The classic, and in some ways definitive, advice on writing is this line by Mary Heaton Vorse, as chronicled by Sinclair Lewis: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” In this era of standing and treadmill desks we might need to amend the insistence on sitting, and given the abundance of digital distractions we face, it’s probably worth specifying that what happens while one is seated actually involves the stringing together of words—not surfing, not streaming, not gaming, not clicking “like” or “follow.”
Persistence is the trick, which is presumably why, even though there is really only one way to write, there are innumerable variations on the theme of not writing.
One might, for example, simply evade. Or procrastinate. A writer might quit, or declare himself hopelessly blocked. She might indulge in a planned and duly scheduled break. They might decide it’s more rewarding to sit down and read something someone else has written (although you might see this tactic defended as “research” and rationalized as necessary preparation for writing).
Writers also fail to write by first writing and then declaring the results crap that should not be inflicted on the world. Hitting the delete key or powering up the shredder is, then, positioned as a public service.
Taking pictures is a popular means of not writing, particularly if one is traveling.
Writers and aspiring writers, like everyone else, have to meet the plumber or shovel snow or care for a sick horse (or kid or spouse or parent). Jobs happen. Life intervenes. Time runs short.
Not writing can also be the result of being unable, despite wanting and planning and good-faith intending. Applying the seat to the seat may come to naught, not as a result of stereotypical blockages borne out of a lack of ideas or an overabundance of anxiety, but from straight-up cognitive failure due to fatigue. I’ve been rather vexed to find myself plagued by this form of not-writing periodically of late. I imagine that writers with young children regularly suffer from this variation, although my experience stems from later-life-stage circumstances, aka night sweats. I’ve had extended episodes of interrupted sleep over the past few years, wakening about every ninety minutes to throw blankets off in an overheated panic, only to drag them back over myself twenty minutes later in a post-sweaty chill, leaving about an hour in which to doze off before the next round. This aggravating nocturnal rhythm brings on a daytime brain fog so thick that mundane tasks require close concentration and a monumental effort of will. I might sit with conviction, but that doesn’t mean my capacity for attention has accompanied me to the chair. In this state of mental dismemberment, much of my writing consists of lists, which I then either lose or forget to reference.
I don’t want to legitimize list-making as writing, but this matter of scribing one item in lieu of another points toward a distinct form of not-writing. Ironically, this particular version can yield published work; I suspect quite a few of what are called “craft essays” owe their existence to writing about writing as a way of not writing. Avoiding writing by writing about not writing no doubt accounts for a related genre.
I’ve been doing a lot of not writing by writing one thing rather than another lately, although in my defense the writing I’ve been working on during my absence from this blog relates to my book-in-progress.
That project revolves around scientific literacy, a topic I’ve been interested in for a couple of decades now. Back around the turn of the millennium, I was finishing up a PhD dissertation on public perceptions of science, and I’ve always thought I would be able to spin that research into a book. The challenge has been, and remains, how to write about the subject without descending into dull exposition.
It’s easy, too, to lose the thread. We tend to think of scientific literacy as the facts-you-need-to-know about science, so staying focused on the dynamics of the nonspecialist’s encounter with scientific information and ideas is surprisingly hard. I’m interested in the interior aspects of scientific literacy: in science as refracted through self. Explaining what I mean by that isn’t easy, which is why what I’m working on is a book and not an essay.
Last summer I set myself a goal, and a deadline. I needed a push to get the fragments of rough draft I’ve accumulated so far coordinated into functional chapters. And so, starting in November, that’s where my writing energy has gone. For the past few months, when I sat down in my office chair to write, that’s what I was working on. The book took some measurable steps forward, although it is very, very far from done. The project remains vulnerable to all the hazards faced by an immature thing in this big busy world, including parental neglect and the predations of criticism. I still might lose my nerve. I can see so many ways I might not write this book.
For now though, I’ll keep putting myself in the chair. Some days I’ll work on that, but I’ll also try to get back to working on this other thing.
*You can find an account of the saying’s origins here.