Writing through it

[March 2011] There are probably still coaches out there who tell athletes to work through the pain after they suffer an injury or come up with a charley horse. This philosophy comes complete with all sorts of pleasant little slogans. Bite the bullet, for example. Tough it out and things will be better. The philosophy is not universally embraced in the medical community.

How does this apply to writing? It came to mind last Friday when I got up at 5 a.m. for my morning writing session. I was two thirds of the way through a short story that I had to have in the editor’s hand by Tuesday. No exceptions. Miss the deadline, miss the opportunity. The story had been slow in coming, but I’d finally found the groove and had nearly 5000 words on the page already. I knew the ending of the story and I figured I’d have no trouble finishing the first draft in the approximately 90 minutes I had available if I put my mind to it and didn’t get distracted.

Talk about distractions. I always check my work e-mail first, because the company I work for is owned by a Japanese firm. If I respond to e-mails from my colleagues on the other side of the world early in the morning, they’ll see them that day, whereas if I wait until I get to the office they won’t see them until the next day. The first thing I saw when I pulled up my INBOX was a message of concern from the manager of our UK office to our colleagues in Japan because of the earthquake that had happened through the night our time.

That sent me to the NY Times site and CNN and BBC and CBC for the latest. I found myself getting sucked in and I was aware of the time ticking away on my brief work session.

At that moment, I made a conscious decision. The news, important and fascinating as it was, would have to wait. It would still be there later when I finished my work. I’d made a commitment to finish that draft, if only to myself. As much fun as writing is, it’s also a job, and I had a duty to perform. Though the news, with all the scant details available in those first few hours after the quake, was swirling through my mind, I pushed it all aside, opened up the word processor, reread and revised enough of the previous day’s work to build up some momentum, and plowed on with the story. When I came up for air an hour later, I had written nearly 1500 words and reached the end of the draft. Then and only then did I allow myself to go downstairs and watch the breaking story on CNN before heading off to work.

There are a million reasons not to write at any given time. Every little thing that happens in life gets inside our heads and messes us up. An argument with a spouse, or an illness in the family. The dog has run away, or there isn’t enough money to cover the bills, or zombies are banging on the front door. All these things compete for our attention and make it difficult to do our job. And, never forget, this writing thing we do is a job. If my head isn’t together and my attention wanders and I don’t perform up to spec at the day job, it won’t be long before my boss will bring it to my attention. The same is true of writing, except here I’m the boss and sometimes I have to crack the whip. On myself.

It’s difficult, no question. Creativity is a delicate and fragile process, and it doesn’t take much to upset the equilibrium. To create a mental charley horse. Sometimes, though, you just have to write through it. Nose to the grindstone, as they say. Shake it off, get out there and write!

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