The Admonition Of Ass-In-Chair, Or, “How Writing Is Actually Work”

Writer and writing teacher J. Robert Lennon wrote a post recently, “The Ass-In-Chair Canard,” which takes aim at that oft-uttered snidbit of writing advice, a piece of advice seemingly universal across all those writers who dare to give advice on the subject of writing:

Put your ass in the chair and write.

Regarding that piece of advice, Lennon says at the fore of the post:

It goes without saying this is an incredibly vapid cliché, and one that should never be repeated, if only for fear of boring one’s listeners to death. “How to write: write.” Uh huh. But its implications run deeper than that: the phrase is in fact an insult to almost everyone who has ever struggled with the creative process, and as a teaching tool is liable to do more harm than good. It embraces several dangerous lies: that writer’s block is the result, first and foremost, of laziness; that writing (indeed, any creative pursuit) is like any other form of labor; and that how hard you work on something is directly correlated with how good it is.

He is both very right and terribly wrong all at the same time.

How is that possible? Is he like the Schroedinger’s Cat of writing teachers? Trapped in the infinite uncertainty of his classroom, caught between both being totally right and terribly wrong all in the flux of the same quantum moment? Sadly, it’s less exciting than all that.

He’s right in that this is not a particularly stunning piece of writing advice in the sense that it fails to teach you how to write. It offers us nothing about craft or technique, nothing about theme or motif. It doesn’t help us conjure a character or set a scene or deal with unruly exposition. It gives us a big empty bag of fuck-all regarding adverb use or first-person-narrative or dialogue attributions. It is, in fact, saying that to write, you must write.

And yet, while it’s not a particularly nuanced piece of advice, that’s still true, isn’t it? To write, you must write? And here he (and perhaps you) say, “Well, that’s obvious, though. Nobody’s particularly confused about that point, are they?”

To which I’d say: aren’t they?

I’m not suggesting laziness. I’m not suggesting indolence or stupidity or any of that. What I’m saying is, the creative process is alarmingly internal. A great deal of it goes on up in our — *taps forehead* — brain-gourds, stirring around in a great bubbly froth. It’s imaginary. It’s intellectual. It’s ephemeral, if we let it be. It’s fairy dross and pegasus dreams, man. The only way to take what is imaginary and make it a reality is to put your ass in the chair and write.

And this isn’t just a piece of advice for newbie writers. It may seem to be — and certainly when I was a young wide-eyed writer fresh around the gills I spent more time thinking and talking about being a writer than actually, urp, being a writer. Hearing writers like Joe Lansdale say I had to actually sit the fuck down and shove a bunch of words out of my head and onto the page was honestly helpful. But this is advice for the seasoned writer, too — because we live in an age of great distractions, from Twitter to Facebook to Netflix to deviant Tumblr pornography to bath salts. We live in an age where it feels productive to write blog posts (like this one) or to tweet about writing or to read writing advice. It seems like we’re doing something when at the end of the day we’re just spinning our creative tires in invisible mud.

It’s work. It’s not always pleasant work. Sometimes it invokes a deep, almost psychic pain — an anxiety that blooms into an acid-spitting flower corrosive to confidence and craft. And yet, the words are the words. They only matter when they manifest. And you’re the magician that summons them into existence — their manifestation is on you and you alone. Nobody said it would be easy. Nobody’s saying you have to write thousands of words per day. You write what you can write. But that verb is still in place: write. Whether you write ten words or ten-thousand, they still involve you taking off your pants, setting your coffee onto its coaster, petting your spirit animal, then sitting your ass into the chair and squeezing words from your fingertips until you collapse, unable to do any more. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. Not now.

It only matters that it’s done.

Put your ass in the chair.

No, that doesn’t tell you how to write.

But it does tell you where it begins and where it ends: with you. You are a character with agency. You are a god in this world. Creativity is a worthless state of being without the verb that triggers it: to create. Creativity is the match. You still need to strike it and light the fire.

You can’t just always bully your way through a story, true. A great deal of writing remains in the head. And it comes with patience. And craft. And with your burgeoning intuition. Just the same, the end result of writing is the written word.

And the words only get written when you fucking write them.

87 comments

  • Yes, “you must write!” shouted from on-high by some wizardly Gandolf-like beard-man is overused. But it’s probably the only piece of writing advice that is 100% applicable to everyone 100% of the time. Probably why it’s so annoying. Like, look at me! I’m commenting on your blog when I should be walking to Mordor.

  • Huh. He tries to separate quality from ass-in-chair time, but I’ve found through . . . five manuscripts now? And a rewrite that yielded me a book deal? The ass-in-chair time DOES teach you craft, too. You see flaws that you didn’t see before. Once someone points something out in one draft, you tend not to make the same mistakes again. And the only way to hone that skill of “learning from mistakes” is to sit the fuck down and make more words, monkey. Make more words. So I don’t agree with the separation of time invested and quality produced because — speaking entirely for myself here — that’s not always (or often?) the case. And if I don’t buy into that premise, his argument is sort of . . . lame. “Other people have said it before.” Uhh. Just ’cause it’s repeated a lot doesn’t make it untrue.

  • Unfortunately, putting your ass in the chair does save one from distractions like a five year old child that has already mastered the art of the well-conceived guilt trip or a husband that acts like aforementioned five year old, taking offense when you’re in “the moment” and just want to be left the fuck alone to purge your brain into a computer file and are not in the mood to be “affectionate”just because it’s commercial time.

    Got a remedy for that? Barring anything that would put me in a courtroom, I’m open to suggestions.

      • Very nice!

        I did make a typo that changes the whole meaning of what I wrote but glad you didn’t catch it. I meant, it does NOT save you from distractions. Family one and internet access, the other beast in the room. It’s great for in the moment research but lousy when you get lost in the research. :)

      • I’d need some kind of a digital readout sign hung at the bottom of the stairs – my writing time is from 5-6 am, and when my boyfriend falls asleep on the couch, he almost always manages to start talking to me from downstairs (which means a sign on my desk would be no good) just as I’m getting up to write, and then gets petulant when I tell him to please shut up because it’s my writing time. /eyeroll

    • Get a laptop and work somewhere else, not at home. If you can’t, write long hand in a notebook. Just get out, away, where you can’t be found. Keep your phone off. I find that ear plugs help, too.

  • There’s a secondary, underlying, not-kind inference to this bit of “cliche” advice, and I’ll be the asshole and point it out:

    People want to be writers. They don’t want to—or at least, don’t start out wanting to—put the effort into achieving that success. I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me with this great idea or that awesome story and they tell me all about it and say, “I’ve been thinking about it for 6 years,” or, “I’ve been working on it since I was twelve.”

    In the immortal words of Terry Pratchett: “Too many people want to have written.” They want the easy path, the immediate success and accomplishment of writing without writing. They’re not hungry for the words, they’re hungry for the notoriety or fame or X-Box achievement.

    By telling people the (the first?) secret to writing is to write, you’re starting the process that will or at least that has, in my experience, weeded out those who want to write from those that want to have written.

    You can’t be a good prosecutor just by passing the bar—you have to learn the nuances of debate/argument and the loopholes and the ability to commune with juries and so on. But if you don’t pass the bar, it doesn’t matter how good your social skills are. You’ll never be a lawyer.

    To translate for those literal-minded among us: You can’t be a successful writer just by finishing a book—you have to learn the nuances of character and plot and the way your voice feels on the page. But if you don’t finish a book, it doesn’t matter how good your creative ideas are. You’ll never be a writer.

    • I love your comment. It’s so true. There are numerous people who’d like to have written. When people learn I’m a writer I’ll often hear the “I’d like to write a story’ story. I always encourage them. One person went on to actually write her first book (the first few chapters I read were brilliant) and last I heard was working on her second. Some people just need encouragement, but a lot of people just like the idea of being great (without ever putting the effort in). If there’s no passion it won’t happen.

      We don’t actually have to be sitting to write. I love those magnetic word thingies you can get at book stores for writing poetry etc. My writing advice to people is to start small with fifty word stories that have a beginning, middle and end. Anyone can write on a whiteboard or arrange magnetic words on the fridge in between wiping the baby’s nose. Our butts don’t have to be in a chair, but our brains do have to be allowed to make the words visible. The reason I hate the “but in chair” chant is that sometimes we need to rest. I finally finished a book I’ve been working on for freaking years and now I’m having a holiday. I’m reading books and feeding my creative beast whatever takes her fancy. We all work differently. Some writers can crank out stories day after day year after year without drawing breath…great for them… Some people, like me, need to get their butts out of the chair and go chase butterflies or have adventures being creative in some other way. In a few weeks my unfinished stories will pull me back to the chair and we’ll return to our normal manic routine.

  • “Put your ass in the chair and write” is the first part of the equation. I wrote (and rewrote) constantly for six years because I didn’t have the balls to throw my work out to the wolves and see if it survived. Yes, you have to write, but you also have to Finish and move on to the next project..

    • Love that. I’m trying to overcome the fear of writing scenes out of order. Also, have taken to carrying a notebook wherein I spew everything that *might* go into a scene, long hand, whatever the characters might be thinking, feeling, seeing, doing – and it doesn’t scare me as much as it would if I were typing. It’s rough, done in a rough way, which allows me to loosen up.

  • Here’s the thing:

    Writing – in fact, any creative endeavor – takes a lot of emotional and mental investment on the part of the writer. Especially since most of us here are talking major projects like novels and screenplays. And not all writers will have access to that kind of internal currency at the end of the day.

    Now, before anyone waggles their fingers and shouts “Excuses” at me, let me illustrate. Life has been pretty shitty (for lack of a better term) for the last 2-ish years. Things have really come to a head in the last month. Namely a close friend living in a domestic abuse shelter. I am her only emotional support. So I spend a good bit of my day keeping her from breaking down. The same goes for my husband, who doesn’t work well under stress and is close to catastrophic burn out. On top of that, I have to worry about the abuser coming here looking for the aforementioned friend and additional pressure from my very not cool family. Tally it up, I’m doing the heavy emotional lifting for half a dozen people on a daily basis. At the end of the day, I’d rather channel surf and decompress.

    That’s not to say my butt hasn’t been in chair. It is, and it is an exercise in frustration. Words might not be blocked, but the “magic”, the little shard of self that I think most writers put into their work, most certainly is. And hearing things like “well, just write” from every direction sends me into one hell of a guilt spiral. Sure, I’d love to be writing. I’d love to be able to escape for hours on end and enjoy the gleeful high of making worlds with nothing more than the electrical impulses of my brain. But every time that butt goes in the chair, someone calls. Or, when they don’t, all I can think about is how my time is much better served taking care of much more immediate business.

    And that’s the thing I think Lennon is getting at. Sometimes it’s more complicated than the wanting and the doing. There are legitimate blockages and things that get in the way of the creative process. Badgering the old “butt in chair! butt in chair!” chant at the people in those situations are likely to end with guilt and resentment.

    So I’m going to say something pretty radical for this space. It’s ok not to write. And it’s ok to bump writing down on the priority list. Just don’t lose sight of it entirely.

    • I’ve worn those rock filled shoes. Loved ones in crisis should always come first. To be able to get into the zone (that magic flow where time ceases to exist) we have to be able to relax. It’s very hard to relax if someone we love is falling apart. Being kind to ourselves is part of being creative. When we don’t have the energy to write we can use that time to feed our creative self. Watch those movies we’ve wanted to see. Gorge on other people’s stories. Go to art museums. Use our camera phones to capture a lovely moment. We went out to eat this evening. I got out of the car and there on the edge of a private garden were two nesting swans. I needed to see that. Writing is being a story teller…and that means (to me) being open to seeing the stories all around us. I wish you and your loved ones well!

      • That’s another very good point.

        A lot of writing advice, especially in terms of building craft skills, usually forget the other things you can do to build craft. Like consume lots and lots of stories, mindfully, with an eye for how the fiddly bits work to make the whole. It’s not the same for practice, but even a solid background in music theory is helpful to musicians. So it goes for writers.

        I’ve been doing a whole lot of this in the waits between blow ups.

    • Of course! It’s totally okay to do that, as long as you’re okay to do that. Meaning, you *don’t* feel guilty about it. If you *do* feel guilty, then it’s worth taking a look at that guilt and seeing why it’s there. (I don’t consider guilt or shame to be particularly useful motivators anymore. I used to, but they just don’t get you all the way there.)

      Because, the reality is, life is always full of difficulty and challenge. And there will forever be more immediate business. And phone calls. And, and, and. But if you want to be a writer, then prioritizing to that and putting words to the page is going to be crucial because life is short, the list of channels is long, and before you know it, that’s it. That’s not be trying to put guilt or resentment at your door, nor trying to suggest you *should* prioritize writing. But if it IS important to you, then even a small amount — like the 350 words a day I advocate for folks whose lives are complicated — will help.

      I don’t think any of what you’re saying are excuses — they’re reasons, real reasons. Just the same, even climbing past those reasons even a little bit is going to matter at the end.

      Obviously, YMMV and all that.

      — c.

  • April 23, 2013 at 3:30 PM // Reply

    Kate, I’m sorry life is getting in the way, and hope it will eventually back off and let you write. But you yourself know that while sometimes you have to prioritize those other things, it’s not writing (with luck maybe they will give you the inspiration for that best-selling novel).

  • April 23, 2013 at 3:34 PM // Reply

    Sound advice from Chuck and from comments. Each book I write takes less time to draft (and maybe to edit) in part because I’m learning to sit down at the same time every day and work. And learning the craft, and getting over the endless editing. My first book took 15 years to draft, because I only picked it up when I “had time.” I n addition to making it a very scattered MS, it meant that what had started as contemporary fiction was historical by the time I finished!

  • I work on this shit every fucking day. Sometimes it doesn’t produce very much, but just because I can put words on the page doesn’t mean they’re any good. Sometimes I can’t figure out what the hell is going to happen next, and the outline I thought would work doesn’t. The logistics throw me. How am I going to get Character A to point B in a way that makes any fucking sense? The amount of focus, desire, effort, will, dedication, anxiety, stress, frustration, and agony doesn’t necessarily mean jack shit. You really have to enjoy this fucking thankless process to do it at all, and you have to be pretty fucking crazy to enjoy it. Really, it’s total fucking aggravation, and yet more meaningful than almost anything else. I don’t need to be told to write. I need to be told how to do it efficiently, so it doesn’t take ten fucking years to write one lousy book.

  • I find BIC an incredibly helpful piece of advice that I have to remind myself of every day. It doesn’t solve every problem. Sometimes you genuinely need more information to go forward. Sometimes you have to research your subject more, sometimes you need to study an element of craft that you’re trying to wrap your mind around. Sometimes you need some creative rest because you’ve spouted everything you can spout for the day. But for most of us, the excuses and procrastination happen just as often as the rest, and it would help to tattoo it on our foreheads: Butt In Chair.

  • I’m not saying anything startling here when I say “yep, I agree.” I have many friends who write (some published, some not, some in the pipeline in one way or another) and all of us agree on two points: 1. The words, they don’t write themselves. and 2. Some days, putting them down is roughly equivalent to pounding oneself in the face with a ball of razor wire and broken glass.

    But … and of course, this is “real life true issues permitting” … we must write them anyway.

    My personal goal is three hours/one chapter (editing)/2500 words, depending on what stage of the process I’m in. Some days I do more than that. Some days I do less. But unless someone is bleeding or on fire (both have happened), my personal rule is “butt…chair…write.” Not the most brilliant advice, maybe, but it’s kept me ahead of the deadlines.

    Also…as Chuck said…YMMV. That’s my personal goal. It won’t work for everyone. Writing is individual and each person has to figure out his or her own way through the thicket. The only absolute is that there are none. (but there IS Absolut. And it comes in two-liter bottles…)

  • God, I have a passionate hatred of ‘just write’ as a piece of advice. Unless you actually have a good reason to believe that someone’s issue is related to an inability to maintain a consistent work pattern, don’t say it. Heck, even if a writer is not doing the writing part consistently, telling them to just write may be a non-answer. Are they just not taking it seriously? Are they suffering from perfectionism? Are they utilizing a writing process that’s making the act of writing much harder for them than it should be? Is it just a time management issue? Is it a sign of some larger issue that needs to be addressed? Are they just writing at a pace that you personally consider unacceptably slow? Is it fair to expect them to be writing considering what’s going on in their life at the moment?

    Whenever I hear that advice, I fume. I have ADHD, and it affects every area of my life. Working on one project consistently, without any outside motivation is the opposite of simple and straightforward. It’s a problem in and of itself. I’m working with medication and a life coach to try to develop the kinds of habits that will make writing consistently possible, but in the meantime I’d like less self-satisfied know-it-alls explaining how I should be writing. No shit, Sherlock.

    • Thing is, it is a piece of advice a lot of writers need to hear, even if you aren’t one of them. “Just write” is by no means the complete package of information a writer needs, but it’s definitely the first step of a very long, potentially strange journey.

      • Are there really that many writers who need to hear it? I’m dubious, considering how self-evident it is. I know I’ve seen the occasional writer around the internet expressing anxiety and guilt over not writing for a while, often for perfectly understandable reasons, because they had the idea pounded into their heads that if they weren’t constantly productive they were a failure.

        It doesn’t even address the complexities of getting one’s ass in the actual chair and writing. People avoid writing for different reasons, and “ass in chair” doesn’t address any of them. It’s dismissive, and may actually be bad advice in certain contexts.

        • Yes, there are many writers who need to hear it. I don’t say that frivolously, I say that as a person who has encountered scores of writers who have big ideas but who fail to execute, who work very hard at talking about writing, who work very hard at *aspiring* to be writers, who talk about the novel they want to write SOME DAY, who write blog posts and tweets and anything and everything but the thing they really want to be writing, who start a hundred stories and finish none of them, who fritter away time thinking one day the stars will line up and that life will magically yield A Writer’s Life, who fail to realize that to even begin to write well you must first WRITE A LOT.

          I didn’t say that “put your ass in the chair and write” is the end-all be-all of advice. It isn’t. It doesn’t even crack the surface of the complexities of writing or publishing. But it remains the one essential component. You literally cannot be a writer without writing. The fact that anybody cares to argue against it as an admonition honestly surprises me.

          Being constantly productive isn’t a failure. But if you want to do a thing — in this case, that thing being writing — then not doing it certainly isn’t a success, is it?

          It’s not dismissive to say that if you want to be a writer, you have to write. This is barebones stuff. Not radical in the least. It’s truth. “Ass in chair” doesn’t address the reasons people don’t write, but it’s not meant to. Everybody is different, everybody has a different set of problems and pressures, and I can’t address them all. If it’s depression or anxiety, then those things need to be dealt with not as “writing problems” — because trying to write through those things is just punching yourself in the face. If it’s a misunderstanding or failure of craft, then you can attempt to learn craft and write to practice. If it’s distraction, then you need to shut out distraction however you can and must. If it’s a lack of support structure, you need to demand support for yourself and your work. If it’s X, then it’s Y; again, I can’t address every problem out there. But this blog does attempt to take an honest look at the many challenges every writer facts and it attempts to be bold-faced about addressing those challenges, whether they’re about art or craft or business or something altogether more personal.

          I recognize that this isn’t a particularly compassionate idea — and that sucks, it really does. It’s important for a person to take care of themselves. To address their problems and to be good to themselves. And if writing gets in the way of that, then I would say now is not the best time to write, no.

          And yet none of that fails to change the fact that unless you actually sit down and put words into your story, the story will never manifest.

          — c.

    • Sophia – Me, too. Same problem, the ADHD thing. I wonder how many writers have it, actually. This is the one area where I get into hyper-focus and can’t get OUT of the chair. I start and I can’t stop. But even with the ability to write compulsively for twelve hours a day…the down side is that it’s hard to A) make sense, and B) learn from writing books and materials that are out there, because everyone who writes one takes 200 pages to say what they could say in about 30 pages. The amount of crap I have to plow through to get to the essence of what matters is a hindrance. The learning process seems to go much slower for me than for the rest of the world, due to whatever filtering issues. A couple of things helped me get from wheel-spinning to chair habitation. 1) Learning to outline, not just as a list of scenes, but with an understanding of dramatic structure…and 2) Getting super clear about what the story was that I wanted to tell before I started. Because while pantsing has been great for getting to the emotional character of a situation (and I think we are the last people likely to suffer from emotional inhibition) it is not so great for finding a direction or getting to the end of the damn thing. It’s like I have to see the whole thing complete in my head before I know what to do with it. Your experience may be different, but I just wanted to say thanks for mentioning the dreaded acronym. I’m right there with you.

  • April 23, 2013 at 7:52 PM // Reply

    Seeing some of these posts from people who really have good reasons why “butt in chair” is not helpful makes me want to confess. My butt wanders from my chair a LOT. I can’t sit still, and I can’t work on one thing for more than an hour. I have some band-aids that help me: I don’t beat myself up for getting up and going for more coffee. I keep multiple projects in multiple stages so I can (almost) always find something that appeals. I keep expectations low (I know you’re supposed to keep them high, but that just leads to beating myself up).

    But, still, at some point every day I do sit my backside on my exercise ball (the chair hurts) and pick up a pen even if only for a few minutes.

    • That’s all it takes, Rebecca. Hell, I wander, too — I mean, I have deadlines and I keep to them (and even try to stay ahead of them), but I’m very easily distracted. I’m a chihuahua chasing a laser pointer. But the ol’ chestnut of ASS CHAIR WRITE haunts me and puts me back to get the work done.

  • Of all of the things I’ve tried as writer to better my writing, writing more has been the most successful. Every story I’ve written is better than the one before it. Every draft of every novel is better than the draft before it. And every novel is better than the novel before it. Mostly.

    I find that when I’m writing regularly it’s easier to slip into writing the good stuff right away rather than having to weed through five pages of crap every time I try to write with week long breaks between. If your ass is in the chair more you’re thinking about the story more and your subconscious is better able to feed you the answers to the great standardized test that is your plot.

  • This is probably the only thing I like about my terrible commute. It’s on a bus, I have my Moleskine, and I make myself write. I usually get in a good hour a day that way.

    The problem arises when I then have to sit at the computer and decipher my hieroglyphics.

  • It’s advice and it’s damned good advice, but the way it’s received and perceived has everything to do with the writer on the receiving end. I started young. And if someone told me to sit down and write when I was young, I wouldn’t have done it out of sheer young-ass stubbornness. I had to learn the truth of it for myself and it wasn’t until (too many) years later that I just did it. I had a catalyst, sure, but I didn’t even know I was writing every day at first. Then I realized that the secret was no secret at all. Just write. It was so simple and my mind was still blown by the power of it. Amazeballs and all that. Anyway. Excellent, as always.

    • Yeah, a lot of advice I heard when young didn’t stick, because young people are classically sort of stupid in thinking they’re totally not stupid. “I KNOW EVERYTHING,” the young person declares. I didn’t know shit. I know even less now. It’s freeing, that.

      — c.

  • No, Lennon is totally right. Ass in chair is a specious canard and a load of heinous bullshit. You never actually have to sit down in a chair and write day after day. You can just teach and scheme and sit in the bar and bullshit, and your thought will magically appear on the page. It’s true.

  • This man , whom I often turn to when I’m looking for an excuse to not write but feel like I’m doing something write- like once wrote in this book I highly recommend on how to be more writerly – Completo el poopo! Perhaps you know him. Still the best advice I’ve ever gotten , thanks Chuck seriously,

  • Ass in chair. Yes. Distractions from children, spouse and life? Solved that problem by building my own fancy adult-fort in the basement. I mean, it might be a real office someday, with walls and stuff, but right now curtains around my desk, a lamp, and a set of quality headphones blasting my own motivation makes me giddy like a virgin at prom.

    It took me a solid 3 weeks of tiny bursts of time in my taped off (seriously, I duck-taped my spot— might’ve told the Small People the tape was electric like the neighbor’s dog fence) 10×7 space, taking it from a giant pile of holiday crap, clothing donations, and trash bags full of freakin’ baby toys/stuffed animals to a right cozy, even painted, little room of my own.

    But I didn’t stop writing– even though my ass didn’t have a chair, or a hooked up computer. I have a drawer full of paper (PAPER, people) with reminders, lines of dialogue, whatever. Anytime I thought of something– I wrote it down. I looked through them today and got jacked up like I funneled a 2 liter of Jolt cola. It’s *exciting* to have a story, to battle-axe the words of that story– even when the process sucks.

    After all, I have this guy whose going to read 5k of my words someday. And thems gonna be good words.

  • Great post! Today I made myself write before checking my personal email, reading, blogging, Facebooking, etc. Clearly, that’s what I need to do daily!

  • Also, one thing that has helped me is the Pomodoro Technique. Basically, you sit for 25 minutes (using a kitchen timer- the ticking is strangely relaxing) writing, and any idea that pops in your head like “I have to pee, NOW” you jot down on a piece of paper. After 25 mins, you have 5 minutes to pee, grab a cup of coffee, whatever. It’s really helped with my limited attention span!

    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

  • “It gives us a big empty bag of fuck-all….” much writing advice is that. It’s a process. A craft. A love. A passion. A curse. A blessing. A Tool. A weapon. Only pieces and parts can be taught, the rest of it you learn by doing. And the doing part is what I’ve found that many “inspiring” writers have difficulties with. So, putting your butt in the chair and actually writing. Well, hell, I think Ya Got SumTin There, Sport.

    That’s not to say that I don’t agree with the likes of @Myke Cole when he says things like thinking, researching, hell, running, aren’t part of writing, too. Like I said above. It’s a process. But some folks skip steps. That’s the part where the writing advise givers, yours truly included, is that you have to actually put time in the writing. Many a pen monkey gets lost in the thinking part of the cycle, or the research part of the cycle, or maybe they get as far as the rough draft part and don’t get the revision part, etc. (That whole YMMV dealio.)

    Why? Well, you nailed it again, Herr Wendig: “It’s work. It’s not always pleasant work. Sometimes it invokes a deep, almost psychic pain — an anxiety that blooms into an acid-spitting flower corrosive to confidence and craft.” What causes the aforementioned? FEAR.

    So, remember: “Fear is the mind killer.” Without a mind, you have no creativity. No match to light the ass on fire and get the goddamn words on paper/screen. Kill the fear and watch the words flow.

  • I think with a lot of new writers this all comes from the feeling of “I don’t know how to start.” This is certainly true when I have trained journalists in the past. They sit and ponder the first sentence for ages, which is obviously the most important, but the advice I always give is “don’t start at the beginning. Just get down the words you have in your notepad then worry about the start later.” The same is true in fiction. There is no rule that says you have to start with the first sentence or even the first chapter. Start anywhere. Just write.

  • I’m just finding my writing again. This post was wonderful. It’s been helpful for me to just let my brain vomit onto the page/screen and then take it from there. Eventually I’d like to have more of a set routine than that, but for now this is getting the thoughts out.

  • I’ve been using the ass-in-chair directive recently with my colleagues and writerly friends who seem intent on attending every writing class and conference or joining several critique groups (I tell them that’s what I need to do rather than what they need to do). All of those activities are good things in small doses but only if the person then puts their ass in a chair and works through the techniques, ideas, and/or feedback. I don’t think it’s laziness. Rather it’s reticence…fear of making a mistake, fear of failing, lack of certainty about where to take the writing. It’s easier and more comforting to attend yet another class or discuss for the umpteenth time that passage in a story written two years ago than it is to create new work, take new risks and point your feeble, quixotic lance at uncharted territory.

  • I just sent this post to my 14 year old daughter. She writes wonderfully when she can completely invent the story, but when she needs to write non-fiction, she seems to be at a loss. (I, myself, have the opposite problem.) Does anyone have any advice for her?

    • Sometimes a good teacher will allow students to choose their own topics, or approach a topic from an angle they feel passionate about. Seems like passion could bridge fiction and non-fiction. My own experience is with non-fiction, where I learned to be concise, specific, and to try to say as much as possible as few words as possible (I make a game of how much information I can cram into one sentence.) I’d suggest that she start with what she cares about, and try to find a way to work that in. If that isn’t allowed directly (if she’s not allowed to express an opinion or say what she feels or include anything anecdotal), the topics chosen (or her interpretation of the topics required) can still reflect where she’s coming from as a person. The argument in expository writing is similar to the argument that takes place between the good guy and the bad guy in fiction, but without the characters or the action. In non-fiction, the orientation is much more toward “tell, don’t show.” It’s all about an economical use of language.

      One book you might look at is called “Writing for Story” which is mostly geared to writers of memoirs or biographies (which seems to be a trend in non-fiction publishing right now)…where some of the things that make fiction compelling get applied to non-fiction to make it more interesting and engaging for readers. Themes, values, and ideas are probably transferable to non-fiction, as is the concept of “the hook.”

      Don’t know if that’s even remotely helpful, as I’m like you – going from non-fiction to fiction is hard for me. Learning to write in an expressionistic or gestural way, based in emotion, is a weird experience. Non-fiction is much more linear, methodical, and logical (although fiction has its own internal logic, just a different kind.)

    • Oh – and what I do, for non-fiction writing, is I think about is as teaching. If I were teaching that topic to someone else, how would I do it? Assimilate information, and explain what I learned in my own words, in a way that would help someone else learn faster.

  • April 24, 2013 at 7:17 PM // Reply

    I read about some research recently concerning musicians, and one of the ways that the great distinguish themselves from the merely good. It comes down not just to how much they practice, but the nature of that practice. I’m only ever going to be an indifferent fiddler because I only practice 30-60 minutes a day, which is enough to get myself in trouble at the local sesiun but not enough to get me to Carnegie Hall. But if I spent that hour focusing on technique and working over difficult sections and paying attention to different aspects of musicianship and really honing it, I’ll be much better than someone who spends that hour messing around with tunes I happen to like. (Honestly I usually do the latter more than the former.)

    Same with writing. You have to do it, but you also have to think about what you’re doing.

    • April 26, 2013 at 10:49 AM // Reply

      I wonder about that. I studied music very seriously as an undergrad. I practiced a lot, was very earnest, but never seemed to be able to move beyond a level I call very competent. As in, I just seemed to lack something necessary to be really good (though that might in part have been, deep down, the motivation, I think it was also an adequate sense of pitch and rhythm

      • April 26, 2013 at 10:52 AM // Reply

        (Stupid little device is giving me trouble and won’t let me finish comments). Wanted to say that that experience left me with a fear that I may find I’m missing the literary equivalent of perfect pitch, dooming me to never be better than a member of a fourth-rate orchestra.

        • The fear of never being good enough must haunt anyone who dreams of doing anything hard. Kick that fear in the teeth! Whether we’re making music or writing stories the key isn’t the instrument or the competency of the player. It’s the heart behind the instrument. It’s the heart that makes the magic. Almost anyone can learn to play notes or speak lines, but not everyone is a musician or an actor. Twenty people can competently speak the same lines, but only one may make your hair stand on end. Those people are speaking from the heart. If your heart is passionate about telling stories then it’s highly likely you’re a story teller. I personally think that glass ceiling of competency is really your heart rebelling; trying to force you to invest your energy in your stories (or other talents). Just because we’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s wear our hearts want to be.

  • I think the ass-in-chair advice is rubbish. I’ve seen lots and lots of writers churning out unpublishable sentence after unpublishable sentence, but they do it daily (1000 words a day, dude!) because they read it in a writing advice book. Real Writers ™ do it, so it must be the right way! And there is something about forcing yourself to write that does have a martyr-to-the-cause rightness about it, a feeling of validation, of swimming upstream, and “It’s HARD so it must be a REAL JOB!” validation.

    But I honestly don’t think that MORE writing makes you a better writer. It’s just more sentences, most of which are crappy, which will validate your idea that maybe you suck at this anyway.

    I think that I didn’t really find my stride, as they say, until I stopped writing every day and started holding my stories in my mind and turning them over for longer and longer and longer before actually writing them down. What did I do instead? I walked in the woods, on the beaches, through the streets. I read lots of books. I thought. I didn’t sit and FORCE MYSELF TO STARE AT THE SCREEN NO MATTER WHAT SO HELP ME GOD BECAUSE I HAVE TO WRITE 1000 WORDS A DAY OR ELSE I WON’T BE A REAL WRITER.

    Because that SUCKS.

    And here’s what I believe: Different things work for all different people. Sometimes Get-Your-Ass-In-The-Chair-And-Write is necessary. But sometimes Get-Out-Of-The-Chair-And-Stop-Writing is infinitely infinitely infinitely better advice. Sure, writing is a job for a lot of us, our only job, our real actual job!, but that doesn’t mean we have to behave like cubicle drones in order to validate it. We chose this amazing creative crazy job and if we are lucky, it chose us back. Don’t we owe it the respect of behaving that it’s something a little different than data entry at the airport? (Which I used to do, too, a long time ago, ass-in-the-chair, til the numbers were done.) A sentence isn’t always better when it’s produced while gnashing your teeth at a desk. It can be just as astonishing if it comes to you while you are rappelling down a cliff. Just make sure you have some kind of smart-device with you so you can record before it’s gone — all good sentences are fleeting.

    • @Karen —

      The advice isn’t “bang your head against the monitor and write for 12 hours every day.” It’s just a piece of advice that suggests that at the end of the day, the only way something gets written is to sit the hell down and write it.

      — c.

    • Have you ever taken the Myers Brigg personality test? if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. I think the irritation of the comment “Ass in Chair” stems from the Concrete/Intuitive divide. These are two separate ways of thinking (really they’re two separate languages – we use the same words but the words mean completely different things). I’m a mutant and can think both ways (though not at the same time), but most people are one or the other. When I’m in a mental concrete mode my brain translates words in a literal way…Ass in Chair comes across as an invective to put and keep my ass in my desk chair until I complete a daily word count. Most concrete thinkers appreciate this piece of advice because it is of itself completely concrete. How will I write my book? Put your ass in the chair and write! Yes, I can do that. I will sit my ass in a chair and write my masterpiece one sentence at a time. For a lot of people this is actually true. They will take the advice, sit down and write their daily word count and write a great story (that might not otherwise have been written).

      For the intuitive mind, concrete advice (Ass in Chair) is irritating. It feels like someone is urging me to put on a well meaning straight jacket that will keep me from harming my writing (keeping me from taking pictures of the daffodils in the ancient church yard or standing in the woods listening to the wind moaning stories through the leaves – stories I need to hear to finish a story I haven’t yet thought of). Concrete thinkers can’t “write” while rock climbing because they are two separate activities requiring completely different skills etc. For concrete thinkers, writing means words are being jotted down in some concrete visible form. They can count their words and see how much work they’ve accomplished every day. Your rock climbing translates as an airy-fairy excuse to avoid the chair. Of course it isn’t. You can climb up the rock and write because you don’t live concretely in the moment…the rock climbing occupies your body and allows your mind to play. For concrete thinkers it’s the opposite…the climbing occupies their mind and gives their creative mind a rest. Neither way of thinking is better than the other. They’re just different.

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