Emily Gould on How (and Why) to Keep Writing When Writing Feels Pointless
"Why do any of this?"
This first appeared in Lit Hub’s Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
In October of 2016, I finally managed to submit and sell a draft of the novel I’d been working on intermittently for years. By the time the editor got his revisions back to me, Trump had been inaugurated. I hadn’t looked at or even thought about the manuscript between November and January, but when I finally got the nerve to open the document, I was struck over and over again by how irrelevant and stupid every aspect of it was. I wanted to cancel the book and give the money back. If I couldn’t make myself care about these fictional people’s non-timely problems, how could I expect anyone else to?
For narrative purposes, it would be better if this story ended with me scrapping that book and writing a new one. This imaginary novel would be the perfect book for April 2020 either because of the way it captured the texture of life in 2016 America, or because its plot, with eerie prescience, paralleled our current crisis.
Unfortunately I have done neither of those things: Perfect Tunes still takes place between 2001 and 2015, and it has no particular relevance to living in quarantine during a global pandemic. Whether or not it’s a good or interesting novel is not relevant to this essay; I am just here to describe how I convinced myself to keep working on it until it was finished.
1. Move the goalposts or remove them entirely
We read a lot about writers who have a “butt in chair” philosophy, who crank out a minimum of 1,000 words every day rain or shine. If you are one of them, I am genuinely happy for you — and for me, because I get to read your books on a regular basis. But I’m also here to reassure people who don’t work this way that they are not alone. Sometimes it’s impossible to get writing done, especially for those of us who have other work to do, including care work for our children or parents. And sometimes, like now, the world is so in flux that our brains are filled with static and we can’t hear our own thoughts. At these times, surviving daily life is enough to occupy every corner of our consciousness.
I interviewed Susan Choi right before she won the National Book award for Trust Exercise and was shocked and thrilled to hear her say that she felt like she would never write again. I knew that she would, but I also knew that she was being honest; she really felt that way. What to do while this is happening, besides (inevitably) feeling stymied, hopeless, guilty, worthless? The first trick is to redefine what might qualify as “working on your writing.” A month or two after the birth of my second son, I told my therapist that I was frustrated at my inability to write — “I can’t even read a novel, much less write one!” She pointed out to me that I could change my goal, for the moment, from “write a novel” to “read a novel.”
This might sound obvious, but reading fiction with focused attention is a skill. We all do a lot of other kinds of reading all the time: hurriedly skimming for information and amusement, sorting through emails for action items. Honing the skill of reading fiction counts as work when you can’t work. It just does.
2. Eliminate the possibility of an audience
This is very specific to my own crazy brain, but I’m sharing it in case I’m not alone in having had my writing practice irretrievably warped by the internet and the attention economy. When I’m just getting back into writing after a period of not-writing, I tend to want a lot of immediate attention for my efforts. I gravitate to writing things that I know a lot of people will read and respond to, such as tweets or newsletter posts with a lot of simple declarative sentences and jokes about my mental health (hi!). These things do technically qualify as “writing,” but they do not pay the bills or further my long-term goal of writing books. In order to get my brain back in the place it needs to be in order to do the grunt work of producing sentences that will take four to seven years to see the light of day, and which very likely will be rearranged, changed beyond recognition or cut entirely through no fault of their own, I have to trick myself into doing some writing that’s share-proof.
The main way I do this is by keeping a dream journal. No one will ever read my dream journal because I will never be tempted to make it public. It’s boring and it makes no sense. I don’t try to make the sentences good. But writing down my dreams makes me open a word document and start typing descriptive sentences, which tricks me into thinking that writing is easy. It’s like putting on gym clothes: sometimes, like one in five times, it leads to exercising.
3. The “why” part
Why indeed? Why do any of this? Why are you even reading this? We’re all doomed!
I have been thinking, though, about how what was going on in the world when some of my favorite novels were written and published doesn’t automatically correspond to the worlds within them — and what that might mean for us now.
Last night, for example, I fell asleep listening to an audiobook version of Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, which has been one of my favorite novels to reread since I was a teenager. Its marriage plot is familiar — two sisters, living in genteel poverty, must attempt to win the hearts of the new tenants of a neighboring castle in order to rescue their family — but this turns out to be a façade. It’s actually (sorry) a kunstleroman, the story of its narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, coming into her own as a writer by keeping a diary. I loved it as a teenaged diary-keeper and I love it now even more as an adult. I love how Smith subtly conveys the way her heroine’s perceptions change as she leaves childhood behind.
Dodie Smith wrote this book — her first! — during World War Two, when the London of Cassandra’s dreamy adventures in tea-shops and boutiques was being firebombed nightly, leaving people killed or hurt and traumatized beyond recognition.
How did Smith create this timeless book while the world she was describing was in the process of being violently destroyed? Maybe she consciously intended to memorialize the England of the 1930s, and to preserve it. Or maybe she had no conscious intentions, and simply wrote the book that was hers to write at that moment.
Novels pile up; they can seem like a nuisance, frivolous at best and at worst a self-indulgent way of avoiding a reality we’d rather not countenance. But it’s worth remembering that they are also the best technology we have for transmitting one person’s consciousness directly into another’s. Even if it seems unrealistic, or self-important, or just delusional, the act of writing implies that someone in the future will read what we’re currently in the process of writing. That future can only exist if we believe in it now.
Read more on writing through the chaos:
On writing in the small spaces of a busy day.
How to read after becoming a parent.
Every writer needs some fallow periods.
Why does anyone write?
What the constraints of parenting taught Nicole Gulotta about writing.
5 Books to Reread Whenever You Forget Books are Good
RECOMMENDED BY EMILY GOULD
Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould is available via Avid Reader Press.