writing when you’re not on fire

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“Not in the mood? Mood’s a thing for cattle, and loveplay, not fighting!”

—Gurney Halleck, Dune (1984)

The real challenge is writing when you’re not on fire. Steven Pressfield calls doing this “turning pro.” I call it “time to fire up Netflix with a large bowl of cashews.”

Collect techniques for entering flow all you like. To finish a book, you’re going to spend many hours writing with the fire extinguished. I call this “writing damp.”

Writing damp is excruciating. Worse than listening to a friend’s dream or watching Big Bang Theory.

In Daily Rituals, writers spur themselves through damp writing with whatever works. Discipline, or chaos. Routine, or shock. Coffee, or, well, coffee. They all drink coffee, if only to wash down the amphetamines. (I’m looking at you, Ayn Rand!)

We expect pilots and doctors to perform at high levels for extended periods of time with lives on the line. Can you imagine your surgeon saying he’s not in the mood to remove your appendix? We can learn from them even if the only patient on our table is a bloated manuscript with an infected, er, appendix.

To fly planes or fix brains, you rely on:

  1. Practice
  2. Checklists

Practice

Sure, there’s grammar. That’s a concrete skill. You can practice it regularly and even measure your progress.

Stephen King recommends Grammar and Composition, his high school English textbook. I bought a copy. While I only made it through two chapters, I today never anyway mess up our grammar. So it work!

There are other foundational skills for writers to polish: touch-typing, spelling, etc. Unlike flying planes and stitching cuts, however, you can only practice books by writing them. Authors have no flight simulator, no med school cadaver. Nobody spends 9 months writing a “training manuscript” to prepare for the real thing.

It does happen by accident, though. In 1922, Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost a suitcase containing his work. (Did I mention this was his first wife?) In Hemingway’s impatience to re-write everything from scratch, he developed his famous style:

The man re-wrote the book. He re-wrote it with short, good words. He finished the book and put it down. Then the man picked up the book and he read the book, the book he had written. The book was a good one. It was a fine book with fine words in it.

In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin claims to have painstakingly re-written essays he admired from memory. By comparing them with the originals, he was able to improve as a writer.

This is a good example of Franklin’s legendary work ethic. It is also bullshit, of course, because who the hell would spend time doing that? Franklin was, as usual, full of shit. Yes, Americans in the 18th century also lied about how hard they worked and how industrious they were. In a way, Franklin was America’s first Thought Catalog contributor. (No offense, Thought Catalog contributors.)

(Just kidding. Offense intended. Thought Catalog contributors only read Greek philosophy, according to Thought Catalog contributors, so there must not be anyone reading to offend.)

Instead of pretending to practice, why not write short essays and send them to people? In the form of a newsletter, perhaps?

This does double duty, building an audience for your subject while developing your ideas. (Remember, your work needs an opportunity to marinate.)

I often debate whether I should spend my newsletter time writing the manuscript. But I’ve learned that this work informs that work. It’s my practice. Come up with idea, execute on it, revise, and share. Without that, I don’t get better.

In a way, this newsletter is my cadaver and I’m stitching my ideas into it. Or perhaps you’re my cadaver and I’m stitching my ideas into you.

Checklists

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande shows that checklists improve results in the cockpit and the OR. In the years since reading it, I’ve adopted checklists as a way of life.

Every night, I make a checklist for the next day. First thing in the morning, I start checking things off, aside from bits I don’t feel like doing. Exercise, work, etc. (This isn’t Thought Catalog, guys. Like you, I don’t actually do much and I won’t pretend otherwise.)

Since I’m a checklist guy, it only makes sense to use checklists in my writing. In fact, I’m following a checklist right now. I use a repeating project in my task manager. Each step is small, elemental, so I don’t have to think at all to move forward. Case in point, this newsletter.

  • Open app.
  • Blather.
  • Hit send.

Practice and checklists sidestep flow and inspiration. These tools will carry you through damp writing until sparks fly. The Muse is beyond your control but your fingers aren’t.