Psych Out

Writers psych themselves out a LOT. Like baseball players, but less fit. I’ve said before that I don’t believe in writer’s block, but there are other psych-outs. A certain time of day. A certain place. A certain beverage. A certain amount or kind of noise. A certain…whatever. And it is a fact that it is all bullshit. Here’s how I know.

I get ideas and weird inspirations in the shower, while I’m driving, in the middle of the night, mid-conversation…

Now, it stands to reason that if inspiration can strike at any time, then I can write anytime as long as I allow myself to. Meaning, no superstitions. You don’t have to tap your cleats
and spit north to write well.

I think the ‘throw them in and they’ll swim’ philosophy works well here. When I was teaching workshops, and when I was working for a newspaper, there were many times when I was forced to write ‘outside my zone’. Because, sure, I like to write at certain times more than others. I like relative quiet. I like to be in the same place. But I certainly don’t have to be ‘in my zone’.

Some of you probably disagree with me, but I would suggest a challenge. Create a time and place/circumstance where writing is going to be “impossible” for you. Then go there and write. And do it again and again until you have proved to yourself that superstitions are like writer kryptonite.

It is six p.m., Saturday evening. This is not the time I want to be writing, but my post is due and so, I do it. You could wake me up in the middle of the night, and I could write something for you. There are no boundaries. That is one of the great things about writing…you can do it anywhere and at any time (within reason).

Our brains are so powerful that they go haywire in interesting ways. I have OCD, so I get the whole agitation and compulsion thing. But I refuse to accept that there is any time of day or night that you couldn’t hand me my laptop and get something in return. It might not be my best work. It might.

One of my most popular stories was written in five minutes in a writing workshop. I was censoring a bit for my students, I was at work, I was wearing a tie…in short, it was not ‘my zone’. But I did it. And it worked.

Writing is hard. We need to remind each other that we can make it much harder on ourselves, and we MUST NOT. There is no muse, there is no magic formula, that magic feather was a con…you are a writer, therefore, you write. Don’t make rules about it. I’ve been down that road, and it is a dangerous one. I write all day long. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is hard. Sometimes I get a squirming in my spine that makes it seem impossible to even sit still, but I cannot invite the opportunity to kneecap myself.

Now, my post is done. I didn’t want to write it, but I did. It’s not my best, but it will suffice. And now I can get on with my life. In the past, I would have spent three hours wondering whether I should try and ‘force’ myself to do it and it would have been a miserable goddamn three hours.

Author: JD Mader

JD Mader is an award winning short story writer and novelist. 'Joe Café' and 'The Biker' are out now, as well as 'Please, no eyes'. and the collaborative 'Bad Book'. Mader has been writing for half his life and has no plans on stopping any time soon. Learn more about JD Mader at his blog and his Amazon author page.

38 thoughts on “Psych Out”

  1. What you are talking about is being professional, which is dangerously close to being businesslike but not the same thing. Being businesslike would require you to wear three-piece suits and polished shoes; being professional means things like being able to write to deadline, being able to slant your content (as in copywriting) and being able to produce prose on demand and to specifications. A writer can be a writer without being professional, and certainly some of history’s most brilliant and successful writers have been totally unprofessional flakes. The higher the level of talent, the more there really is a muse, and the more the ideal conditions for writing are required. So your advice applies only to those of us (me included) who don’t have brilliance inside us. If someone were the next Dostoyevski, I’d encourage them to ignore you.

    1. We’re gonna have to amicably disagree. 😉 I used to think that way, but I have seen it proven many times by brilliant writers – I’d bet all the money I have that the greats could bust out something pretty impressive on demand if asked. And if they were willing to comply. That willingness part is huge. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Good article, but please – My rationalizations are one of the few things left to me at my advanced age. Take those away and what is left? I’m not sure why if I don’t feel like writing I should also add guilt to the equation. Although guilt is nice too. Okay, so I have a few things left. Rationalizations and guilt. There are probably some other leisure activities I can substitute for writing when I don’t feel like writing. I just forget what they are. Advanced years, a polite way of saying, I’m old leave me alone. Gotta run, there are some kids on my lawn. I’d write something, but someone’s got to get those damn kids off the lawn. Where are their parents, anyway?

  3. Wait, so you’re telling me that when I count to 861 while stretching and unstretching a length of elastic and tapping out the rhythm for “Bring da Ruckus” by Wu Tang Clan I’m just wasting my time, G?

  4. Great post. It is so true. If you just write it happens. I had no problem doing that for technical writing. Little problem for blogging. But for fiction I’m finding it harder. Maybe I’m buying into “muse” or its just harder or I’m censoring my writing too much. But for whatever reason I keep finding a reason not to write instead of reminding myself its a job… yet I coach people about it and get others back to work… hmm should I have said this out-loud?

  5. Mmm…interesting discussion this one. I agree about not psyching ourselves out and I agree about professionalism but I don’t agree about all writing being the same or that there is no such thing as writer’s block.

    I write every day, even on Sundays, but the quality of that writing does vary a lot. I’ve set myself a schedule for posts and have no trouble sticking to that and I generally approach the mechanics of writing in a fairly professional way. But….

    Posts, short stories, articles etc are a different beast to long form writing. A less than stellar post is not going to affect my ability to write a better post next time but painting myself into a corner in a novel affects everything that comes after and for me that can lead to writer’s block. I’ve learned the hard way that I have to unpaint that corner or risk not being able to write anything for months. Finding the point at which I went off the rails and fixing it requires both hard work and inspiration, or a muse, or whatever we label that ‘ah hah!’ moment. So… yes and no?

  6. p.s. Is the limit placed on post length deliberate or a glitch? I’ve discovered I can keep on writing as much as I want but after a certain point the ‘post comment’ button just disappears and the only way to get it back is to delete rows. Has anyone else noticed this?

  7. I believe it can work for you, the superstition bit, if you really believe; remembering that doubt is a belief too. I also believe there are times that you tune into (call it what you will, I’ll go the standard way for the sake of this comment and call it your ‘muse’) and actually plug directly into creative forces that are available in the universe. However, being a professional means you can use your intellect to write when you don’t happen to connect for whatever reason.

    I have a psychologist friend who believes it is the creative intuitive part of the psyche and the artistically (in the broad sense of the word) inclined among us touch upon it at various times and for various reasons, identifying with it more readily because of intent (she’s a psychologist remember). Great post, JD!

  8. If I had to wait for optimal conditions to write, I would never have lasted in journalism. 😉

    However, as some here have already observed, fiction writing is different. Still, my Muse tends to grab me by the throat and shake me ’til my brains rattle if I’m not writing when she thinks I should be. She’s hard to refuse.

  9. Mission Impossible, or at least Improbable — just write.

    Whether it’s a freelance assignment or finishing a second draft — just write.
    I’m with you, no excuses, no magic formula, so waiting for the stars to align.
    Back to work for me…

  10. I believe we can do whatever we set our minds to do. It always helps me to write under a deadline I set for myself. That goal I set gets the adrenaline going and my body begins to produce the chemicals necessary to boost creativity. When all else fails, continue to to write. You can always go back and edit. :). Great post!

  11. I can only write while thinking of Dan Mader in lederhosen. It’s really putting a strain on my writing. Not to mention when trying to explain to my wife why I’m sitting here doing the slap-dance thing with myself.

  12. Dan, I’m feeling quite brilliant this evening and I realize it won’t last long so I must go soon, take advantage of this brilliance and give Alice Munro a run for the Booker.

    But while I’m here, I say: I think the most important thing about writing is to write. (I know, bow down before my brilliance) To do this means we must write at non-optimum times and places because if we don’t write, we lose it. It isn’t like riding a bicycle. Moving words and thoughts around like puzzle pieces requires practice. It’s like playing a music instrument.

    Thanks JD, another ‘ah-hah’ post well worth reading 😉

  13. Nice post, brother, and a very important point. All of us likely have our own idea of how much of it is “being artistic” and how much is “get on with the job”, but for sure your attitude is the only way to progress.
    Something that drives me nutso (among many other things) is when a single person with few commitments complains that they can’t write. I have a full-time job, three kids, and a wife who thinks writing fiction is a total waste of time. When I do get a chance to write (usually at the end of an 18-hour day), I never miss it, and I don’t get people who have 24 hours a day to themselves saying “it’s sooooo difficult to write.” Really? Perhaps their problem is that they have too much time to write?

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