On Sloth by Tom Rich
I get all kinds of ornery—fightin’ mad, you might say—when writers go on and on about how prolific and productive and dedicated they are, how they suffer through even—especially?—when the words won’t come. “If it comes, good,” says Maya Angelou, and “if it doesn’t come, good, I’ll just sit here.” Or how about this nugget from Toni Morrison: “I don’t wait to be struck by lightning, and I don’t need certain slants of light in order to be able to write.”
Lest you think I’m just yelling at incredibly successful African American women, here’s one from Stephen King; talking about writers he regards as talented, but not prolific, he asks “what did they do with the rest of their time? Knit afghans? Organize church bazaars?” It pains me to quibble with Mr. King, especially since the source of the quote, On Writing, is among the finest books on the subject I know, but quibble I shall, if only to reach an acceptable wordcount.
My complaint is probably just sour grapes and a lingering insecurity that I’m actually just a lazy bastard who coasted through school on talent and a need to please teachers, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it isn’t. And, to be fair, I’ve made several good faith efforts to be disciplined about the process. I’ve tried scheduled writing times and accomplished nothing; I’ve tried time limits, and spent them staring at the clock. Even if I forced myself to write a sentence—any sentence—it never animated, never brought a buddy along. Whatever momentum writing can have was absent.
One time, back in my track and field days, the distance squad and I were having an awful practice: it was hot, everyone was tired, and our times were slow. Coach eventually called it early and sent us home. “Head home,” he told us, “ you've already checked out for the day anyway. No sense in practicing running slow.”
I wonder if the analogy holds. If I want to write well—whatever that means—and at the moment I’m demonstrably not writing well, should I keep practicing the composition of bad prose? What differentiates an avoidance of writing poorly from avoiding writing at all is a good faith effort to do it. Coach didn’t let us go until he was satisfied that we didn’t just want a day off; before we could leave we had to prove we would stay.
What to do with the time, then? Read great books. Knit afghans. Organize church bazaars. Go do all of the things that provide the sensual experiences from which we construct stories. Say to your muse “I was here and you didn’t show up, and that’s cool, I guess. I’m going to go dig around for neat stuff. You give me a yell when you’re ready.”
“Life,” King concludes, “isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” When the art fails, live life. Sooner or later, you’ll find something that needs supporting. Best of luck to you, and happy writing!
Tom Rich is a writer, itinerant academic, and flannel enthusiast. His work has appeared in the Midwest Literary Magazine. Since graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2011, he has gone professional in filling out applications.