As everybody knows, writers like to find ways to avoid writing. The standard cliché about this is that writers have the cleanest houses around. This isn’t actually true, however, because writers are also lazy so their avoidance mechanisms are more likely to include daytime television and internet surfing while their Polish cleaner hoovers in the background.
In any case, these kinds of easy to see distractions are small scale. The really big distractions are hiding in plain sight.
For literary writers the main big distraction is teaching. In the UK the real purpose of taking a degree in creative writing is not to produce novels, it’s to get work teaching how to write novels. Actual writing would be a distraction from the main distraction, both in terms of time and ideology. Literary creative writing teaching is all about encouraging students to spend long periods of time re-writing what they haven’t actually got round to writing yet. ‘Writing is re-writing’ they say. But this is not quite the truth. What they really mean is ‘Writing is a state of mind that promotes oneself as a writer which takes precedence over the production of actual writing; revision, contemplation, studying the masters, outlining, drafting are all non-writing activities but should take precedence’.
In the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror field, the big distraction is perhaps more subtle and possibly more effective. It encourages actual writing to an extent, but ensures that the writing never really improves. It’s called critiquing. In speculative fiction, it never stops. Right now, somewhere, probably in the USA but possibly also in the UK, a group of 15 or so writers are sitting in a circle, each taking two minutes to give a critique of a story by the author who has to sit and listen in silence. His fellows have read his story twice, made copious notes and now give him a summary. He listens intently, or at least makes sure he looks as if he is; then later he will go through all the notes and . . . well, in theory, improve his story. But remember that this process is really about avoiding writing. What actually happens in a critiquing circle for the most part is that views are split between positive and negative. Which is perfect for the author since it means he can split himself about his own story, which in turn allows him to spend several more months working on it. ‘Working’ as in letting it stew in the background while he gets on with those smaller scale distractions we mentioned earlier.
There are exceptions, of course, to both these scenarios. With literary types, there is the fiercely determined person who never intended to be a writer in the first place. They always wanted just to be a writing teacher, therefore they are in a sense being true to themselves. And there is the SF author who loves the idea of self-improvement, even if he never actually publishes anything. But these are of course rare.
The fly in both distraction ointments is, of course, the readers. Because they also have their avoidance mechanisms. Mostly, this takes the form of reading. Many people somehow believe that reading books is good for you. Any books. Not comic books, mind you – clue is in the name. But any other book is, apparently, the sign of an improving mind. This holds as true for someone reading (and understanding)’Finnegans Wake’ as for someone reading (and not understanding) ‘Fido the Farting Dragon’.
Reading may at one time have been about improving oneself, on the whole. But today it’s more about having one’s need to escape into repetitive reassuring mind mulch fulfilled. Which increases the dilemma of the avoiding writer. He used to be avoiding writing stuff that might change the world, but now he’s avoiding stuff that he should be able to bang out as quickly as it takes to read.
At least before, he was avoiding something important, profound and necessary. Now, he’s only putting off the puerile. Before, staring manfully at the ceiling with hands poised over the keyboard like a patient praying mantis was the sign of an existential struggle with the very fabric of meaningful fiction. Now, everyone knows it means he can’t even raise a dragon’s fart’s worth of hot and smelly fan-based air.
And this is the same for both literary and genre writers. Because no good literary fiction is produced much any more, the standards of what constitutes ‘literary’ have fallen considerably. Now, you can write voluminously about say the people who live down your street and as long either they’re middle class or you condescendingly describe them if they’re working class, and you make sure you use reasonably erudite, albeit half-dead, language you can, well, win the Booker. Which means literary fiction writing tutors who are more intelligent than the writers they now teach face a similar dilemma to the genre reluctant dragon fart inhalers. They need to dumb down their avoidance mechanisms.
There is an old saying: the intelligence of the avoidance mechanisms you adopt is governed by the intelligence or lack of it of the work you are avoiding. It’s one thing to avoid producing a musical on the level of ‘West Side Story’; quite another to be putting off producing something Lloyd-Webber might have dragon-farted into existence whenever his bank balance needing topping up a bit.
The only up-side to the drop in intelligence level of modern day avoidance mechanisms is that it may be better for your health. Avoiding literary fiction that rips into the very meaning of existence, or genre fiction which posits a future world in which all hope has been lost to the domination of corporate culture, inevitably pushes the writer into drink, drugs, despair and the need to let off intellectual steam in-between rounds at his local pub’s quiz night. Avoiding Fifty Shades of Shite, on the other hand, allows the author to happily join in with the pub quiz and completely forget he’s even supposed to be a writer by answering questions about other writers who are not shite.
It used to be said that you become what you think about. Today, a writer becomes what he avoids.