“He started his epistle with an epigraph. What a nob.”
– Overheard while walking near my own mouth.
Firstly, and obviously, get well soon.
Secondly, the answer to your question of when to stop is just as obviously: Never; ‘Starve a fever, feed a cold, but work through both,’ as my mother never actually said, but should have. Which is why my bosses have always applauded me for sitting at my desk hacking up the most infectious parts of my lungs, before passing off freshly moistened files to my soon to be just as poorly workmates. Go Capitalism.
But thirdly – and mostly – I wanted to pick up on your reference to Amis:
“Amis is damn right when he talks about stepping back !!!!!FOR A MOMENT!!!!, and going to do something else: not slamming one’s face endlessly against a wall of words.”
The emphasis there is mine, and I bring it up because it triggered a particular bugbear of mine.
Far too often people seem to think that art requires some sort of hermetically sealed Ivory Tower with a south facing window and just the right humidity and temperature for your pet muse to whisper in your ear without getting tongue cramp. Which is fine if you are happy just doodling. Like, you can get a ton out of just doing creative stuff every now and again as a hobby.
But if you want to write something good, if you want to be read without embarrassment, or even to read at all… you do actually have to write. And you have to write a lot.
For some reason in the 1800s the view shifted from artist as organ grinder/monkey combo, to artist as visionary. They forgot artist and artisan come from the same root and started thinking of artists as ‘brilliant’ or ‘zeitgeisty’ or ‘so fetch’. Artists are not any of those things, they are the less calorific half of bread-and-circuses.
Stepping away from the words is fine, as long as it is about managing your energy or health. My basic thing is that if your reason for not writing wouldn’t fly as a reason for not doing your actual job if you have one, then it just isn’t good enough.
If you are a writer, and you lack inspiration, so fucking what? You want to protect your precious art? It’s not that precious. Set yourself deadlines and meet them. Hate the work you produce by all means, but produce it. Anyone can write when the muse is balls deep in all your brain holes, but the point of being a writer is that we WRITE. The universe can’t do all the heavy lifting.
If you’re blocked then you need to put your arse back in the chair and work at it. If you have no ideas then sit down and brainstorm, read some non-fiction that looks like it might trigger something, find a specific market and let their guidelines direct you to something. But don’t leave that chair until you’ve written something.
It winds me up no end to hear things like: ‘I can’t make myself write. Writing for money/to a deadline/on cue/every day hurts the art’. When I worked nine-to-five, I would finish the day exhausted, with whatever currency discipline is transacted in spent in not throttling my immediate manager. As a colossally lazy person, it was already excruciating to sit down to the genuinely taxing brain-work of writing. So once I had carved out the time, avoided all the temptations and apathies that lay between me and the word processor I had to write then, because tomorrow I might not have the wherewithal to drag myself to it.
Just try telling that person to wait for the muse.
And that sort of thinking misses the fact that first drafts are not Writing. They’re like 5% of it. What the muse gives you is always half-cocked and half-baked even at the best of times.
Fact: your first draft is ugly. Even at your best it is ugly. Too ugly to live. You have to beat the ugly out of it. That beating is basically 95% of the gig. If you sit around waiting for the muse, it means you’re not even doing that first 5%.
Lastly, writing is not meant to be fun. You shouldn’t enjoy it. Like childbirth it should be a vindictive punishment exacted against yourself for the sins of your ancestors. The whole process should be horrible, a trial by ordeal which leaves you not happy, but somehow satisfied, having been tested and having measured up.
Since quotations are apparently a major constituent of letters, ideally from poetry – specifically James Baldwin where available – I’ll leave you with this poem, reconstructed from memory because as far as Google seems to think Dorothy Parker is the only person to have said it:-
I have a confession,
And this is it:
I hate to write,
Love having writ.
I am willing to admit this last point about self-flagellation may owe more to the Protestant work-ethic of my own conscience, who dismisses anything enjoyable as sinful*, but I stand by the rest no matter how Calvin-inflected your conscience is.
So here’s the cliff notes version of this rant to pass on to anyone you meet whose excusing themselves from writing. After cussing them out tell them:
(1) don’t get prissy about ‘inspiration’, just write daily or close to it;
(2) if you don’t write today, you have nothing to rewrite tomorrow, and rewriting > writing, so write daily or close to it; and
(3) if you enjoy doing anything, you’re doing it wrong; and you won’t enjoy writing daily or close to it.
In the print edition of this blog, I’ll just turn this into a listicle.
P.S. *Imagine how tragic it must be for this conscientious conscience to be housed in such a dissipated layabout. Only the self-loathing makes all that laziness palatable.