First, I don’t know if the loneliness of the long distance Writer is any different from the horrors that come with any other profession. When we close our eyes at night, we are all alone with our demons, after all, from Accountant to Zoo Keeper.
But I do wonder if there is something peculiar to the occupation of writing which attracts this shadow companion.
And then chains it to us, hip and thigh, when the going gets tough and the carpet disappears under discarded drafts.
So I thought I would share some thoughts on it. Just in case they may be useful to some writer who thinks he or she is alone in the cold and dark.
Before I was a Long Distance Writer
I remember very clearly the first time I encountered the idea that being a writer exacted a price. I was writing all the time, entirely for my own pleasure. I hadn’t tried to finish anything, mostly because I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to my characters.
Then I came across a sentence in Wildfire at Midnight which shocked me. The first person narrator has suffered a very civilised, and painful, divorce. When she encounter her ex, she immediately notices his extreme tension. “It couldn’t just be the strain of starting a new book, though some stages, I knew, were hell.”
Hell? Writing? That joyous journey into the unknown where I rode the whirlwind and danced with dragons any time I wanted? Nah. Not possible.
But then, later, there was Milton, agonised and raging at his blindness. “That one talent which is death to hide, lodged with me useless.”
I was an agnostic teen and resisting Milton with every fibre of my being. But even so, that got to me. Because by then, I was trying to finish my stories. Whole novels, too. Death to hide.
Not me, of course, I told myself. It would never happen to me. But if writing wasn’t just what you did … If it was what you were… Yes, I suppose I could imagine someone feeling like that.
Imagine it and then drown the awful prospect deeper than did ever plummet sound.
The Long Distance Writer Grows Up
Only it happens. In its most extreme form, of course, it comes as writer’s block. George Orwell, rather meanly, gave it to Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Douglas Adams, of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and other works of staggering genius, notoriously struggled with writing block all his life. And Sheridan, whose father-in-law locked him in a room upstairs to finish The Critic, while his unfortunate actors delivered the dress rehearsal below, must certainly have felt that icy touch.
Sheridan, like Douglas Adams, was cheerful about his own backsliding when it came to deadlines. But think of the avoidance, the late night scrambles to finish at the last minute, the sheer adrenaline that must have cost them both. Surely it would have been easier to finish the damn book?
Michael Kelly, singer and composer, who also worked at Drury Lane Theatre, says he told Sheridan, “You will never write again; you are afraid to write.” Sheridan fixed him with a fishy eye and demanded of whom Kelly thought he was afraid? “You are afraid of the author of ‘The School for Scandal’,” said Kelly.
Tactful? No. Honest? Spot on.
The Long Distance Writer and Strategic Planning
If Milton’s “death to hide” sent chills up my spine, Kelly’s crack about fear of the author of School for Scandal gave me nightmares. Recurring nightmares. Because once I’d had a book or two published, the companion cold was never more than a step or two behind me.
So I analysed myself every time I had a wobble. Researched widely. Used everything from Rescue Remedy (which quite often helped) to whole books on Planning Your Career or Plotting Your Productive Day, which mostly didn’t.
What really doesn’t help, though, is trying to put a label on the problem this time around. Sometimes it’s confidence, sometimes it’s tiredness, sometimes I went down a blind alley and stayed there too long.
Sometimes, I’ve just forgotten that my body is involved in writing as well as my mind.
On that aspect, the inspirational Joanna Penn has some excellent health advice on managing stress, anxiety and burn out on her current blog. I first heard her speak at the London Book Fair a couple of years ago, and have been a regular visitor to The Creative Penn ever since.
The Long Distance Writer turns Explorer
I’m not going to take you through my own various horrors. Let’s just say I’ve had all of the above and more. Mostly I’ve avoided block, though many diamonds of the first water don’t and it can be crippling. One of my favourite authors, Julie Cohen, tweeted bravely about her own experience last year and it makes sobering reading. I salute her courage and her generosity for sharing with the rest of us.
I, however, as habitual readers of this blog probably know, can tiffle for Britain. For ever. At least, I would — except that, in conjunction with my esteemed critique partner, Joanna Maitland, I seem to have identified a way to get back to that early, joyous time of dancing with dragons.
Basically, I stop trying to control every damn word and punctuation mark that comes off my fingers’ ends. I take all the details I’ve learned about craft, story arcs, heroes’ journeys and deep third Points of View, bundle them up and throw them overboard, like Marco Polo getting rid of excess baggage. Then I make sure that my brain is talking to my physical being. Limber up a bit. Make sure my sub-conscious is on board.
And go exploring
Just as I did when I was so in love with writing, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Exciting!
I am fascinate by this post. My literary skills tend more to copyediting than they do to creation (an my creation is entirely expository); but I feel where you’re coming form. I don’t know how much a reader could profit from one of your workshops (and it would be unfair to take the place of a writer in order to observer); they always sound so interesting. Alas, I haven’t the money (or at 90, the energy) to just drop over to London or Hereford from mid-Missouri.
I do learn so much from these blogs.
Oh Sue, what a lovely thing to say. Thank you so much.
I am sure you would be very welcome at one of our workshops. We’ve never thought of offering them to readers but, as the blessed Ursula Le Guin pointed out, readers do half the work when it comes to creativity. “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
This had every chord in my brain twanging. As you know, I was up against a deadline and I didn’t know where I was going. My editor gave me an extension of a week and a half, for which I was grateful, but I STILL didn’t know what I was doing. I eschewed all outings and entertainments and practically locked myself in the office, but with two family events on Thursday evening and all day Friday, I wanted the d*mned thing out of the way. Eventually, somehow, I finished it and sent it off at 6.05 Thursday evening. I hate to think how much rewriting will appear in my inbox. AndFriday? My body reacted. Badly. It actually scared me. I’m fine now, but it was a hard lesson. So thank you for this – it’s really helpful.
Desperation is a great focuser of the mind, I find. Well done you for delivering, Lesley.
So glad if this was helpful, though.
I remember Jenny Crusie writing about ‘hitting the wall’ several years ago and to me that’s what block feels like: you’re cruising along, meeting deadlines, writing up a storm and then suddenly, bam, there’s this wall and there doesn’t seem to be a way over it. I’ve been staring at that wall for the past three months and it’s not a good feeling, so it was comforting to read your post, and to follow the links. Thank you for both!
How horrible, Pam. At least you know a) you’re not alone and b) there is a wide variety of good advice and support out there. Best of luck in getting over the wall.
Thanks again for a fascinating blog post, Sophie. That Sheridan anecdote…no pressure then!
Well Sheridan was a bit reckless – he eloped with his first wife, and he racked up vast debts in his thirty odd years as an MP. But the Father-in-law in question was a fellow theatre professional and also collaborated with Sheridan on at least one production, so he may well have had some cash riding on The Critic.
But the pressure of having already written possibly the best comedy of manners in English, ever – yes, that must have been a tough one, Jill.