The Product and the Process

2015-02-14 18.18.26My novels in print, to date (at Boskone, 2015)

It’s tempting to look at the finished product and forget the struggle over the process. Even when it’s your own work. “Luckily” I’m in the midst of drafting a new novel, and I have all the reminders I need on a daily basis that writing is hard.

The creative process is both mysterious and extremely mundane. If there was a reality show sharing the day to day life of the writer, viewers would likely die of boredom. My work is a lot of me staring out the window while my hands are perched on my laptop’s keyboard, followed by furious typing and then a return to silent staring.

And that’s on a good day.

There are times when the writing feels so frustrating, the story so impossible, my imagination spent, that instead of sitting with my hands ready to type, I follow the seductive call of social media, of email, of solitaire. Of the three, social media is the most dangerous because I can most often justify it as part of my work. Networking! Marketing! Publicity! Research! All part of the writing process, to be sure.

But let’s be honest. That’s not why I’m clicking away into a browser window.

I’m clicking away because I’ve hit a sticking point. The writing feels stale or awkward, the ideas halt. And rather than sitting with the discomfort, I flood it with input. I read blogposts and industry articles. I look at my amazon rankings. I chat with my fellow writers on G+. I anesthetize myself with the constant motion of a twitter feed.

And so an entire writing day can pass by with nothing of substance to show for it.

What happens next is probably the most dangerous: I fall into self-loathing and negative self-talk. Which only leads to less writing and more self-loathing.

I think many creative people fit into the slightly obsessive category of personality types. When I’m full-on immersed in a story, the house could burn down around me and I probably wouldn’t notice. When I’m mired in the negativity, I lose all perspective and sense of time, losing hours and chunks of days to time wasting, energy sucking activities.

I’ve tried many methods to shake me loose of this cognitive/emotional prison: changes of scenery, moving from a sitting to a standing desk, long walks, music, silence, software that locks me out of the internet, to do lists, schedules. You name it, I’ve probably failed at it.

In the past week, I’ve netted nearly 10,000 words on ITHAKA RISING, the sequel to DERELICT. How did I break through the stasis? A combination of several things. First, I set up an intention that I would carve out three 1-hour stints dedicated to writing, allowing no distractions. Then I needed to make a trip to Florida when my father was hospitalized. (He’s going to be okay.) Having no other obligations was a boon to my writing. Finally, I realized that if I didn’t make my deadline on this draft, I would lose my spot with my editor until next year.

Some combination of goal/intention, outside forces, and an imposed deadline finally accomplished what I was having a hard time implementing by sheer willpower. And now that I’m back on track, I want to keep working. It seems to be a mater largely of inertia. Once those hamster wheels in my head start spinning, they tend to stay spinning.

And if I can keep them spinning long enough, other books will join those on the table in the photograph above.

No matter what you do, may your tasks be clear. May your distractions be few. May you be gentle with yourself.

LJ Cohen

LJ Cohen is the writing persona of Lisa Janice Cohen, poet, novelist, blogger, local food enthusiast, Doctor Who fan, reading omnivore, and relentless optimist. Lisa lives just outside of Boston with her family, two dogs (only one of which actually ever listens to her) and the occasional international student. In love with words since early childhood, Lisa filled dozens of notebooks with her scribbles long before there were such a thing as word processors.

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  1. Your description of the agitation that you go through when writing sounds like a page from my journal. I started the journal as a way to continue writing when I was stuck looking at the page. It’s funny, but it seems that our methods for returning to productivity are (sometimes) a form of denial, when the truest way is by simply getting back into that mode. I have found that at the heart of the difficulty with which I make that return lies nothing more than pure, unadulterated fear.

    • Absolutely, Kevin. So much of the difficulties in life are based in fear. And fear is a tough bastard. Sometimes its fear of failing, sometimes it’s fear of succeeding.


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