Three years ago, and in the middle of December, I thought I’d failed in everything I’d set out to accomplish.
In 2014, I enlisted in the Armed Forces. I was already a Basic Emergency Medical Technician; I knew quite a bit on how to save lives, but I felt I didn’t know enough about how to protect them. I’d signed up to be of part of the Army’s Infantry and began a long, arduous journey that transformed my way of thinking and altered my perception of what it meant to lead a meaningful life. On that December, I participated in yet another test designed to rid our ranks of those incapable of meeting the physical standards.
I’ve always been a terrible runner. At that time, I was even worse. I remember sprinting through gusts of oppressively frigid winds in order to meet the finish line under the time limit. The standard was a measly two miles in under 15 minutes and fifty-four seconds. I’d taken this test once before and had failed it the first time at 16:36.
I passed the halfway mark, and, with only one mile left, I struggled as sweat ran into my eyes and seared my vision. I pressed my eyelids together, but the pain only increased. My whole body was aching, I could barely breathe, and I began to see the backs of more and more runners besting my pace. I was angry at myself. So angry, that I started to cry because I knew it was my fault for not pushing myself hard enough, for not having the necessary strength to carry out a victory. I cried; however, I did not stop. I kept running until the end, and when I hit the finish line, I heard a Drill Sergeant bellow the outcome:
15:30. I keeled over, fell into a coma, and my chain of command rushed me to the emergency room.
Just kidding. I made it. And little did I know that this would be the easiest victory, as events would soon heat up and never relent in intensity for years after. It was hard when I beat my two-mile time at 13:57, it was hard when I beat the standard for my brigade’s four mile at 29:30, it was hard when I ruck marched twelve miles to graduate Air Assault School, and it was hard when I stood my ground against a much higher-ranking member on a controversial issue and won.
So, how does this relate to writing as a craft and as a profession?
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”
– Stephen King
However a reader/writer may feel about Stephen King, he is absolutely right in how he interprets the psyches of writers everywhere who often encounter the same issues. The clearest and strongest manifestations of fear take the form of “writer’s block.” I’ve always disliked this term, because once a writer has moved past it, writer’s block never returns. Writer’s block stems from the fear of Mental Conjugation.
Art, literary or otherwise, exists in fluidity. It only possesses the form an artist gives it. When an artist is too afraid to mold their vision into something tangible, they (“they” is being used for inclusivity’s sake) often create excuses that take root in the artist’s subconscious. Every time they sit down to create their vision, they’re assaulted either with feelings of incompetence or a lack of faith in themselves. They fall short of grasping how to mentally conjugate an idea, and this is often due to them feeling like that very first sentence or paragraph has to be perfect. It’s not because that person is inherently a crappy writer, but their hesitation is preventing them from realizing their full potential. With that in mind, anyone should be angry at themselves for erecting such an unnecessary but understandable barrier to progress. In spite of that, we should remember:
Conjugation is a Mechanical Process:
Writing is work. It’s very laborious in nature. I’ve gone from operating on an assembly line for twelve-hour shifts at a nonstop pace to adapting to constantly changing standards as a soldier. I’ve always had anxiety, so, in a way, everything is scary to an extent. But still, we must choose action over stagnation—fear over complacency, because that is how we evolve as writers.
That first sentence will not be perfect. In fact, it’ll most likely be trash; it’s normal. Every first draft is ugly, from Dostoyevsky’s to Bret Easton Ellis’. It’s going to feel “off,” it’s going to feel “dull” or “weak.” Regardless of how the writer labels their own work, it doesn’t matter. Developing the content matters. Conjugating ideas into tangible pieces of art matters. It is a mechanical process because it happens according to a style that’s already developed and will continue developing as the process continues. In order to ensure that this process works, there is one invaluable skill a writer must have at their disposable:
Advice on story elements, such as plot progression, character development, pacing, and word choice, is mostly canonical. Most established writers have come to agree with each other on what works, even if those elements themselves can often be sinned against for great effect depending on the artist’s talents. A potential writer can spend hours and days attempting to gather as much information about these elements. They can go on online forums for support in their efforts, they can log onto a social media account and find hundreds of others asking for the same advice, and then they usually complain about how they don’t write enough on those same platforms. Writing is not always fun; not every moment is beautiful or hits the right note. It takes discipline to put aside everything in a writer’s life and work for the sake of content while striving for the best level of quality on their first go. To write well, one must write and write and write. To edit well, one must edit and edit and edit. In conjunction, those two skills unite under discipline and support a writer’s efforts to produce something meaningful.
Set A Goal:
Shooting for the objective of making readers cry or feel significant emotions is lofty and can take time. It’s an overarching goal encompassing several much smaller goals, which are all equally important. For example, Stephen King claims to write 2,000 words a day. I’ve been following that goal myself and have already written eighty pages worth of content after a little over a week. I wrote 2,000 words this morning and am over 1,000 by this point.
In short, a writer should make it their imperative to keep going and to continue far beyond simple discouragement. It matters not how they feel and only makes a difference when they keep writing. Of course, beta readers and editors always follow once this process is complete; however, most never even start the process. Every time a writer completes their word count, their discipline develops just a little more. Remember to sustain rather than give in to trepidation.
Remember to look forward, to mentally conjugate art into a tangible form rather than focus on what’s behind you. Besides, looking back is an entirely different mechanical process; it’s called editing.
© Josh B. M. Patrick
J. B. M. Patrick (born 1994) is a former EMT, an Army Veteran, and the author of Angelos Odyssey: Volume One. Visit his Amazon page here for the extended (and very colorful!) version of his author bio: https://www.amazon.com/J.-B.-M.-Patrick/e/B0755RD3LV/