool and encourage others…
When we feel embarrassed by our writing, afraid of failure, bored, or strangely directed to other more immediately rewarding activities–that’s the Meme Security Software at work.
It follows that rather than engage in a time consuming heroic head-to-head with your own self protection instincts, it has to be far better to approach writing in ways that don’t trigger them.
It’s not enough to cultivate a fierce faith in yourself — that’s likely to lead to the kind of self deception that will end in failure. Instead, let me suggest these four approaches that have got me this far and keep me going professionally:
1. Have a basic working understanding or plot
Novels are like puzzles. They have an internal logic. As nanowrimo veterans will tell you, “just write” only gets you so far. I suspect many of the long angsty struggles to even start writing really result from a subconscious awareness that the wannabe writer doesn’t have a scooby how to do it.
You need a sense of how conflict generates plot, and the dialectic heartbeat of conflict-resolution-complication. That way, when you start a project, and if you do become stuck, you have words to describe what you’re trying to do and a rudimentary intellectual toolkit for achieving it. (See my review of Dwight V Swain’s classic.)
If you have the basics of plot, you’ll have fun teaching yourself the rest by trial and error, and the activity won’t feel futile.
- Defeat the blank page by knowing how to fill it with story.
2. During each draft, hide behind the next
Memes can make you act foolishly and lose social status. If our Meme Security Software detects any performance anxiety, it triggers alarm bells loud enough to scare off our Muse.
Alas, there’s this romantic twaddle about writers feverishly writing a perfect draft, capturing the fresh moment of ultimate creation… this is not entirely bollocks. Back when novels were shorter and freshness of form mattered more than execution, writers could write marketable material in a single sitting in a haze of fatigue and drugs. Less so these days. And, on balance of probability, certainly not for you or I.
If you take that perfect-out-of-the-box attitude, measure yourself against that, then you’re bound to be terrified! Even seasoned professionals rarely get it right first time, and they can’t know the rightness until they get to the end of the draft.
The point about writing, as opposed — say — to improvised story telling, is that the agent/editor/reader only sees the final version.
Instead, consciously attempt just one thing with each draft (really, given word processors, we should say “pass”). Rough out the story, fix the plot, hone continuity, then tweak style… you always have the next draft to make the novel perfect, and – really – it doesn’t have to go out to the outside world until you are happy with it.
- Beat performance anxiety by refusing to knowingly give a performance.
3. Have a business plan
Though we write for the sheer love of it, to our Meme Security Software, the activity looks suspiciously like engaging in childish daydreaming when we should be hunting or mating instead.
It’s important, then, that writing feels like a grown up and purposeful activity that produces resources — money — and, if possible, social status.
Of course you’d be a fool to write to get rich, and writers don’t gain much wider status through writing. But even small amounts of extra money can cover the bills, buy swords, or pay for a short holiday. And seeing your work in a particular place, gaining a par
ticular kind of visibility can confer the kind of status that matters to you.
So, learn about your corner of the publishing industry. Have a realistic plan for what you’ll do with your book, where you’ll send it and how, and what will happen next. Start thinking like a professional, even if it’s only ever going to be a part-time one.
- Feel grown up by making writing a grown up activity.
4. Learn acceptance
Even if you do all this, sometimes even if you are a multiply published author, the Meme Security Software will chatter away, raising warning messages and beeping to catch your attention. Unfortunately, you can’t just scream at the thing to shut up, because you are the thing. You can block out the voices, but that requires effort and involves denying part of your humanity.
Instead, do what will be immediately obvious to anybody who’s done any kind of mental pain relief training; accept the input from your Meme Security Software and file it away. It’s the spiritual equivalent of patting bad thoughts on the head, saying “Yes darling” and then putting them to bed. They haven’t gone away, they’re still there, but they no longer rule your mind. (I apologize if this sounds like “hippy shit”; it turns out this is just the way the damned brain works.)
- Overcome the doubts and fears by embracing them.