Writing at the End of the World

Anyone who’s had a toddler, or who’s tried to have a conversation with a parent of a toddler, is probably familiar with the following scenario:

PARENT: So tell me what’s been up with you.

FRIEND: Well, you know I quit my job at the bank–

PARENT: (calling) Jakie! Jakie, put that down. (to FRIEND) Sorry, yes. I heard you quit! So where are you now?

FRIEND: Val hooked me up with a friend of hers at GeneriTech. They were looking for a systems consultant.

PARENT: Oh, that’s fantastic. (calling) Jakie. Jakie! Leave them alone. Yes.

FRIEND: So anyway, I’ve been there a month, and–

PARENT: (getting up) I’m sorry, excuse me a moment. (walks off to corral toddler)

You can have a conversation, of course, and you can convey basic information, but it’s hard to do through constant interruptions. From the parent’s side, they’re always at least half (sometimes more) paying attention to their toddler, lest the little scamp fall into a mud puddle or find the knife collection or post embarrassing pictures to Facebook.

This is what it feels like to try to write these days.

One of the pieces of writing advice I give is that the time spent away from the keyboard is just as important as the time spent typing. Your mind has to be free to be creative, to explore possibilities and build the next scene and the next, to free associate and match weird ideas to your existing plot, to get you excited about what you’re about to write so that when you do sit down, you don’t spend that keyboard time just thinking.

(It is okay to just think at the keyboard, but obviously it’s more efficient to think elsewhere and type when you’re at the keyboard.)

This spring, I was writing the end of The War and the Fox, and I was thinking through the final battle scene. It excited me so much that I spent a whole week just turning over possibilities and discarding them, writing a little bit more each day and constantly revising. It felt great.

It’s hard to get that feeling back when the world feels like a toddler staggering toward a knife drawer and I’m on the other side of a thick glass barrier and I can’t do anything except watch, and maybe sign a petition to have someone go into the other room and divert the toddler, if that’s even possible.

(I had a list of problems going on in the world while initially writing this draft, but after two days it was already out of date, so just list off whatever insanity is happening right now.)

It’s a lot to have on one’s mind. It makes it hard to focus on the stories you’re writing because they seem so insignificant, but also worrying about the above is so stressful that sometimes you just want to play your Match-3 game of choice or your Words With Friends, or watch the latest must-see show and not think about anything.

(Or maybe write a blog post explaining how writing has been harder the last couple years.)

The practical upshot of this is that one of the things that used to come easily—thinking about and getting excited about a story I’m writing—does not come easily now. Which means that I have to spend energy making it happen. I have to remind myself to think about the story I’m writing, what happens next, what I want to say, why I’m excited about writing it. I have been trying to do that this past week with moderate success.

If this advice is helpful to my fellow writers, great. If you’re not a writer, consider this a reminder that while yes, we all need to worry about what’s happening in the world, we all also need to worry about ourselves. It’s okay to take a break to do something you enjoy, to remind yourself of why we’re so attached to this messed-up world after all.

 

 

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