Enjoying The Process Of Writing

A number of years ago now, I attended the Viable Paradise workshop and met some lovely teachers there. It has taken me all this time to begin to internalize what I learned from those lectures and from the many years of reading and re-reading that I’ve done in an attempt to understand how to write fiction.

First, I believe that reading is the most important activity as a precursor for any writing. When I decided I was going to try to write in my early 20’s, I began reading differently. I no longer read merely for entertainment, but for instruction. I began looking at how stories are put together, what interests me about stories, and began to grasp at the most mysterious part of creative writing which is how it creates meaning from words.

Words individually have dictionary-definition meanings. But the atomic scale of language is not the word, it is the paragraph. A good, meaty paragraph can propel the mind of the reader into a new and strange direction; or it can be a visceral, sudden jolt.

I will confess that in the years since that workshop, I lost some of my lust for writing. I have since realized that what I really lost was not the ambition or the motivation to write, but the enjoyment of writing.

The act of creative writing — and most writing, except maybe API documentation, carries some creative elements — is a balance between the Dionysian and Apollonian modes. It requires an ongoing negotiation between two hemispheres of the brain: the pre-frontal cortex, and the amygdala. To put it in glib and overly-simplified terms: the thinking brain and the feeling brain. (In actuality, both are mediated through the PFC, which is really running the show, but that’s a subject for another time.)

With no plan, no structure, and no forethought, any creative writing project longer than a poem is going to collapse under its own weight. I think of the many projects I tried, and failed, to execute in my very early youth, before I really had the organizational skills to structure something of any length. The majority of amateur (and much of pro-am) writing falls in this category. Often it is co-incidental with writers who closely ape the voice of a trendy writer, and it is actually this inhabiting of another voice that drives the ambition for these writers. In short, if your process is to sit down and write whatever you feel, whenever the mood strikes you, you’ll produce some word-salad. We might call this the “Jack Kerouac school of writing.” Truman Capote’s quip is ever the more relevant: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

Next, the enterprising writer may turn to excessive plotting and management techniques lifted straight out of a Six Sigma course. Outlines are produced, then sub-outlines, diagrams, character relationship charts, tables, etc. More sophisticated writing software is needed here, until the writer’s computer setup begins to look more like a project management tool than a writing app. This is often the fate for young epic fantasy writers, crime novelists, and other plotty genres. A common prescription given for writers who fall into this category of excessive planning is to silence “your internal editor.”

To complete anything, and have it not completely fall apart, one must strike a balance between these two extremes. One must, in other words, get the Apollonian and Dionysian modes working together in harmony. We need the rational mind to structure novels and provide that essential logical path from A to B throughout the story, without which it will be unintelligible. But we also need that spontaneous impulse of pure destructive-creation to pull ideas and keep the process fun and exciting for the writer, which excitement will come across in the finished product.

The workshop represented a completion of a goal of mine: namely, to get into the workshop. I kept trying to write after the workshop, but found that with a few exceptions, I had little fun writing. I didn’t feel I was getting any better. I didn’t know how to improve. And without any positive feedback, either from my writing group, or publishers, I finally began to give up.

There is another element of my (perhaps inevitable) burnout from writing. I’ve hesitated to write about this for fear of reprisal. But it’s been long enough that I doubt anyone involved will remember, and the cultural tides seem to be turning. Around the time of the workshop, the “cancel culture” memetic virus had begun its merciless sweep across the western hemisphere, infecting everything from Hollywood to board rooms, and yes, even mostly insignificant pro-am writing communities. I had some strange encounters during my heavy workshopping period. Some workshop partners would go out of their way to find something, anything, offensive on a political or personal level in every story, no matter how innocent the writer evidently was or how minor the offense. As in other areas of public life, the search-and-destroy was undertaken with a sadistic glee. For certain people, there is nothing more satisfying than to destroy the work of others.

The story I brought to the workshop was a fairly innocuous (and not very good) story about a brain-slug type alien who erroneously believed himself to be the hero, as he went about staging an assassination of another civilization’s leader. It was meant to be ironic, a satire of the American imperial ambition that is so often disguised as “helping” (as all imperial ambitions are), and in fact the details of the story are not so different from what the U.S. “intelligence community” has done multiple times across Latin America and the Middle East. Yet one of the more boorish participants in the workshop found it deeply offensive because the brain-slug alien did not get “consent” to insert itself into someone’s brain. Despite attending a somewhat competitive writing workshop, this person had evidently never heard of an anti-hero before, nor did they seem to have any grasp of irony in fiction. The insistence that every protagonist in a story be morally good brings to mind criticisms leveled on early novelists by the church — in other words, it is literally anti-fictional to insist that no immoral behavior be depicted in a story. Yet this is just the type of advice I received, and in earnest.

This incident was only one of several in-bad-faith misinterpretations of my work that made me, eventually, say “fuck it” and quit writing entirely, for years. It was not only that I could not reconcile the complaints with the story — I mean, the suggestion was essentially that I should throw out my story and write something else, something nicer, something less ironic. The greater damage is that it inserted a seed of doubt into my mind that I have any grasp of story at all, or any ability to write anything more complex than a TPS report without coming across as foaming-at-the-mouth. It made my “internal editor” grow to a hundred times its original size. I began to feel that anything I wrote, anything I did, was going to be rejected by the community. Not because I was writing anything particularly offensive, but because anything I did was going to be rejected — for reasons I can only begin to speculate on.

This has led me to several conclusions that go against the grain, as it were:

  1. Don’t use writing workshops, except perhaps when first starting out. Find instead a group of like-minded, trusted people who can review your work; or don’t use a workshop group at all.
  2. Write for yourself and your own enjoyment. If you have any taste at all, then you’ll find an audience somewhere that likes what you’ve written.

This is, of course, completely counter to what workshops promote as the route to a lucrative career as a fiction writer. Of course, the workshop industry will promote workshops as the only way to get your work published. They will diminish self-publishing in favor of the few remaining professionally-paying short-story markets and big SF/F publishers.

I don’t think this is true. Dozens of writers publish on e-book publishers and make more money, and sell more copies, than they ever would have through Tor. And when’s the last time you read anything interesting from Tor, anyway?