Forced Writing by Elizabeth Mitchell

Last Round, I confessed that writing is my avocation, not my vocation.  This Round, I have another confession. Unlike so many of you, I am not a writer who can’t not write.  Near the end of the last Round, I read a post that struck harmonic resonances with me. Ryan Urie, in a guest post, wrote, “Over and over other authors tell me ‘I write because I can’t not write!’ At which point I turn a little green with envy, duck my head, and slink away feeling a little self-conscious and completely unworthy as a writer because, let me tell you, not writing is the easiest thing in the world for me.”

Preach it, brother, because I have that experience with ROWers all the time. I see the word counts, the NaNos and Camp NaNos, Fast Drafts and word sprints, and hide away, polishing my paltry 250 words a day, on a good day, that is. Sure, every year or so, I have a character who moves into my head, squawking until I pay him/her attention, but most of the time? I can not write just fine.  I can spend hours watching 1930’s or 40’s movies, playing video games, reading books, philosophizing with family and friends, or even doing housework. My apartment was never cleaner when I was writing (or not) my Master’s thesis; when I have an article to write for work, my cubicle could star in an Office Beautiful spread.  But when I’m trying to write fiction, I suffer the torments of several circles of Dante’s inferno. Characters tell me I’m boring, a snob, and so out of touch as to be mummified. I second-guess every plot point and line of dialogue. I write 1000 words, to throw out 700.  I am Sisyphus in a tormented cha-cha.

Those of you lucky driven writers may wonder why I bother, when I have to quell the magpie, shut my eyes to the wonders of the internet when researching, convince myself that I am not thirsty and do not need to wander down to the kitchen. I bother because writing helps me puzzle out the twists and turns of life; understand what things carry meaning for me; ponder the lessons of the past to understand the present.  I write in the hope of informing and entertaining others;  in making others think about things that are newer than we think, like easy access to water and food; or older than we realize, like teenage angst and adoration of rock stars. Although I struggle to sit down, and the words rarely come easily, I find the rewards worth the effort and pain. My life is richer, my appreciation for it deeper, and my angst of living in the wrong century lessened.

Are you one of the lucky writers, whose words flow into the bowl of the fountain, constantly overflowing into the basin below?  Or might you be more in my camp, pushing the rock up the mountain over and over? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Elizabeth Mitchell


21 thoughts on “Forced Writing by Elizabeth Mitchell

  1. I think it’s amazing how many different paths we take as authors. Hugs on the feelings of shame when you look at others. We all do that, I think. I slink away a lot. LOL. And sit in the funk of writing thinking I’m shouting in the dark. It’s strangely uplifting to see there are others out there who struggle too.

    I am one of those people who can’t “not write”. It’s not that I wake up in the morning ready to go. I promise I can come up with a thousand reasons not to. I love to play video games and do anything BUT write. This is where it gets tricky, though. If I don’t write for too long, I have nightmares. Soul chilling Clive Barker-esque nightmares where I’m waking up in a cold sweat and terrified to take so much as a breath. I dream, and always have, in bright vivid colors and all five senses.

    If it continues for too long, I’ll start to mutter to myself (crazy, right?). It’s probably because I go out of my way to AVOID sleeping when this happens. Something about needing REM sleep for sanity. 😀

    I have to creatively exhaust myself to ease back into (or maintain) normal dreams (they’re vivid, but not terrifying). Over the years I’ve tried everything. No other creative process does it. And writing is a far better alternative to a drug that forces me to sleep through the nightmares or turns me into a zombie. Tried those too. Sleep studies, several types of therapies, a few times as a thesis subject later and this is still all that works for me.

    So I figure…if I *have* to do it, I’ll make sure it’s something I love to write about.

    It’s not something I regret, either, so please don’t think that. It’s just the way my head is wired, I guess. Who knows? Either way, keep writing and don’t let someone else’s process undermine what you do.

    1. Dawn, I think you are someone who would have been described as “visited,” or more accurately, “ridden by the gods” in early times. I have had near “channeling” experiences where a character gets fed up with my perfectionism, and just takes over, spilling out a story in a blaze of no-sleep, no-meals, frenzy. That’s close enough to your experience for me, thank you.

      Logically, I know not to peek at other people’s processes; emotionally, I suffer from impostor syndrome. Thank you for sharing your experience, and I especially appreciate your support.

  2. Thank you for bravely saying this! I feel like I should come up with a list of the common “You’re not a writer unless…” statements people make that unnecessarily pressure writers. One of them is this, that you must, must, must write…or you’ll just die! My life feels more balanced when I’m writing, but honestly it doesn’t have to be fiction. I CHOOSE to write fiction. Does that make me less of a fiction writer? I think not.

    What I’d suggest makes one a writer is that you write. You have something to show for your time at the computer (or the pages).

    Wonderful post, Elizabeth!

    1. Thank you, Julie. I think you’ve hit upon the heart of my problem. I write non-fiction by the bushelfuls. It’s good, clear, serviceable prose, and gladly read by at least ten or twelve people every year. Yes, every year! 😉

      But the fiction gets under the skin far more, and the memoir that I have begun is shredding the skin right off.

      Thank you for the viewpoint that writers write. I needed to hear that.

  3. I think I can join you in your camp. My love is reading, writing is something that just started happening just under a year ago as therapy for some things I am going through. The beginning of a journal to cope with feelings that ended with a fantasy novel.
    Since I have been following writers and their blogs, most of the time I wonder why I bother trying. I have been told on several occasions, by different people, (strangers I meet in places like this) when I try to join in on groups that “you are not doing this right,” ” this was set up to do something different,” “maybe you would be more comfortable participating in that over there.” Makes me wonder what constitutes being called a writer. I don’t have all the cute little blog ideas and such that I see all the others check in with, or write a blog on a weekly basis.
    I did, however, have one writer tell me, “You are writing, that makes you a writer. Write what you want to read and the rest will follow.” So here I sit, doing that very thing. Am I a writer? Who knows, but I am having fun with what I am doing so far.
    Your post is one of those inspirational things for me that will keep me going. So Thanks! For being someone that is real, and someone I can understand in this crazy, mixed-up community.

    1. CD, I will happily echo Dawn (and Julie above and Gene below) here. If you write, you are a writer. The only way for you to write is how writing works for you. The lists and proscriptions of “How Writers Write,” are only useful in helping you find what works for you.

  4. Once upon a time words flowed out like the proverbial babbling brook. I wrote so much that at one point I ended up in urgent care with a knot on the back of my wrist the size of a hand ball. I was ordered not to hold anything in that hand for 6 months. Yeah right.

    Then I learned my craft and wrote my first book (not even going to tell you how long it took *grin*). Now it takes me three days to write one page! I’ve started and restarted my current WIP four times because I keep second guessing my story line, my choice of characters, the antagonist, and the opening scene…. well, you get the drift.

    So, yeah. I understand exactly what you mean.

    My writing goal fright now is to turn off the editor, forget the rules and rediscover the joy storytelling (minus the trip to urgent care).

    And, I agree with Dawn. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’re happy in your writing process, don’t change it.

    Happy writing,

    1. Yikes, Sherry, that sounds unpleasant. I hear you about the editor–I spent decades being trained to write academic prose, so it’s difficult to muzzle the editor, tie her to a chair, and lock her in the closet.

      I agree with your point of rediscovering the storyteller. I used to tell long winded, improbable stories with ease. I need to find the closet where my editor locked that little girl.

  5. I feel like I’ve found my people! Haha! I am the queen of finding a million things to do BUT write. It takes effort to get myself to sit in front of the computer and tell a story. Once I’m there, I love it, but getting there is the issue.

    1. Kelli,
      Right now, I’m working on establishing habits to get me in front of the computer. Well, I’m stuck with one hand at the moment, so it’s pen and paper, but still. I think finding a habit that becomes muscle memory, so that the words are going on the page almost before one realizes it, is my goal..

      Thank goodness that you love it once you’re there–that love will continue to call you back.

  6. I’m with Julie, we need a running list of “You’re not a real writer unless…”. There are few things I can’t not do–like breathe. Not writing will not cause me to die. Actually, it won’t even cause me a moment of pain or angst, and I’ve done NaNo and FastDraft and a host of other writing activities, but in the end, I’d still be breathing and living just fine if I’d never written a single word.

    I love to write, especially fiction, especially when the true topic is one I’m passionate about–because it provides ME with a catharsis for the chaos of my life. I choose to write fiction in the hope that my words might do the same for others. To me, this is the only reason to write. But I’ll not die if a day or ten pass without tapping on the keyboard.

    The only rule of writing is to write. The only way to write is the way you choose. The only “best writing practice” is the one that works for you. And none of these have anything to do with what anyone else thinks is better or more proper. Thank you for your courage and fortitude, Elizabeth. Write on!

    1. Great points, Gene. I’ve sometimes considered compiling all the writing advice in two columns, aligning the practices that contradict one another. ROW80 is sucha wonderful, supportive community, with a range of approaches. I have to remind myself that I can find my own path. Thanks for the support, Gene!

  7. I always wonder at this dichotomy. There’s these people who say “I have to write; it’s my life-blood”, and then there are posts like these…

    And neither one feels true. I do believe the Writer’s Write idea. (I mean, what else would we do? Make candy bars?) I also believe that no one can do something they love forever without getting bored or frustrated or tired or…

    And if we decided we want to make any amount of a living at this kind of task–yeah, it’s going to have days where it downright sucks and we’re going to be questioning our judgment and sanity.

    That said, if we feel inspired to share our thoughts and ideas (or stories) with the world, we are writers; and if we feel we have to share these ideas/stories/what-have-you with other people… we have to write. We cannot not write.

    It’s a matter of how we look at those words. I have to write because the stories and my characters demand my attention, and writing gets them out of my head and gives me a moment of peace where I’m not off in a daydream land ignoring the rest of the world around me (yes, I have done this and still do). Not that the actual writing is ever that easy. Most of the time it drags and I struggle over each and every word.

    I still cannot not write. If I don’t write, then I am useless, daydreamy… oblivious. I cannot not write because I do have a family and a life to live and a home to care for, etc.. I need to be there for them, not just a playground for my characters to gallivant about in.

    So, yeah… I always wonder about why people assume that just because they say they have to write this means the words come spilling onto the page. The ones who say it’s that easy? When it was that easy, it was also that bad (and the stories were pretty scary too).

  8. Thank you for turning my head 45 degrees to look at the words differently, Eden, I have always heard the people who say they have to write, also say “and it flows like water from my soul,” even when perhaps, like you, they have not said that.

    You made me laugh (and thank you for that) when you said, “when it was that easy, it was also that bad.” Oh yeah, I have file drawers of that dreck.

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