They say writing is hard. Why? Meaning, why is writing hard, but also why do they say it is? Or rather if we want to go deep, let’s apply a Socratic spin and rephrase the question: Is writing hard because ‘they’ say it is? Or, do ‘they’ say writing is hard because it is?
I am not being intentionally obtuse here, I am quite serious. How much of the problem is because of our anticipation of writing as ‘begin hard’, which of course creates a reality of difficulty, versus how much of the process of writing is actually ‘hard’?
Why am I bothering with this kind of musing?
Ever since I read Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series back in the 80’s, I have been filled with a painful longing – a visceral need – to write an epic fantasy trilogy. I love the idea of a messed up character in our world landing in some kind of ‘fantasy’ situation that reflects his or her internal psychological problem. And after nearly forty years, I have finally found my gem: an epileptic fat kid with a magic sword, in rural dystopic Pennsylvania. But, for the past five years, and after tons of notebooks and Word documents filled with junk, I still have no idea what the hell the story is about. Most frustrating.
When I write short stories, I tend to just dive in and let the story create itself. But I can’t seem to do this with a huge multi book project. There are just too many life altering decisions to make. I have read and researched writing techniques and various strategies in ‘how to write a novel’. And boy oh boy, do people have a lot to say on the subject: chapter spread sheets, plot graphs, plot point outlines, plot point terminology, and tons of various meta-writing musings and advice. But, all of it seems to boil down into two distinct approaches to writing: either from the outside in or the inside out. Outline the thing to death, or just go write whatever the hell you want with absolutely no sense of responsibility.
The problem, at least for me, is neither works by itself. If I write completely from the inside out, I wander around forever, page after page, until I am completely lost ( and have 400 pages of slop to revise). If I write completely from the outside in, I produce a soulless zombie of a story (plot outline) with absolutely no reason for existing – other than to pollute the world with clunky, cliched garbage. What to do?
I think it is about getting back to the fact that being ‘a writer’ is not singular. Meaning, ‘the writer’ is actually composed of several distinct ‘people’ within one person. And, all of ‘these people’ matter. Not just one or ‘me’. I have struggled to internalize this concept ever since studying Jung. To know that the Ego tends to confuse itself with the Self is one thing, to actualize it is another. The Ego, being rational, wants to write from the outside in, and the Self, being (mostly) irrational, wants to write from the inside out. It is a Titan against Titan kind of battle and nothing gets done. But, if we copulate Jung with Freud’s theory of Id, Ego, and Superego, the problem of writing as being ‘hard’ may just pose it’s own solution.
I am being reductive, here, but basically, the Id is our inner most instincts and compulsions. The Ego is our rational discerning thought process. And, the Superego is our judgement system. So here is a Freudian metaphor I’ve come up with, perhaps you will find it helpful:
The overall process of writing, in the context of the Id, Ego, and Superego, is like an intimate parent-child relationship within a larger external societal relationship. It follows that the nature of the relationship between each will determine the nature of writer and writing: stages of development, discipline, depth of love, damaging effects of neglect and abuse, expectations and moral judgement. In a harmonious scenario, the child (Id) is innocent and pure, naturally creative and curious, and needs not only to play, but to explore. The parent (Ego) then, needs to love and nurture the child, let it take risks and get messy, but also protect and discipline in a way that serves the child, not the parent or the demands, expectations, and judgments of the critic ( Superego). The critic (Superego), here, ultimately needs to facilitate, advocate for, and support the parent-child (writing) relationship so that the writing can be completed and readied for the ‘outside’ world.
What seems logical then, is to create and allow for three distinct writing processes: one for the the child (Id) who wants to go into the dark forest to explore and play. One for the parent (Ego) who needs to trail after, just out of sight, take notes, and perhaps prevent the child from falling into a well or something. And, one for the critic (Superego) who wants to be ‘the writer’ in the world.
In writer speak: create a ‘sandbox’ document of sorts to try out scenes and allow the child to follow a character wherever it wants to go – no strings attached. Then, create a ‘back and fill’ document for the parent to record and organize the stuff the child finds. And, lastly create a third document for the critic to piece it all together into a working story rough draft- and eventual final draft to present to the public.
Everybody will have their job to do, and as long as the parent, and especially the critic, maintains its boundaries and not only works with the child, but values it, the writing process should be all daisies and butterflies. Right? Sure!
Crazy. Wish me luck, and the same to you!
And, thanks for reading.