Resetting my writing expectations for myself, Asimov style

Writing has been hard these last few months. The interest is there, the stories continue to bubble and steam in my head, but the effort to take that next step and actually write has been lagging. The last week has seen a dramatic improvement – about 10k words so far this month – but it has been a struggle.

When I was younger (all of a year ago), time was easily manipulated. Balancing work, family, interests, and writing seemed trivial. Then I went from being able to write one to two thousand words a day to the struggle of writing any words. Despite the fact that I’ve had two sales in the last 12 months (and that’s two more than ever), I find my own self doubts creeping in and taking hold. It’s a self defeating cycle, I realize – I don’t feel like I’m writing enough or well enough, which causes me to not write, making the original statement true.

But I remember when it wasn’t always this way. I remember years where I wrote novels and short stories as if they were being transmitted from some future repository, to be deposited in my chicken scratch handwriting and poorly pecked typing. A writer I considered a big influence back then was Isaac Asimov, who wrote both some great (classic) science fiction as well as an overwhelming number of nonfiction books. Looking at how prolific he was, I could only assume he spent his entire writing career producing words.

I mention Asimov in particular because he’s shown up in a variety of places in my feeds lately. First, an older Zen Pencils popped up, drawn around a quote from Asimov about always being a learner. The same day, a Medium article by Charles Chu about “How to Never Run Out of Ideas Again” appeared in my feed. Wow, two Asimov quotes in a day? And then Alvaro Zinos-Amaro – who I was introduced to because of a blog post I made about Asimov’s reading habits – popped up with a link back to my blog on in his “Asimov Reads Again,” a more thoroughly researched and well written version of my notion.

Referenced a few times in the above was Asimov’s posthumously published It’s Been A Good Life. I tried reading this title once before, but at the time found it to be a weak compilation of snippets from other sources and said as much in my Goodreads review. Now older and wiser (I guess?), I recognize that most of my issues with the book are formatting. To put it simply, it was poorly digitized, and it shows. Sentences that in the print edition were bridged for space with –‘s are in the e-book smooshed back together again, with the — intact. Ack. The book itslef was intended as a collection of letters and commentary/quotes from Asimov, grouped together in chapters by subject. But what in the print edition would have been smooth breaks between fragments in each chapter are lost, making each chapter look like one continuous passage. That in turn makes the reading disjointed, since it’s hard to tell where one fragment ends and the next begins visually.

Mechanics aside, though, I have found there to be some good advice distilled in these fragments. Indeed, most of my previous assumptions have all been proven wrong. Asimov struggled to write, just like the rest of us. During the early part of his career, not only was rejection as often as success, but there are surprising gaps between stories. As I read this, I learned that he would go as long as a year between writing stories. I also found it reassuring that if he got stuck on a piece, he would set it aside and work on something else. His goal (at least later) was to always be writing, but not to let himself get stuck on a story he couldn’t write at that moment.

Lightbulbs went off. Not because I feel the need to model myself after Asimov, but because it was reassuring to see that even a giant went through the same pains. He didn’t give up, he just set it aside and came back later.

Now I find myself taking some of the same lessons I use at work and considering how to apply them to my writing. At work, if a problem is insurmountable, and I have no way of tackling it, I take a step back. I tackle something smaller and trivial, something I can manage without any effort. Partly to get it off my list, and partly because it lets my brain brood over the larger problem while my hands are busy typing at the mundane.

So too should my writing be, I think. If a story, or these days novel, is giving me trouble, don’t box the whole thing up and call it lost. Set it aside and work on something else while the brain does its magic. That brain has gotten me this far, I bet it can get me a little bit further if I let it.

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