Everyone would agree it’s an absolute gift to come into a new work week where the calendar looks pretty empty!
For a writer, that’s like a sweet promise of long, uninterrupted moments filled with blissful writing. What could be better?
Of course, my daily parenting duties continue, so I’m not exactly “free”. Still, since last Saturday I’ve been on a seven-day break from my temporary teaching contract. So in theory, I have more time this week to write.
Yet I find myself the past five days staring at a blank computer screen. And writing pretty much…nothing!
Sighhh…yes, sireee, welcome to my world of writing!
To the casual onlooker, or rather my family (since we’re all still working from home in this still Covid-confined world), I must look like some lazy, good-for-nothin’ loafer!
Not exactly the image I’m going for, especially in front of my wife and kids.
So as I wrestle with what to say today, I turn back to my writing heroes, in hopes of finding an answer to my conundrum.
Writers I admire
In researching and writing that piece, I took away with me much comfort. To know that even proven and accomplished luminaries like these great writers hemmed, hawed and dawdled their way through many a writing day? What a morale booster!
In my second piece, I mentioned those who published late in their lives. Bestselling authors like Raymond Chandler and Frank McCourt, who published only when they were past 50 or 60 years of age. Talk about taking your own sweet time!
In them I took even more comfort; for surely they were in even less of a hurry than the aforementioned procrastinators to complete their magnum opus. Despite the risks of waiting too long.
And in my third piece, I recounted how legends like Stephen King and George Bernard Shaw readily confessed they don’t know what they think about something until they put pen to paper. Surely that must have required a lot of time spent staring stupefied at a blank paper or screen, with pencil scratching forehead as they ponder long and hard over some complex idea or discovery.
So to my dear casual onlooker, guess what?
I’m in good company!
But is doing nothing a strong defence?
Of course the truth remains unchanged.
Oftentimes the challenge is to convince people around me I’m actually really doing meaningful and productive work when I’m writing a piece. Even if the proof is essentially me sitting quietly at my desk in front of a blank screen, typing and deleting, typing and deleting, typing and deleting!
Not exactly a water-tight case if ever I was summoned into a courtroom.
But thankfully, if indeed I was hauled up before judge or jury, I can now pull out a fourth category of writing heroes to back me up in my defence.
And for that I have none other than the likes of internationally-acclaimed author Mr Neil Gaiman to thank!
One writer’s take on effective writing
I’ll be honest.
Though I’ve heard his name before, I’ve never read Neil Gaiman‘s work until recently when I chanced upon his New York Times bestselling novel “Neverwhere – The Author’s Preferred Text” at my local library.
If like me you’re not familiar with Neil, then here’s a quick rundown of the man.
Neil is the British bestselling author and creator of books, graphic novels, short stories, film and television. His works include Neverwhere, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The View from the Cheap Seats and the Sandman series of graphic novels. He also wrote all episodes of, and has been the full-time show runner for, the BBC/Amazon Prime mini-series adaptation of Good Omens, based on the 1990 book he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett.
Many of Neil’s creations have been adapted for film and television, including Stardust (starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer), Coraline (an Academy Award nominee and the BAFTA winner for Best Animated Film), and How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a movie based on one of his many short stories. The TV series Lucifer on Netflix is also based on characters created by Neil.
Clearly a multi-hyphenated over-achiever!
Yet one of Neil’s cardinal rules of writing recently caught my attention and blew my mind! It almost seems to fly in the face of all he’s accomplished thus far.
It’s since become both a soothing balm to my disquiet soul and blank writing paper (and screen), as well as the main motivation for today’s post.
“Do or don’t do; there is no try!”
When tech investor and author Tim Ferris (him of the “4-Hour Work Week” fame) interviewed Neil nearly three years ago on his popular podcast The Tim Ferris Show, there was one thing on Tim’s mind. Aside from the fact that he’d been waiting some two decades to interview Neil, one of his all-time favourite authors.
Tim wanted to verify an industry rumour that Neil typically went into his writing mode with either of two goals: To write. Or do nothing.
Yes, that’s right. Nothing. Not something else, as Neil took pains to emphasise when asked by Tim. Nothing.
I had to pause when I first heard it. If that podcast episode had been a paperback, I would have clutched it tightly to my chest!
If you don’t believe me, go ahead and check out this link, forwarding to the 11.30th minute onwards, to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.
For a moment, I could even hear Master Yoda’s sage words: “Do or don’t do. There is no try” whispering into my ears. As though to lend credence to Neil’s oh-so-fine dictum.
Better to write nothing than do something
I know I know.
It seems crazy-talk in the face of everything we’ve been brought up to embrace. To do nothing seems like the ultimate utopia of some lazy, good-for-nothin’ loafer (now where have I met this guy?).
Is Neil Gaiman serious? Either sit and write, or sit and do nothing?! Not even read a book, call a friend, make myself a cappuccino, or do push-ups (guilty)?
But hear me out, or rather hear him out.
Neil is basically saying it’s better we as writers have permission and space to do ‘nothing’, than be bogged down by some ‘thing’. After all, every writer knows too well that temptation, that pull, to go do something else other than write.
Anything but sit in front of the boring desk, locked up in a lonely room all by oneself. And write.
It’s just mind-slammingly hard!
Even menial tasks like go weed the backyard or fix that leaky faucet holds more appeal than sitting in front of a blank piece of paper or notebook.
From ‘write nothing’ to….
But just in case you might be throwing up your arms now in despair or disgust, Neil gently slips in a universal truth.
At some point as you stare blankly out the window or the paint drying on the wall opposite your desk (do nothing remember?), writing will start to look a whole lot more appealing.
And before you know it Neil says, you will start to write.
That’s kinda what happened to me today.
One minute I’m staring blankly out the window, biting my lips vexedly, almost fearing that I might finally fail to cough up a decent blog post for the week. The next minute, with deep breaths and the enforced will to do nothing, I’m led to what you’re now almost done reading!
So go ahead. Give yourself permission to give it a go.
Do absolutely nothing. Write nothing.
Then watch as the magic flows!