Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Writing Against the Odds

By Jon Chaisson
2003, Jon Chaisson


About a month ago the managers where I work calculated that we needed to ship out an immense load of product in a short amount of time. This meant that Mandatory Overtime was back in session, as it always is at this time of year.  Our hours were 4am to 2pm, all week long and including Saturday.  That came to six ten-hour days, or sixty hours.  That's great, considering how fat the paycheck's going to be, but this is a shipping department I work in.  Maintaining alertness during these marathon stretches and lifting an endless line of boxes of varying weights is a tremendous feat that very few can achieve on a daily basis.  On the third or fourth day, cognitive thought starts to fade in and out.  After two weeks, just getting to work on time is an accomplishment in itself.  This lasted for the better half of two months, with little reprieves here and there.

And still I wrote.

It was halfway through this stretch of inhuman work hours that my computer started behaving strangely.  It could have been a virus, it could have been an electrical surge, or it could have just been the natural aging process of technology.  After many wasted hours of virus scanning, debugging, reinstalling, and general pulling of hair, I still could not find the source of the problem.  Everything except Word worked, and the internet browser was slower than it should be.  I gave up Word and returned to my old beloved WordPad, where I'd written the first draft of my current project, ages ago.

And still I wrote.

Throughout these two ordeals, I managed to find the time and the energy -- what little there was of it -- and made sure I wrote something.  I may have come close to falling asleep at the monitor a few times, but I persevered.  Why?  Mainly because I've become so attuned to writing for two hours nearly every day that when I miss more than one day I start feeling agitated and guilty.  I could have given up and gone to bed early, or at least taken an afternoon nap.  Instead I came down to my writing nook and pounded away at the keyboard.

I admit that there were more days where I wrote one paragraph than days where I hit my thousand-word goal, but the mere fact that I was down here doing what I love doing no matter what makes me feel like I've accomplished something.  Even now, as I read over the weak prose and the strange ramblings that I produced during this time, I find gems hiding in there that need only the careful combing of the rewrite.  The fact that I wrote on some of the worst days of my writing career to date is testament to the fact that I really have dedicated myself to this craft, despite my occasional misgivings about my work.

This ordeal had shown me that there truly is an element of insanity in this field.  Ten years ago I would have gladly taken a month or two off from writing to focus my attentions on other things.  Writing just wasn't as big a concern to me then as it is now.  Then, it was more of a catharsis from the daily post-college drudgery of poverty, loneliness, and dissatisfaction in general.  Now it's an extension of myself.  I'm no longer an 'idea man' but a storyteller.  Storytelling takes a lot of time and energy.  It takes patience, perseverance, and a deep-seated love for the craft itself.  And if that's not insanity, I don't know what is.

And still I write...

So what would I suggest to you, dear reader?  Well, I certainly wouldn't suggest working in a fast-paced environment and catching four hours' sleep a night.  I wouldn't even suggest being as stubborn and ornery as I was those two months.  How can you be thrilled that you wrote when your total output for the evening tallies up to a ten-word sentence?  How can you look at what you've written when it didn't make all that much sense to begin with?

If you have heavily scheduled days like I did, I would immediately suggest taking two or three days off a week from writing.  Your brain doesn't need the extra abuse.  However, if you really think you can handle the work despite the odds, you're welcome to prove me wrong.  But this was an intense workout that only the determined, the insane, and the caffeinated could handle.  It's not for the weekend writer.  Don't push for the thousand word goal if you know you're not going to get anywhere near it.  Just write as much as you can within those two hours and be done with it.

Try not to juggle too many writing projects either, when you're writing during a hectic schedule.  Sometimes different plots get switched -- don't laugh, it's happened to me -- taking the story the exact opposite of where you want it to go.  I must have pulled myself out of at least a dozen potential pitfalls during these last few months, all because I was only half there.  If you need sleep that badly, by all means listen to your body.  I know I didn't, and I'm still paying for it.

On a brighter note, my hours have gone back to normal (but still with the occasional Saturday), I'm getting enough sleep, and I haven't gone into zombie mode at the computer for at least a week.  I still have the computer problems, but I'm getting by.  I no longer feel like I'm trying to squeeze in a session, knowing I won't get anything done.  I feel healthier and more rested, and my brain is back on track.

And the best thing?  I'm still writing.