I don't feel like writing. Does that mean I'm not a writer?

Every time I start to work on my second novel, an enormous laziness descends upon me.

Published February 26, 2007 12:04PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a young, talented writer. (You should know how much effort it took me to write that sentence without any auto-excuses built in.)

It took me a lot of time and courage to figure out that I was writer in the first place, since I have been struggling with a low self-esteem for a long time. But here I am, 31, knowing what I want to do, where I want to go.

I got my first book published in 2002, a youth novel, and it was received well. I got married and became a father, and I have a full-time day job now to support my wonderful family. And he lived happily ever after? No.

Since my first book got out, surprise surprise, I haven't been writing anymore. Plenty of ideas, but I just didn't manage to commit myself to it. When I met the young author David Mitchell last year, it was so inspiring that I started again. But three chapters into my second novel, I bailed out, stopped.

It is not that I'm stuck in the story I want to write; it still has plenty of energy. But whenever I even think of writing, I feel this huge laziness coming up, like some old man with a heavily sighing voice says, "I just don't feel like it." It looks like I need outside stimuli to write; the power to start working again does not come from the inside. Strange.

Am I lazy? Am I afraid of failing? Do I lack the discipline, the artistic urge, the necessity? Am I not a writer after all? Should I give up writing and learn to be happy without it? These questions drive me crazy sometimes.

I feel like the man in Kafka's "The Trial" now, the one who waits all his life before the doors of the courtroom of his trial but never really gets in. I feel stuck, standing still like this. I know that I could be happy if I gave up writing, but I know that I would be missing something, too. Does that make sense?

If we have a talent, are we obliged to develop it? Or are we free to not use it at all?


Dear G,

You know, to me it seems possible that all the dire things you imagine could be true, and you could still write. You might very well be lazy, afraid of failure and undisciplined and still write. You might lack the urge and still write. You might not be a writer and still write. After all, a writer is just someone who writes. If you're writing, you're writing. It's a verb.

It is also true -- now that we are at the task of arranging apparent contradictions in ingenious ways -- that you are both obliged to develop your talent and free not to develop it. That is, you are free to acknowledge but defy obligations; you are free to say no to obligations.

I personally do believe that, as a guide to right living, we do have an obligation to develop our talents. But this is largely a practical rather than a moral matter for me. I do not think so highly of myself as to assume that the world will be greatly improved by my contributions. But I have observed that mastery of a craft is personally satisfying, and that failure and frustration are not. So I stick to writing and music, and do not paint or draw.

You are free. That is the thing. You are free not to write if you so choose. But you are not alone. Your choices matter to others. And the choices of others matter to you. I say this by way of getting at this notion that your inspiration should come only from some tiny, esoteric writing gland behind your navel. As a writer, you are dependent on others. You could not have published your first book alone. Why should you believe that you can write without any external stimulus? If you need to meet with a writers group, enroll in a class, arrange with a mentor or writing friend to share work on agreed-upon deadlines, or if you need to work out a schedule of deadlines with your editor or agent, then please do so. This is often the case. The idea that a writer works only from inner inspiration is, I think, a bit of a romantic myth, rooted in the idea of writer as solitary and mysterious hero. The writer may be that, but he is also a person in a web of community, and he is also fallible. He may be lazy and unable to meet deadlines; he may be, as I am, fearful of completion. So there is nothing wrong with building into your life some structures that compensate for your weaknesses. We are not supermen. We all need a little help.

As to this interesting voice you hear, this heavy sighing, I will say, as I believe I've said before, that only after I did a short course of cognitive therapy did I realize that the voice I was hearing, the one that said "I can't write!" and "My writing sucks!" had an actual historical source, and that the veracity of that statement could be objectively weighed against the evidence.

It may be true that you don't feel like writing. You are probably working hard and have many duties as a father. So there will be times that you have to write even though you don't feel like it. In that sense, writing is like your other roles in life as a worker and a father and a husband: It requires you to do things you don't want to do.

You do it because that is your role. It's the only way you can get anything done.

I hope this is of some help. Good luck with the next book.

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