They say those who can’t do teach, so when a writer writes about writing, you know something is awry. At this moment in time, I am generally happy: I’m healthy, I have great friends who have gone out of their way to do incredibly sweet things for me ever since I announced I’m leaving New York, and I just spent a lovely evening coordinating a fundraiser for the Museum of Math at Science House and was able to come home and put the money I earned in my parrot fund. However, there is a cloud that has been looming over me for the past month — the deadline cloud.
While I was an editor at Wired, I gave my freelancers deadlines all the time. Miraculously, I picked amazing writers who turned in quality work on time with only a few exceptions. But actually being on deadline is pretty new to me. I wrote articles at Wired, but they were never on deadline because it was understood that my writing was basically free time work that came secondary to my editing responsibilities. Nobody was going to ask that I put their request for me to write above my own job, so the things that I’ve had published at Wired were all kind of random passion projects.
Now though, I do have deadlines. Deadlines given to me by editors I respect just as much as my freelancers respected me. I’m not complaining about the fact that I have deadlines. I love deadlines. I love them because writing is fun and all but publishing is the really rewarding part. I mean, I write on this blog and sometimes it’s good and makes sense, but I’m mostly writing to think here. That’s probably the core of why I’m a writer, because writing helps me think. All my life I’ve been getting into these confusing situations and I can’t make sense of them until I write them down.
Which is the whole stupid conundrum I’m having lately. Writing helps me think, but when I think too much about writing, I can’t write.
I never understood why print magazines let their writers take so long to write feature articles. I figured the writers had to be milking the system — jerking off, playing games on their computers or something while they were supposed to be working. But now I get it. When someone gives you a topic and tells you to write the best thing that you possibly can in an hour, that’s easy. You just do it, and it’s done in an hour. But when someone gives you a 2,000 word goal and wants you to write something epic and evergreen what will withstand the scrutiny of millions of misogynist commenters and reddit trolls, that requires a lot of thinking. I mean, is there ever really enough thinking to prepare one for that?
I’m sorry I doubted you, feature writers! It’s true, writing feature articles takes a long time. I just wrote this essay about cholera in Haiti, finally, after thinking about it for a whole year. A year. And when I actually sat down to write it, it took a day. But it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t on the page for a year, so it took a year to write. That’s what most of writing is for me: thinking.
Often times when I’m working on a story, I’ll tell people about different parts of it first. Friends, strangers, doesn’t matter. They’ll ask “what are you working on?” and I’ll say “a story about so-and-so,” and they’ll say “oh, what about it?” and I use that prompt as my test bed. I’ll tell them about it one way, and if it makes sense than I remember the explanatory process I used and incorporate it into the narrative thread that exists only in my head. I weave these threads in my head constantly. There are thousands of them, all tangled up with each other, waiting for the moment I find the end and tug it out of my head onto the page so it can exist there forever. When I finally find an end, it just comes out like a spool unraveling. It’s just a matter of looking for it, and getting it, and sometimes it takes a really long time.
Sometimes though, things stop me from looking. It’s an irrational fear. A fear that maybe the thread that exists in my head isn’t worthy of paper or even internet space. Like my new boyfriend David Foster Wallace once said, people who worship intellectualism are always worried about being found out for being some kind of fraud. But then most of the writers I respect say they constantly worry about being found out and this is how they know they’re good journalists. They say that if they every stopped worrying about that, they would then know that they’d lost it and should quit the profession immediately.
I think that good editors know this, because they have all gone through it, which is why they’re considerate with writers going through it. But how does one learn how to stop thinking about writing and just fucking write? How do I put aside all the little things that are easier and more immediate and less about fulfilling of my own professional desires, and work that thread into something awesome without thinking about it until I go insane with deadline-pushing guilt?
Le sigh. I guess the key is to stop thinking about writing, and blogging about writing, and just write. In the time it took me to write this blog post, I could have written most of the other thing I needed to write. At least now I feel a little more clear on what I have to write. I will hammer it out! Sorry for being so meta.