Get that Cat off the Desk! Obstacles to Writing.

Since I started writing professionally, I’ve discovered a number of obstacles to the process. That doesn’t seem quite fair. All work has its obstacles of course – in fact, every aspect of life does. Do you have a household where it seems to take forever to get the kids out of bed, feed them breakfast, find school books, make lunches and get them out of the house on time? Think of all the obstacles that get in your way just doing that.

And when you get to work, there are obstacles all around. Fellow workers, the boss, deadlines, customers. I used to be a teacher, and I sometimes felt that students were a big obstacle to teaching. Some students, that is. Most are wonderful. But we always seem to remember the obstacles, not the easy things.

Writing is the same. There are numerous obstacles to the apparently simple task of taking 26 letters and a few punctuation marks and putting them down in an order that makes some kind of sense or beauty.

‘Hey, you’re a writer!’ people say. ‘That must be great! On your bum all day, nothing to worry about. Easy! I don’t have time for it, of course, too busy.’

Writing is great, of course. But if they only knew. I copped this when I was a teacher, too. ‘You’re a teacher? Wow, it must be great to knock off at three o’clock each day and have all those holidays.’ Sometimes, that comment is made jealously, sometimes with a hint of superiority. ‘Oh – you’re a teacher! Well, some of us have real jobs.’

I get that as a writer, too. ‘You’re a writer. I see. But what do you do for a living?’

Obstacles come in many forms. Think what you do for a job, and think what gets in your way.

Just to set the record straight, then, here are some things that are obstacles to being a writer. I’m not trying to say my job is harder than any other. I’m just saying.

(1) The Cat. The first obstacle, for me, is shown in the picture at the top of this post. His name is Humphrey. He’s a Rag Doll cat, and he likes to sit on my desk. Not just sit anywhere, mind you, but next to the fan on my laptop because it’s nice and warm there. He’s always done this, as you can see when I had another office.

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I don’t mind most of the time. Occasionally he lies his tail on the keyboard but is happy when I shift it off. It’s when he decides to move and steps on the keyboard that I get a bit miffed. After all, there I am writing something exciting (I mostly write science-fiction and horror, so there can be lots of exciting bits) and something like this will appear on the page:

“Three bullets hit the policeman. Agnes still had enough sense to ghfyfhtccccggggkgpqsn…”

Did you notice where the cat stepped on the keyboard? If you did, then my writing is better than I thought. Of course, Humphrey’s wandering across my workspace means I have to go and correct his attempt to contribute to the story.

(2) Other commitments are another obstacle. I’d love to spend all my day writing. I really would. But I need to eat. And have clothes on my back. And blog. And interact in meaningful ways with other humans. All those things matter. And that means I can’t write. So dealing with the rest of life effectively means finding the time to work and go shopping and all those other things.

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I usually write early in the mornings as that is when I am most alert and also when I have the time. I work in the afternoons and evenings. So putting in a few hours in the mornings just after breakfast is when I can get most done. Routine is vital when you’re a writer. But the world keeps butting in.

(3) Ideas.

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When I talk to other writers (or when I chat online with them, since most writers are busy writing and don’t have the time to actually step out into the sunlight) some of them are full of ideas. They have notebooks full of ideas. They have stories building up inside them waiting to get a chance to appear on paper.

I don’t.

I’m a man of few ideas. I kind of hope they are good ones, but they aren’t there jostling for space in my cranium. I usually get inspired with a story when I least expect it. It will then consume me until I do something about it. But it’s usually the only one there. I have a very small waiting room.

I wish I had more creative ideas. But I don’t. So sometimes there are days when I sit there wondering what I’m supposed to be typing, and nothing comes. Which leads me to:

(4) Blockage. There is a thing apparently called Writer’s Block. I’ve never had it. Not in the form that most writers mean, that is. Once I start typing, stuff usually flows more or less smoothly. I don’t do much planning. I’ll have a scene mapped out in broad terms in my head and then I’ll start writing and make it up as I go. That leads to the next scene. I used to be a professional actor, so I try to put myself in the part of the characters in the scene, and have a pretty good visual idea of it in my mind, like a film. I just write down what’s happening in the film.

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But sometimes, I get what I call blockage, and that’s when the scene doesn’t work. The characters aren’t co-operating. One of them doesn’t want to play, or the film is too boring. Then I sigh and have a cup of coffee and shoo Humphrey off the desk and go and edit another scene so as to make sure I’m doing something useful.

(5) So while we’re on the topic:  Editing. Of course, any writer worth their salt should have their book professionally edited. Not that professional editors are any better at it, but they are someone different. As a teacher, I would instruct students how to edit their work (or proof-read it, to use the pedagogical term) and one of the best ways to proof-read something is to have someone else do it.

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But what I’m talking about here is the editing after the first draft. It’s vital to have a first draft, to write anything at all in order to have words on paper or screen so they can be manipulated and coaxed into something resembling a readable document. But reading that first draft can be painful. I’ve read enough student essay first drafts to know what I’m talking about here.

Students aren’t into proof-reading or editing. I believe this is for either one of two reasons. One, they think their words are superb, their grammar flawless, their written expression worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, and nothing could possibly improve what is positively Shakespearian in emotional content and Hemingwayesque in pithiness and impact. Or two, they know it’s a pile of rubbish and are too ashamed to read their own work.

I fall into the second category. I hate reading my first drafts. They suck.

So, there are some of the obstacles to writing. Cats, other things to do, ideas, blockage and editing. Even editing this blog will be a chore for me.

We all have obstacles, as I said, making our lives either hard or, at the least, interesting. Some are challenges. Others are just annoying, or even prevent us from completing what we need to do.

Writing is a great job. I love it. Words are fun to play with. But we have to overcome those obstacles. That makes the challenge something special.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

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