The Writer’s Survival Guide

The Incomphrensible Monster Fiend From Beyond The Depths of Sanity And Time And Sanity

The writer is a complex animal. We are grotesque mutations — irregular creatures, as I have noted — that form a crass menagerie, a mad bestiary. A writer possesses the lion’s mane, the horse’s hoof, the unicorn’s horn, the moonbat’s milky nipples. We’re dangerous animals, bred as chimera, confused as to who we are or what good we may do for the world.  The world is home, quite frankly, to too many of us. We have bred wantonly, and now we are everywhere. Our creative heritage is watered down with liquor and insanity. We’re like designer dogs. We’re a Poodle crossed with a Weimaraner crossed with a Pomeranian. We are the Poomaraner. The Weipooranian. The Pomaranadoodle. Possibly rabid. Definitely bewildered.

Or, put more succinctly, beware of writer.

Just as you should beware of us, we should also beware of us. The writer’s life is a strange one. Sitting alone. Talking to made-up people. Watching our little tragedies and comedies unfold until all we’re left with is a page of repeated text: “All Writing And No Porn Makes Jack A Dull Facebook Update.”

You do this day in, day out, you start to feel a little nuts.

The rejections. The fictions. The criticisms. Endless words. Myriad characters. So much time.

And so I give unto you: coping mechanisms. Fellow penmonkeys, compatriot wordslingers, if you want to do this job and not end up shellacked in your own snot-froth while hanging from the ceiling fan — if you are to survive at all with your mind and spirit intact — then you must do as I say. Do not deviate, lest you be struck down by your own lunacy.

These, then, are your survival skills, your coping mechanisms.

Something Something Peter Principle

Blah blah blah, every employee rises to his own level of incompetence.

This isn’t that, exactly. But it sounded good.

Here’s what you need to do: you need to realize that worse writers than you have succeeded in ways you simply have not. Find a writer who is, by your estimation, a talentless gasbag, a semi-sentient fungus that can barely string together a paragraph much less a whole goddamn novel.

The more popular and successful this writer is, the better.

At first this may seem disheartening — “They gave a million-dollar book deal to one of the baby zoo pandas!?” — but that’s not the point, oh no. The point is to take comfort that you can do better. We obviously tend to read writers who inspire us, who move us, who we feel possess talent that is otherwise insurmountable. Pshh. Fuck that narwhal right in the blowhole. You need to realize that some truly incompetent and incapable writers have risen — which means that if those muck-slurping sea monkeys can do it, well what the hell, why can’t you?

Yes, of course this is ludicrously petty. Which is why we don’t do it in public, so please go take down that blog post where you mewl and moan about Dan Brown.

We do it in our minds. It’s called “mental masturbation.”

It is a critical coping skill.

Something Something The Opposite Of That Thing I Just Said

We also need writers who inspire us, so don’t lose that sense of wonderment, of purpose, of writers who are our Sherpas. I mean, we do this for a reason. We don’t write because we want to aspire to the level of a brain-damaged ostrich holding a pen in its crooked beak but we write because other storytellers have moved us with their stories and their telling of the aforementioned stories.

If you’re banging your head against the wall and wondering why you ever chose this madman’s profession, dig out an old favorite book. Pick a chapter. Read it. Soak in it. Absorb a lesson. Revel in the words. Rub it on your body like a loofah, lathering yourself up with the cleansing soap bubbles of inspiration.

You Cannot Milk A Dead Goat

Sometimes, you need to walk away from the writing. Some writers I know, myself included, will stay down in the word mines far longer than they should, obsessively chipping away the walls looking for one last story gem, one last character diamond. Only thing you’re doing is driving yourself nuts. Get the hell out of there. The canary died three hours back. Then its flesh dissolved, leaving only a greasy smear in the cage.

You can only get so much value out of a given day of work. Set a course for your daily word count. Do your work, then stop, pause, consider. Keep going if if the juice is there — but if it’s not, don’t lose your shit. You did your work. Exhausting your internal juju is like intellectual strip-mining. You gain nothing but the scouring and erosion of your creative resources. Get out of your skull.

Beer, Bacon, Meth, Wine, Coffee, Cookie Dough, Hookers

I drink coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, wine at night.

I’m not saying writers should become chemically addicted to a whole bunch of shit, but hey, it’s better than soiling your pants and attacking the mailman with a camping hatchet.

For God’s Sake Do Not Hang Out With Other Writers

Didn’t you hear me? We’re all crazy. Don’t hang out in little writer tribes. At least, not on a steady basis. It’s incestuous! It’s like putting a band together, except every band member is a paranoid schizophrenic. Talk to people that aren’t writers. Hang out with a park ranger or some shit. An accountant. A painter. A ninja. A detective. Or what about a detective who is also a painter? And who has a park ranger ninja cohort? See? You can’t get that kind of awesomeness by hanging out with other writers. There’s a story in there!

Seriously, though, other writers are good people, and yes, from time to time you want to get together and talk the business. But other times, you need to get out of that headspace. Free yourself.

The Publishing Industry Will Explode Your Brain-Tits

Should I have hyphenated “Brain-Tits?” I thought about just going with “Braintits.” But that almost looks like “Braintitis,” which is probably some kind of swelling of the brain disorder. Of course, that’s probably apt, isn’t it? Publishing? Brain-swelling. Yeah. I thought so, too.

What I’m saying is, the publishing industry is interesting and all, and sure, you can be served well by knowing its Ins and Outs. But don’t focus long on it because it’s like staring into the unblinking Eye of Mordor (which, for the record, looks like a lava vagina). Gaze too long and you cannot look away. It’s like that quote by that German dude: “Gaze too long into the Abyss and before too long you realize you’re never going to get a book deal and then you wanna  jump into the hungry mouth of a lava vagina.”

You will go nuts trying to figure out the publishing industry. Pull back. Relax.

Write the best book you can write.

Start there. Worry later.

Beware The Superinfo Cyberhighway

The Internet has gravity. It will suck you in. Sure, it’s fun. It’s a great place to spend time. And read about book deals. And about other writers. And their success. And then you go on Amazon and you see all the books that aren’t yours. Next thing you know, you’re curled up on the floor, your iPad held tight in your arthritic talons. Your pants are in the corner. They’re smoldering, as if recently on fire.

The Internet is not always a healthy place. It is a place of rank negativity. Escape Cyberspace. Take the next exit off the Information Superhighway. Realize that nobody calls it “Cyberspace” or the “Information Superhighway” anymore. (They should really combine them for maximum coolness: The Infospace Cyberway! Or The Superinfo Cyberhighway!)

Leave your house. Let the sun fill your body with Vitamin D or whatever other voodoo vitamins the Big Fiery Sky Ball lends to us pale-fleshed writer-types. Take a fucking walk, for God’s sake.

Writing Isn’t Always About Reading

You don’t get new stories from old stories. You get new stories by closing your manuscript and going out and doing some shit. Big adventures, small adventures. Jury duty, Krav Maga, art museums, squid wrestling, garden planting, squirrel killing, windsurfing, long drives, long walks, making love to a grizzled longshoreman, whatever it can be.

Should you read? Of course. You’re a writer. Should you do more than read? Well, duh. Books aren’t just about writing. They’re about stories. Stories are about life.

Live life, lest you have no stories to tell of your own.

Set A Not Totally Insane Metric For Success

Writers are notorious for creating unhealthy watermarks for success.

“If I don’t have a novel published by the time I’m 31, I’m going to swallow a grenade.”

“If my first book is not a bestseller after the first ten minutes, I will hate myself so hard my bowels rupture.”

“If the writing I do today is not the best writing anybody has done ever, then I’m just going to quit this writing thing and go drown myself in a sewer treatment tank, hopefully choking to death on used condoms.”

Writers are afforded advantages few others manage: we are gifted with the power of the do-over and the take-back. If I’m a pilot and I fuck up, I may have just killed everybody on board by crashing into the Washington Monument. If I fuck up my day’s writing, I get to go back and fix it. And fix it some more. And fix it again and again until I’m happy or someone gives me money for it.

Set simple targets for success. Just finishing something is a thing that a lot of writers can barely manage.

CTFO: Chill The Fuck Out

Like I said, we’re all a little crazy, yeah? We can be intense, depressive, fiery, passionate, shameful, horrible, mean, obsequious, and like, a triple dozen other adjectives. It’s good to be that way sometimes, but writers, we tend to burn hot and fast like a road flare: everything is now or never, glorious or awful, everything or nothing. To that, I say:

Chill out. Calm down. Relax.

Do some Yoga. Take a swim. Pop your cookies alone or with a friend. Get a head massage. Drink some Ayahuasca and go fight the Jaguar King to learn your spirit name. Wait, maybe don’t do that last one.

I’m just saying, do you feel your heart palpitating? Do you feel suddenly overcome by uninvited worry and embarrassment? Shhh. Shhhh. Realize that this doesn’t matter. None of this matters. You’re not saving the world. You’re just telling stories. That’s supposed to be awesome, not awful. Stop shitting your pants. Stop creating false dichotomies and crazy expectations.

Seriously.

Chill the fuck out.

Then, when you’re easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, get back in the game and do some writing, will you?

How Do You Cope With Life As A Writer?

You got coping mechanisms for this crazy life? Share and share alike, word-apes.

48 comments

  • All solid pieces of advice.

    I’d add a subsection to the superinfo cyberhighway bit and warn people away from reading too many blog posts about how to survive or succeed at writing, but that’d be both facetious and self-evidently me preaching something I don’t practise. ;P

  • My coping mechanism is to write More and never call myself a “writer” in any week in which I haven’t (A.) worked more than 40 hours as a writer through such activities as writing or (B.) made a decent living without so doing (or by having so done, I suppose).

    It’s only when I’m not writing More that I have enough free time to cope with not writing.

  • Use your head, cut of theirs.

    Oh. Wait. Wrong survival guide. Please don’t go around decapitating writers. We need our heads. It’s where the story juice sloshes around all day.

  • Coca cola. Seriously. Then again my blood is a dark brown now and bubbles when I get cut. I think you could get a caffeine buzz from my plasma. That and chocolate cake.
    Honestly my best survival tactic is having something to help kick my ass into writing mode, I often want to write but the net and gaming are so much easier. If I have some external force leaning on me even a bit if can help get me started and overcome inertia.

    And for all the distractions they give video games are also excellent for blowing off steam. If the writing of the day sucks or I am on the verge of strangling the next person I see then a few minutes of Mortal Kombat or God of War is all I need.

  • I’m too busy milking a dead goat to offer up any advice – it’s tiring work – but I want to thank you for the great post. Good thing I wasn’t drinking any beer, wine, coffee or meth at the time of reading.

  • My coping mechanisms are the voo doo vitamins and exercise. (kerfuffle…SNORT!) Did I just say exercise? Because, we all know that writers don’t exercise. Actually, the “cleansing soap bubbles of inspiration” work for me. And, a little bit of mindless TV.

  • Writing feels good, even when it’s bad, it feels good, and like you said, I can fuck up on the way as much as I want. I can kill characters or cure them–and the only ethical concern is: am I doing what’s right for the story.

    The only writing coping strategies I need are those that help me do it better, crisper, fresher, so that I can fit more of it into my life.

    With that in mind, I want to second your warning about getting too lost in the cyber-suckhole, as well as the value of taking a walk or finding an adventure. The first is defacto writer’s block; the second its antidote.

    Strange places (even the ones close to home) lend my brain an alertness for serendipitous detail. If I get stuck, I go mine those stored up images and bits of dialogue and, at least so far, that always leads me out of the mire.

    Ultimately, I’d say my critique group has pushed me the furthest. We learn from each other’s hideous screw ups and outrageous flashes of brilliance, and always call bullshit on our self-indulgent excuses not to write or not to write better.

  • Insane metrics for success are, woah, totally true kind of thing. At the beginning of the year, I was under the delusion that I’d have my novel’s first draft done at the start of next month. Because, you know, that was likely. I think I’ve calmed that down a bit since, though. And chilling the fuck out is one of my favorite activities.

    Things that keep me sane: music of various stripes, my lady being just across the room, bourbon, bacon.

  • Yes, writers are crazy and not only do we drive ourselves crazy, other writers can drive us nuts too! I definitely agree with hanging out with nonwriters from time to time because it forces you to take that chill pill you need. My best coping strategy for those times I’m really losing it is to snatch my husband and go on a road trip to B.F.E somewhere, keeping the cell phone in the trunk and all my writing stuff at home for a few days. I did that last year after finishing my first draft and I felt super relaxed when it was all said and done!

  • Great advice.

    My own personal coping mechanism is to actually make the writing feel as fun and freeing as it’s supposed to be and less like work. I refuse to sit at a desk and write most times, preferring to either take my laptop or my notebook out in my back yard, or to the beautiful lake near my home or to the beach (i live in Florida, so this is usually a year-round affair). Same if i’m editing. I print my shit out and haul what I plan to work on that day anywhere i feel like going.

    Can’t get anymore “chill the fuck out” than that.

  • Aside from what you’ve already listed? A sense of play and a willingness to step back and engage in some play, whether it’s video-game related or otherwise.

    Keeping fit has helped me stay sane. I can take breaks to work-out and there’s the whole lovely “endorphin release” that comes with it. Plus, it’s kind of good for the ol’ ego. You feel good about yourself having done it.

    I also own a dog. Dogs are great. As one of my professors said: “Dogs are the best pets for writers to have. They teach you empathy. They remind you of what’s important in life. And the long walks are great for coming up with ideas.”

  • Thank you for your refreshing advise.
    My 2011 resolution: Dive into the World of Twitter and Blogs.
    Result: I’ve written almost nothing. I spend my time reading about writing and publishing. I’m paralyzed with self-doubt and fear. When I do visit my uncompleted manuscript, I write stilted drastic revisions that frankly suck. I’ve lost my own voice.

    You made me laugh–I will never look at the eye of Mordor with fear again.
    I’m going to take an exit off the cyberhighway, hopefully onto a single lane back road. I’m going to nail a book I willingly wasted $8 on but was written by written by a muck-slurping sea monkey to the wall above my desk.

    Later, I’m going to put on yet another pot of coffee and write 🙂

  • “Drink some Ayahuasca and go fight the Jaguar King to learn your spirit name. Wait, maybe don’t do that last one.”

    Great. NOW you tell me.

    How do I cope? I don’t take it all that seriously. Sure, there’s being professional and all that but in the grand scheme it’s not that important.

    I’m writing pulp for chrissake, not saving babies from the zombie apocalypse.

    One of the things that helps keep me in that headspace I think is that I don’t look at writing as art. Craft, sure. But with that mindset I’m building a chair more than I’m painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

    If people don’t like it, well, okay.

    • @SB:

      “One of the things that helps keep me in that headspace I think is that I don’t look at writing as art. Craft, sure. But with that mindset I’m building a chair more than I’m painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

      This, this, a thousand times, this.

      Do you ever experience any pushback on that? I get it periodically — some writers take offense at such a statement.

      — c.

  • @Chuck:

    Not so far, but then I haven’t had that discussion with many writers, and the ones I have had it with have either seen it the same way or tended to be at a stage in their careers where it’s more about producing quality work on a deadline.

    I have run into a few who did look at it as art, though and they tended to take it REALLY seriously. Like slice a vein open I’m never going to write again oh my god they hated my script how dare they those wannabe cocksuckers who JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND MY GENIUS seriously.

    If it works for them great, but they’re not very fun to be around.

  • The life thing. If you invest your whole Self into writing–by which you mean PUBLISHING your writing or getting KUDOS for your writing–you’re putting your soul and being into the hands of third parties who feel no tenderness or responsibility toward your well-being. Invest your whole Self into living your life, and let your writing add to the joy. Let your writing be Art or Craft or good solid Workmanship, but let it be joy. If it’s drudgery, you might as well swab floors. In fact, you’d be better off, because you don’t expect people to praise you for your floor swabbing abilities.

  • Healthy? Probably not.

    But I find that it’s not the writing I have to cope with, it’s the not-writing. It’s the guilt that comes with stressing and putting things off and fretting over whether it’s good. The actual writing? That feeling of having written something? They are how I cope with all the other shenanigans that come with the gig.

    As to what’s better, I am the wrong dude to ask. Day by day I assign authority over what’s better to different and disparate subjects, from myself to the client to the strangers on the Internet. Every day I throw a dart at a spinning wheel.

    But, healthy? Probably not.

  • God. I love you. Seriously, I love you so much.

    You’re so damn awesome. I don’t even care you don’t write in the genre I typically read, I’m reading ANYTHING you write and throw all my money at you for it. That’s how awesome you are.

    Ahem.

    Okay, so maybe I kind of needed this post lol. I SUCK at coping. I have no coping mechanisms to share. I only finish anything because someone put a deadline on me, and then when I do finish, it’s late. NaNoWriMo08 was like the only creative writing assignment I ever finished on time. That’s sad.

    I don’t cope. I freak out.

    I feel “The Publishing Industry Will Explode Your Brain-Tits” and “CTFO” are what the doctor ordered for me. I worry too much and get depressed and hardly write anything. I think if I take your advice I’d be much better off.

  • I try to look at my writing as my job as much as my artistic career. Every day I go to work at my writing and i do the best I can for that day. I think Mur Lafferty referred to it as the ditch diggers attitude to writing.

    It’s hard to get upset over criticism of the ditch you just dug, and any criticisms of the ditch are about the ditch and not about you.

    I also remind myself that no matter how badly today’s writing has been, tomorrows will be marginally better. Those tiny increments of improvement add up quickly.

    If I ever need to feel better I look at stuff I wrote a year ago, and I thank my lucky stars I’m not that poor sap anymore. If I can keep improving, even a little at a time, then next year I’ll look back at this year’s writing and feel the same.

    I also imbibe near toxic quantities of caffeine.

  • My faves so far:

    CTFO. My new go-to acronym.

    “Leave your house. Let the sun fill your body with Vitamin D or whatever other voodoo vitamins the Big Fiery Sky Ball lends to us pale-fleshed writer-types. Take a fucking walk, for God’s sake.”

    “Live life, lest you have no stories to tell of your own.”

    From SB:

    “I’m writing pulp for chrissake, not saving babies from the zombie apocalypse.

    “One of the things that helps keep me in that headspace I think is that I don’t look at writing as art. Craft, sure. But with that mindset I’m building a chair more than I’m painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

    ++++++++++++++

    I think I just fell in love. 😀

  • You covered all the bases. In terms of the “get away for a bit” my two favorites for short term head-shifts (if, say, I’m on a deadline) are a 15 minute walk, a 15 minute repair project or a shower. Usually I’ve thought of something or have a fresh angle by then.

    K

  • Funny shit. Refreshing. Next time I’m depressed and self-destructive enough over my precious writing to binge on ice cream/chips/cookies/drain cleaner, I’ll dart over here instead. So hide the fuckin drain cleaner.

  • Dude. Wow. I just snorted coffee up my nose (yeah, it doesn’t work as well that way) and brought my partner into the office with my laughing. I needed this in a dozen ways today. Thanks for putting it out there.

  • How do you manage to type this shit? I was laughing so hard that I fell off my couch (cats probably thought that’s it…she’s officially lost it…gone by way of the deep end).

    From someone who has somehow pledged their life to an English/Creative Writing department in the middle of nowhere Texas…I sooo needed a laugh (and the advice).

    Shhannnks…

  • I am so mind-numbingly sleep-deprived today that I read the penultimate title as Sex Is A Not Totally Insane Metric For Success. I was deeply disappointed when I realised it wasn’t about all the writer groupies I could expect when I’m a huge bestseller. Actually I think I blame the lava vagina.

  • Treadmill + iPad and/or Xbox 360 = Less Stressed Panda.

    We long ago swapped out our couch for the treadmill in the living room, and since it is in easy range of the entertainment center, John and I tend to play video games as we walk. (WARNING: I do not recommend trying to pay CoD while walking on a treadmill. The results can have very…painful real-world consequences. *grimace*)

    As such, I’m less stressed because a) I’m getting exercise, b) I’m getting in some game time, and c) multitasking means more stuff done in less time. Yay!

  • Oh this is just waaaay too good to not save for a later re-read when I need it. Great advice that a lot of us need to apply to our lives.

  • We are not only writers, we are liars and thieves, murderers, psychopaths, blackmailers, time-travellers, archers, knife throwers, kung-fu killers, heroes, heroins, cowards, do-gooders, poor man, rich man, beggar man, thief, butcher, baker, king, queen, lover, mistress, saviour, priest, devil, we are knights in shining armour, knights in rusty armour, we are surrounded by love, fear, agony, hate, longing, hope and tragedy, and despite the dialogue that can be consoling, bitter, condescending, argumentive, enticing, alluring, deceptive or friendly, we are lonely.

  • Great blog! I’m going to send it to my cohorts.

    Some coping tips I’ve picked up over the years were learned while writing copy with a group of other crazies.

    Keep toys on your desk. (They get kidnapped; just go with it.)

    Make silly lists (you can make them with fellow writers for extra fun sauce), like: “Totally awesome anniversary presents you wish you could give.” No holds barred.

    Change movies titles to porno movie titles (it’s not as easy is it sounds; try “Titanic.”). Here’s some classics: “Me, Myself, Irene, and a Midget,” “Good Will Humping,” and “GladHeAteHer.”

    But since I write from home now, I sew or bake. The act of completion is therapeutic, especially since it took me about 14 years to finish my first novel. The bonus: you get to enjoy the cookies now.

    Keep making us laugh at ourselves!

  • As Keith said, a good way out of a stuck spot is a shower. Hell, I’ll probably need one anyway after the pants-burning.

    I have a bike. I like to jump on Zephyra and take off. The wind in my face does wonders.

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