Last summer I put aside work on a novel. Inspiration wasn’t hitting me for the longer work, so instead of obsessing about a lack of progress, I worked on other ideas that accumulated along the way. Then, in the middle of the summer, I had a conversation with a screenwriting friend named Ryan in which he questioned this method, asking me if I wasn’t better served “sticking to it,” to produce something “true.”
This was a good question and deserves consideration by all of us who call ourselves writers. Should we work on what comes to us at each moment in an organic way, or stick to one project in a determined way? I was being lazy about the novel, perhaps, but incredibly productive otherwise. And maybe I was feeding the brain machine, so I could go back to the big project with new insights and abilities. Besides, these smaller stories would help me build a reputation for the moment when the novel was published, or so I told myself.
So, in response, I tried to point to any number of artists and writers who worked in the way I was: Mozart, Monet, Michelangelo. I told Ryan that I write a lot because I have a lot of ideas. “Every time my pen hits paper or my fingers tap the keyboard, I get better. Production does not necessarily mean lower quality. Charles Bukowski often finished five stories a week. Rainer Maria Rilke did the Sonnets to Orpheus in under a month. I’m not where they are, but how did they get to that level? By writing and painting and writing and painting. I’m on that path.”
Nevertheless, Ryan brought up some strong points, questioning my claims about inspiration and how writing actually works. “The pattern seems to be: inspiration hits, writer makes hay; inspiration dries up, writer toggles to something else, either seeking or responding to inspiration elsewhere. At what point is the writer compelled to write anyway, when things aren’t flowing or easy? To stay the course on a project and see it through to the end? And not out of stubbornness or blind persistence, but because the project demands total immersion and focus?”
This was harder to brush aside. Now we were not discussing why I worked this way, but when it was necessary. “When are you driving the train?” Ryan asked. I groaned at this, knowing he had hit on a weak spot. Who was driving my train, after all? It seemed to be going quite fast, but without an engineer. Maybe he was right and sometimes you just have to slog through and finish something. Was I writing something I intended, or something entirely accidental?
I floundered, not sure at all what the answer to this was. I sidetracked, talking about deadlines, and bragged that, if I needed to, I could totally immerse myself in a project to finish it, whether I am inspired or not. But without a deadline, why bother? Ryan got us back on track and noted smartly: “If a novel takes so much effort or time or intensity, then how would any significant dilution of effort be helpful in completing it?”
I muttered and fumbled with this for a minute, and then it hit me. We weren’t talking about who was driving our writing train, or whether or not a particular method works or doesn’t work. We were actually talking about whether or not this makes us a better writer, and makes our writing better, in the long run. And I knew suddenly what the assumption was that we had both been making, that this progression is a “dilution.”
The process I was going through in writing dozens of things rather than the intended novel was additive rather than dilutive. The “extra” effort is not a subtraction from the whole, but rather adds and keeps adding, and builds a better writer, and finally a better product. Every time I wrote another story that wasn’t part of my current “big project,” the big project got better. My writing got better.
Ryan told me that he was “disabused” of his assumptions about my seemingly crazy method, andI was satisfied with the conclusion we had reached. But ultimately, what is necessary is to pick up a pen or sit in front of a computer. And that’s what I had done. The ideas came to me thick and fast last summer. I recorded what came to me, finishing several essays, a handful of book reviews, and a staggering twenty short stories. Who was driving that train? For a writer, that question just doesn’t apply.