April 26, 2010
Welcome to my new column for In Cold Blog, in which I’ll look at the psychological issues that often plague writers. Hopefully, I’ll also offer some unique ways of thinking about and addressing them.
Who am I? Formerly a
Hollywood screenwriter (the film My Favorite Year; the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, among others), I’m now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in working with creative people.
But though I’m long retired from show business, I still write—-fiction and nonfiction. And after over thirty years as both a writer and a therapist who works with writers, I can state one thing with complete confidence:
Writing is easy--as long as you don’t have a life.
Let’s face it, real life--family, friends, bills, illness, deadlines, etc.--just gets in the way. (And I haven’t even mentioned traffic, the weather, politics and agents.) When you consider the daily whirlwind of activities a writer has to negotiate--from dental visits and car-pooling to buying birthday presents and getting the dog groomed--it’s a miracle anything gets written at all.
In fact, it’s a miracle that anything has ever been written since the beginning of time.
Of course, I’m being facetious--but only slightly. Writers, regardless of talent or aspiration, dwell in the real world. Livings have to be made: food has to be purchased, rent and mortgages have to be paid, children have to be raised. There are friendships to sustain, bosses to appease, and relatives to endure.
And decisions to be made. Where to send the kids to school. What homeowners’ insurance to buy. What to do about Aunt Marie, now that Uncle George is gone. Is this neighborhood still safe? Do I really need bifocals? You wanna be buried where?....
Not to mention the thoughts, beliefs and feelings writers live with every day. Call them the sub-text of daily life. The hurts, resentments, and doubts; the fears, illusions, misunderstandings. What did she mean by that? Did I say that right? Who does he think he is? I’m such an idiot, why can’t I make this work? If only I were smarter, better-looking, more together, more...something. Hell, why did I read about that schmuck’s three-book-deal this morning? Where did I put that notebook? My back’s going out again, I can feel it...
Gotta concentrate. Get some work done. I’ll start with that scene in the second chapter. The one with the homeless guy. Right after the mail comes. Shit, I forgot, I gotta call my mother this week--there’s another three sessions in therapy. Has anybody seen my notebook? No, the other one...Christ!
See what I mean? Real life--the cacophonous, constantly shifting yet relentlessly repetitive series of moments that make up a writer’s day--is an omnipresent partner in the writing experience, a constant companion. And the only playing field in town.
Like it or not, real life is where a writer lives.
There are alternatives. Many writers throughout history have sought solitude in which to write. Monks like Thomas Merton. Essayists like May Sarton. Authors of all stripes who rent cabins in the woods, or motel rooms in the Mojave, or villas in
. I know a playwright who works alone six months of the year in a fire lookout in Spain Northern California.
But I would argue that even such solitude can’t rescue the writer from the restrictions of real life, if we define “real life”--regardless of circumstances—-simply as a person’s lived experience. Besides, the choice to live alone, or without personal ties of any kind, also has a price tag; its own set of social, psychological and pragmatic concerns. In other words, to quote a somewhat gloomy friend of mine, “Nobody escapes the existential dilemma.”
On that cheery note, I’d like to offer three suggestions to help writers deal with the reality of writing in the real world. Admittedly, the first two are pretty conventional, yet also pretty tried-and-true.
First, structure time to write, and make it a fixed, regular time. In his wonderful book Mastery, George Leonard asserts--correctly, I believe--that developing mastery of any craft depends on a love of practice for its own sake. In other words, writing begets writing. Moreover, the discipline of a reasonable, consistent work schedule has a surprisingly liberating effect on one’s writing. To paraphrase Thomas Carlyle, “We must have order in our lives to go crazy in our work.”
The second suggestion is merely to risk stepping back from life’s distractions and re-grouping. (Frankly, to do the opposite of the first suggestion.) Go on a two-week retreat. Cancel all lunches and appointments. To whatever extent possible, exit the duties and responsibilities of your life for just a brief time--even if it’s only an afternoon--and try to get back to your authentic core. Eliminate the background noise and see what’s there. Because sometimes, as Andre Gregory reminds us in the film My Dinner With Andre, “you’ve just got to cut out the noise.”
My third and last suggestion is the most radical of all: Do nothing. Because, in reality, there’s nothing to do about it. This is your life, after all. The only one you’ve got. Your life, your thoughts, your memories, your dreams and hopes, your loves and hates.
What all of it means is best left to philosophers and theologians. What it suggests to me is simply this: Wow, you have plenty to write about. All that stuff going on, and not enough hours in the day--or space in your imagination--to get to it.
Which means, I guess, you better get started. Tomorrow morning would be good.
Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), DENNIS PALUMBO is a licensed psycho- therapist and author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley). His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and was recently collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press.) His first crime novel, Mirror Image, will be out in August from Poisoned Pen Press. For info, visit http://www.dennispalumbo.com/