Re-reading Story by screenwriting guru Robert McKee the other day, I came across this quote in a section headed The Gift of Endurance: ‘Long before you finish [writing], the love of self will rot and die, the love of ideas sicken and perish ... Of all the reasons for wanting to write, the only one that nurtures us through time is love of the work itself.’
Cheerful, huh? Especially on a short winter’s day, with weeks of getting up in the dark still to go.
I mean, let’s face it, who does love the work all the time? All too often the actual process of writing is frustrating, demoralising and painful. Who hasn’t ever asked: is my story any good? Will anyone buy it? Can I really do all this over again?
It sometimes feels as if self-doubt is an interminable negative feedback loop, constantly undermining our confidence in our ability to do the very thing we love.
And there it is again. That word. Love.
Personally, I suspect it’s part of the problem. Saying ‘I love writing’ implies it is necessarily a deeply rewarding emotional experience. When it’s not, a lot of us seem to blame ourselves: maybe we don’t love our characters enough or our plots; maybe the people who believe in us are just plain crazy.
But what is left if we don’t buy into the notion that we have to love what we do in order to keep doing it? Well, here are a couple of things that cheer me up no end.
According to research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, elite musicians, athletes and chess players weren’t born with unique gifts. They are instead highly motivated individuals who have to complete at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over a period of more than ten years in order to achieve their exceptional abilities.
To quote Christian Jarret’s handy 30-Second Psychology, for this type of practice to work, ‘You don’t just repeat what you know but instead constantly seek to stretch yourself. This inevitably involves forensic self-criticism, repeated failure and a dogged ability to keep dusting yourself down and trying again.’
Then how about this, also from Jarret: ‘Anxious individuals are more prone to attribute negative events to flaws in their nature, rather than circumstances.’ That’s from the section about Fundamental Attribution Error.
So, with all due respect to Mr McKee (who I admire a lot), forget about endurance being a gift. It’s bloody hard graft. And that’s the point. Lucky you if you do love the work, but that’s not the only way. For me, for example, ‘the work’ is too abstract a concept to keep me going year after year. I have to care passionately about this story, these characters, their troubled dreams.
Keeping this passion alive is like tending a fire: I have to sit down beside my story and look into its depths. If it’s dying, I feed it more research, more imagination, more hard work. Sometimes it consumes reams of notes about the main character’s motivation, or a single sheet with a clearer articulation of the theme. At other times it needs more knowledge gaps. Tighter scenes with more dramatic turning points.
Or more cake for the writer. Chocolate. Wine. Another long walk with my darling dog...
But yes, sometimes I have to close down the chimney flue and walk away, trusting that the embers won’t die completely.
I have boundless admiration for people who keep writing regardless. Did you see that tweet about this year’s winner of the children’s & YA category of the Costa Book Prize? Apparently Brian Conaghan received 217 rejections. Two hundred and seventeen! Unbelievable. I’d have walked away long ago, no question about it.
So all power to him – and everyone else who keeps on keeping on.
May your fire never go out.