People like to talk about writer’s block, the horrible dead end feeling of a blank page and nothing to write, or of a work in progress that has lost its energy and for which the writer can find no direction.
But there is another career risk, I’m not sure what to name it so I’ll call it anti-block, and this is the feverish mania that sets in when a writer can’t stop writing. The story is exhilarating, so the work goes on into the night, to exhaustion and beyond. I used to do this quite regularly, but now I am more guarded about how often I let it happen.
Back when writing was competing for my time with a demanding professional career I was, rightly, possessed by an urge to squeeze the most out of any writing moment I could find, often working as long as I could if an evening or a free day presented itself. This made sense, I would know that it would be near impossible to write the next day, so I would enjoy the heated experience of immersion in the stories I was making, and would see how far I could get, and then I would pass out, waking bleary-eyed the next day.
Graduate school was my transition to writing full-time, or as full-time as I could manage. At first, I stuck to my old working pattern. I’d sit down at the desk, start scribbling or tapping keys, and before long many hours would have passed. The day was gone, and so was most of the night, and I would fall into bed.
Over time I started to notice something. I should have noticed it sooner, but observing the obvious has never been my strength. What was happening was that after one of these glorious writing sessions, I often wouldn’t do much work for two or three days, and when I did return to the work my connection to the story would be broken, I wouldn’t know the story as well as I did that other night when it hit the page, and the passage of time in between had made my re-entry into the story difficult.
What I needed to learn was that there was no longer a need to squeeze my writing time into windows of activity. What I needed was sustained effort, day by day. Get up, go to it, work and, if when the writing time was done, there was still a little left in the tank, that was okay.
I would need that energy the next day, when I picked up where I left off and carried on, still connected to the work because little time had passed since I left it.
If I were to apply an analogy from athletics, this was the transition from weekend warrior to marathon runner. The weekend warrior, released from the hemmed-in enclosure of work week, crams all the activity possible into the short time between end of Friday and start of Monday. It’s fraught with adrenaline, exhilarating, sometimes risky, but also unsustainable without a five day break.
The marathon runner can’t do this. Daily effort is needed.
I think that most of us who have the compulsion to write are best served by the discipline of the marathon runner. There is still exhilaration in sustained effort and, yes, every now and then we empty the tanks and pour it all out but most of the time we are writing so that we can also write again tomorrow.
To the writer hooked on the joy that writing brings when you push yourself to that white hot state: Use it and love it. You are anti-blocked; you can’t stop writing and this is very satisfying. And if you find yourself with an extended period of time on your hands with few constraints — days, weeks, or even months —try experimenting with stepping back and working in a disciplined state. Enjoy the anti-block, but watch out for the addiction. Like all addictions it has its perils.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Ken Murray lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario. He teaches creative writing at Haliburton School of the Arts and at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. He is a volunteer broadcaster in community radio and dabbles in several sports. Eulogy is his first novel. For more information visit http://www.kenmurray.ca.