After writing — after a long writing session — I’m exhausted in a way that’s hard to describe.
It’s strange how some emotions, some states of being, are public, well-known, almost communal. When one is experiencing them, one feels confident that other people feel the same way. Writer’s exhaustion, on the other hand, is something I rarely hear described. Perhaps because it seems outrageous to complain about such a luxury.
For most people, I think, writing — especially fiction-writing — is not what they think of, exactly, as a day’s work. Here is that common view elevated to lyrical form, by Mike Minchin, writing for Brevity: Writing Is Not Hard Work
Let me tell you what hard work is: bending over in a field of low-bush, wild blueberries, your back arced so you can slide a forty-tooth rake like fingers under the bushes and pull back, settling the berries and tiny green leaves into the rake, then dumping them into a five-gallon bucket at your side, only to lug the bucket three hundred yards to the sorting machine where you lift it onto a wooden trailer and the man stamps a star-shaped hole in the card you keep in your back pocket, the card already soaked through with sweat and eight more hours to go, the sun like hot coals on the back of your neck, your shirt already tossed on the ground beside the gallon of water you froze the night before, the only thing that will keep you going through the wasp-riddled, poison-ivy laced field.
Writing is not hard work.
No one, I think, would argue with the first paragraph I’ve quoted here. Compared to manual toil, writing is quite pleasant.
But that’s part of what is so odd about it. Writer’s exhaustion, at least for me, is a subtle thing. And it entirely depends on how intensely one is working. For me, composing about 400-500 words in a morning’s session, on a good day, does often feel the way Mike Minchin describes:
… that essential listening, that patience with words, hearing the voices come, seeing a scene come to life in front of your eyes, sitting at a computer until the computer falls away like the page of a good book falls away, until the screen becomes clear like the surface of a pond after rain…
However, once the day’s word-count rises much about the 1,000-point, even though I’m still enjoying myself the way Minchin describes, a strange kind of tiredness grows in my mind, a tiredness I only really feel once the session is over. The first sign of trouble is that language starts to feel forced. I no longer have access to the flow of new words. Even if I consciously wish to keep writing, the supply is drying up.
Periods of my life when I’m working, day after day, on a new draft of a book, aiming to create 1,000 to 1,500 words each morning, can leave me in a peculiar, frustrated state. It doesn’t feel like “real” work. The writing is done, usually, by lunchtime. My back is not sore, and my fingers feel good. I shouldn’t be tired. In theory, I should be able to keep going, and yet I’m creatively worn out, weary of composing.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be okay with that feeling.
Today, I am very close to completing a first draft of my novel. The impulse to push to the end and finish it is growing: yesterday, I removed email and the Internet from my iPad, mentally cancelled all obligations, and wrote three-thousand words.
Those three-thousand words took me about four hours, and when I rose from my desk, I was good for nothing. I was too tired even to rest, and I compulsively checked Twitter, blankly. I played a silly computer game, stopped, walked around the house, and then played the game a little more, and then stopped again.
According to certain theories, the brain has a fixed amount of decision-making capacity available each day. Each morning, we begin with another full load of will-power — brain-glucose — which, whether we use it wisely or foolishly, we sooner or later will use up. When that glucose is gone, hard choices and concentrated work become very difficult to sustain. In that depleted state, we are more likely to succumb to whatever addictive behaviour our brain has become accustomed to indulging in: snacking, checking the Internet, and so on.
Related to this is the theory of decision fatigue. Each decision, whether major or minor, whether chosen deliberately or given to us by the day’s circumstances, uses up a little more of brain’s glucose. Even, some studies suggest, if we appear, outwardly, to have made the right decision, if we appear to have avoided temptation, we’ve still been decision-fatigued: simply having the option to do the wrong thing is wearying, because effort is required to resist.
If you’re on a diet, and you have a box of chocolates on your desk, even if you don’t eat a single one, you’ve still used up will-power restraining yourself.
My suspicion is that writing a complex narrative, like that of a novel, is an extreme drain on the brain’s will-power. One is constantly deciding: the look of the scene being imagined, the pace of a sentence, the use or avoidance of repetition. It is a continual, if subconscious, process of choosing, and the best prose is very “chosen” indeed.
Here, for instance, is an early paragraph from Elena Ferrante’s magnificent novel, My Brilliant Friend — imagine how much “choosing” went into producing this prose, the world it depicts, the order and phrasing of the sentences:
I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage. For some time, in school and outside of it, that was what we had been doing. Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself. Lila stuck into her skin the rusted safety pin that she had found on the street somewhere but kept in her pocket like the gift of a fairy godmother; I watched the metal point as it dug a whitish tunnel into her palm, and then, when she pulled it out and handed it to me, I did the same.
This continual focus, which all writers must do, runs the brain down. While writer’s exhaustion is not like “real work,” because one is not bone-tired, sore and weary, it does inflict immense decision-fatigue. After a certain point, one cannot decide anymore. How do the protagonist’s shoes look? They just look like shoes.
The body is still willing to work, but the spirit has flown.
This suggests why so few famous writers talk about writing all day. A few authors can sit at a desk and produce new pages from dawn to dusk, or vice versa, but the vast majority describe a fixed session, usually in the morning, which is their only time when anything good comes out.
Hence the benefit of “distraction-free” writing software: it’s not that you can’t close the program and check your email; it’s that the screen on which you’re writing is not actively encouraging you to do so. Similarly, a cluttered desk can cause the same trouble as a cluttered screen: offering constant reminders of other tasks.
This idea also suggests why (sometimes) writing in a coffee shop can be so much easier than writing at home: in the cafe, there aren’t that many choices. In a cafe, there are only so many extra muffins to decide not to buy; at home, there are a dozen or more visual reminders, in the corner of your eye, of the thousand things that need to be done.
Hence, too, the value of a “messy first draft.” Allowing, even encouraging, the first draft’s messiness informs one’s brain: don’t devote any resources to worrying whether this is any good. Don’t worry what other people will think. For now, use all your power to create. Revision and perfection will come later — don’t assign any brain-juice to them now.
This also suggests — this has only occurred to me now, as I write this — that self-doubt is another drain on will-power. Self-doubt is like having a box of chocolates on the desk, because it forces the brain to wrestle continually with the question: should I be writing at all? And resisting those doubts is no proof of success. Even if you get a good day’s writing done, you’ve still used up decision-making energy that could have been applied to the page. You could have used that energy describing the protagonist’s shoes.
Best not to entertain self-doubt during the writing session (I’m using the word “entertain” deliberately here): when worries rise up, don’t let them use up too much energy. Assure yourself that the work is good, and, even if it is not, that you can revise it later. Keep going.