Writers often struggle to find a balance between being an active participant in the world while also maintaining and protecting their inner life. Both ways of being are vital to the creative process, and they influence one another, but they are also in opposition.
An interest in the external world provides the material and inspiration necessary to write, but a writer must also protect themselves, their energy, attention, and time, to ensure that these resources can be given over to their writing.
For many of us, writing is a way to escape reality. Our imaginations can quickly become a refuge from our daily lives and events happening in the world. It can be a form of escapism that is similar to reading, except you are largely in control of what is happening in the story.
I say largely because sometimes it can feel as though our stories have a mind and will of their own…
In order to get to that dreamlike state of writing, where it feels more like dictation than creation, we need to become quite immersed and enmeshed with the work. As Ray Bradbury says, ‘You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you’.
What Bradbury means by this, is that the demands, responsibilities, and distractions of ordinary life threaten writing because they pull us away from our stories. They can reinforce the idea that writing is not that important: cleaning dishes, replying to emails, and reading headlines is what really matters in life.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this. Stephen King argues that the threat of ordinary, everyday interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress, but may actually ‘help it in some ways’. Rather than entirely shutting oneself away from the world by attending writing workshops, retreats, or residencies where the pressure to produce is overridden by your desire to write, King believes that writing while living your ordinary life may be just as good, perhaps better. ‘It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters’ (King, p. 232). And yet, King also admits that, to a degree, a writer must be able to separate themselves from their work if they are to engage with it deeper. Writing is a way to escape the world, and the more you protect yourself from that external noise, the more you’re forced back on your own imagination.’ (King 2001, p. 80)
Writers are generally thought of as introverts and the isolation typically associated with the craft is often considered necessary, though at times unpleasant. As Richard Powers says, ‘I really do believe that most writers start out learning how to cope with isolation and then end up desiring it.’ Richard Powers describes the relationship that writers have with the external world as paradoxical. A writer must remove themselves from the world in order to have control over the ways of depicting it. Powers goes on to say that ‘Being a writer means constantly engaging with this anxious ‘battle between the inside and the outside–the struggle to solve being in the world sufficiently to feel what’s really going on, and being out of the world sufficiently to be able to protect yourself from what’s going on’. Regardless of the genre that a writer may be working in, they must be aware of current events and global conversations to represent, reflect, or otherwise accurately engage with these topics and issues, whether indirectly or not. A writer needs to be in the world to represent it, if they shut themselves off too much, they risk their work appearing irrelevant or impotent.
And then there is the issue of inspiration.
When I am lacking inspiration, I turn outwards. That can look like going on a trip, reading the works of others, or looking at news and current events. I want to know what conversations are happening in the world. Both Ray Bradbury and Octavia Butler used current events as a way to fuel their writing. Rather than passively reading an article, they’d pay close attention to how that article made them feel. They’d consider whether they agreed with the piece, and if not, why? Nadine Gordimer articulates this balance as a ‘double process’, meaning that most writers are obsessed with the lives of others, and yet they also find a way to remain detached from the world. She says, ‘the tension between standing apart and being fully involved: that is what makes a writer.’
Part of the reason why a writer needs to protect themselves from the outside world is because writing can be hard. Even when we approach the page with joy, most of us will encounter some form of resistance. It takes commitment and determination to push through that resistance and to show up for ourselves. That in itself is a battle. If you were to add the noise and distractions of the outside world on top of that, writing would become nearly impossible.
Once writers reach a certain point in their process, they need to shut out the world to limit distraction, but also to tune into what they really think and what the work really wants to be.
Writing original work takes deep focus. This is a skill that can be strengthened and developed, but it is also easily derailed.
The Australian author Patrick White, dramatically describes the act of getting words onto the page as having them ‘dragged out, by tongs, a bloody mess, in the small hours.’ These types of melodramatic and dark descriptions of writing are common, even if a little absurd.
And yet so many writers can relate to this type of dark imagery. Even the writer Charlotte Wood has said, ‘At times my writing process has been so full of darkness that descriptions like these are the only ones that come close to the truth.’
So much of writing is problem-solving, as I’ve said numerous times on this blog, and when you are creating something that doesn’t exist and trying to find solutions to a problem that has never occurred before, you need a lot of space and time to come up with solutions.
And in order to do that, the writer has to step back from the world and into themselves. They have to find a way to stay drunk on writing.