by Leo X. Robertson
Writing Tip 4/4: Chill!
In this series, I’ve so far covered how and what to read, how to get story ideas and then how to turn them into stories. This next step is more like an attitude towards this entire process, and it has improved my writing more than any of the above.
I mostly live in my own head, awash in ideas. I realized only recently that this is the reason I’m often so irritable. Life—emails, people, loud noises etc—keeps trying to draw me out of my own head, but I’m poorly designed for reality.
My mum once signed me up for rugby camp (what in the hell was she thinking?) and I ended up at the side of the field picking daisies. Everyone got mad at me because I made the team “offside”, which is not only something I still don’t understand but a term I resent knowing.
We Robertsons are insanely sensitive people. When other people tell us difficult things about their lives, it “feels loud.” It makes us want to put up our hands to deflect the influx of emotions the story causes. We deeply empathize with others, way more than is necessary to get through your average life.
I have an internal furnace that is easily stoked, and I have to discharge all that energy in the form of written stories or else steam will shoot out of my ears and I’ll collapse in the frozen foods aisle or something.
I am not designed for a lot of things. That’s fine so long as I can, as far as possible, live a life that doesn’t require me to do them. This is to everyone’s benefit.
Like, please don’t insist that I join the rugby team. I will make us all “offside”, and I am physically incapable of caring what that is. I know your zealotry is well-intentioned, but I’m needed over by the daisies, where I will be fleshing out crummy extended metaphors that seem to disprove the point I’m making about needing to be a writer.
This all sounds very strange. Is it a boast? Is it a lie?
It sounds like a boast, maybe, because writers always love to overemphasize how their temperaments are tailored for the task of writing. After all, it can be such a difficult thing to justify.
It might also sound like I’m lying to myself because of the negative connotations of this admission: “refusing to deal with the world”, “generic millennial complaint”, etc.
I admit that my temperament makes me an impractical and perhaps objectively useless person, but it’s just the way I am. It’s not with egotistical delusion but with humility that I accept my need to do this thing, despite its apparent frivolity. But I do accept it, and with that acceptance comes relief.
Frivolous or not, writing can be a daunting task. How many stories are there: millions, billions? And you’re asking yourself to add something new to that, something original? Who even reads anymore anyway?
Let’s not spiral. All I want from you is one original story idea. That’s all you need. While you’re working on that one, you’ll get the next one and so on.
I’ve already given some thoughts on how to gain story ideas, but sometimes I like to do word association just to remind myself how many ideas remain. A writer on my podcast told me she thought of her writing as “Palahniuk meets Tolstoy.” That’s territory she can mine for the rest of her life! I recently read a story that seemed to me like “Lars von Trier in space.” There’s an entire oeuvre right there.
If you agree with the ease at which originality can be generated, then surely our writerly anxiety towards story writing can’t have anything to do with that. It is, more likely, a restlessness that seeks constant novelty. And that might feel uncomfortable, but it’s surely an essential innate feature of telling good stories. It means that if you’re keeping your brain well-fed with ideas and such, the originality will reach you organically.
Your subconscious is a delicate thing that gets easily scared. It won’t produce good material when rushed or pressured to do so. So take some of that pressure off.
Now that I know how important writing is to me, I have allowed myself to do more things that facilitate the writing at the expense of other more practical duties. I stare out the window. I drift into my own thoughts. I take naps to recharge creative energy. I sleep in at the weekends, in search of more crazy dreams that I can turn into stories. I spend hours reading, allowing myself to fall into the stories without picking at their language or scoffing about how I could do a better job. A story, after all, can only be enjoyed and then deconstructed—not both at once. (Another false dichotomy, perhaps, but the more you do one, the less you can do the other.)
I accept that a lot of what I read won’t be useful to me for weeks, months, years, maybe never. But I trust that I will know what to apply and when, and that if I need a more detailed read of anything, I can always come back. It’s only important to stay in the stream of it, a continual influx (reading) and efflux (writing) of fiction. It’s this state of being I’m trying to achieve, more than reading or writing anything in particular.
When it comes to stories, I allow them to take as long as it takes, and I stop writing when I get tired. If I get bored with a piece or stuck on it somehow, I move onto another one. I’ve burnt out several times on the same stories, but when enough time passes, I eventually know what to do next.
So just chill. Do your best. No one can ask you for more than that ?
I don’t like getting wished good luck, so I’ll say instead: You’ve got this.
About the Author
Leo X. Robertson is a Scottish process engineer and writer, currently living in Stavanger, Norway. He has work published by or forthcoming with Flame Tree Press, Pulp Literature, Helios Quarterly and others. His latest novella, “Jesus of Scumburg”, is out now with NihilismRevised. Find him on Twitter @Leoxwrite or check out his website, leoxrobertson.wordpress.com