I’m in another “empty tank” writing cycle, writing-wise, and that’s entirely my fault. I assigned myself a rather large reading assignment a few months ago. I’m on the down slope now, but I still have a ways to go. As the end gets closer, though, I find myself spending more hours reading just to get the damned thing over with. More hours spent reading means fewer hours writing, and fewer hours writing means less material to write about.
Unlike sculptors, writers not only have to create their own finished work but also their own raw material. Our clay is ideas sprawled across pages in the form of words–words that we choose, lay down, move around, delete, add back, and delete again. The only way to write is to write, but the writing is the hard part.
Yes, and because putting words on paper can be dull, laborious work, writers are notorious procrastinators. In order to justify our laziness, we label various writerly activities “writing.” Going to the movies is writing–research, we tell ourselves. Walking around is writing: We’re noodling on ideas. Talking to our friends about writing is writing, at least when we’re telling them our brilliant story ideas. Of course reading is writing. We’re learning from the masters, or we’re doing research, or whatever we tell ourselves.
These are all true to some extent, by the way. Writers who aren’t readers; well, I just don’t understand how that would even be possible. Walking around with an idea for a while is essential, too. I’ve carried story ideas around for years before committing them to paper. Blathering about our great ideas or our grand plans for this or that seems fairly worthless to me, but maybe they’re essential parts of other writers’ processes.
Inevitably, though, the only thing that is writing is writing, and when you don’t sit down and do it regularly your tank runs dry. Imagine a marathon runner who spends all week talking and reading about running and then heads out the door for a brisk 15 miler once per week. She may get through it, but it isn’t going to be pretty.
Running is remarkably similar to writing in that regard: Lacing up the shoes and heading out the door is the hardest part, especially if you’re out of shape. “I’m not a runner,” you might say to yourself. “I hate it. I’m out of shape, and besides that I was never any good at it anyway.” Let’s say that you get past that, though, and you lace ’em up and hit the road. That first run is short and painful. You don’t get much done beyond proving what you already knew–that you’re no runner. But if you just keep at it every day for a month, a remarkable thing happens: It gets easier. You might even find yourself enjoying it. You can go farther and faster than you ever managed.
You’re a runner now, so you start reading about running. You join a runners’ group on Facebook. You buy lots of gear guaranteed to make you a better runner. A little time passes, and you notice that you’re so busy with your runner’s lifestyle that you haven’t spent any actual time running, but that’s okay. All of this other stuff is “running,” too.
You can’t lie to your body, though. Strap on all of that expensive gear and do those warm-ups you read about and head out the door after a month of not being on the road. It won’t take more than a few steps before you realize that your tank is empty.
So it is with writing, and so I have no one to blame but myself for my empty tank. I’m the one who created this stupid reading assignment. I’m the only one pressing so hard to get it over with, too, but I’m doing so at the expense of my own creative output.
And on that note, I’m going to get back to reading this pile of books. I only have 6,118 pages to go, and then you’ll see some real writing. I think I’ll start with a trip to the movies.
Categories: on writing