The Need For Arbitrary Constraints
By John Leavitt
I’ve given myself the time it takes to drink an Asahi Tall Boy to write this essay. Arbitrary constraints are important.
Why are they important? Cause without arbitrary constraints I’d get nothing done. Nothing. I am a lazy summofa bitch and without a deadline or social pressure, I end up excelling in the art of nothing.
This causes guilt, for which I blame the Protestants, but that’s another story.
When I do get a deadline, real or otherwise, I can get to work. Now how I get to work isn’t how you should get to work. There is no one magic way to write. My “organization” consists of a pile of notebooks and stacks of reference material and re-everything I own that even vaguely relates to the project and become inspired (read: steal) structures, devices, or plot lines I find interesting. Because I work mostly in graphic novels and comic books, I start every story with thumbnails. How many pages I have, how much information I can put in, when to include big motions or when to scale it down, Expanded vs. Condensed narrative, I love shit like that. I do the same with prose, writing down arcs and points of Big Emotions and What Does The Audience Think Now and anything else I want to make sure I include.
But it doesn’t actually make you write it down. It doesn’t actually make you turn all those notes and outlines and sketches into words and sentences and paragraphs. That’s the hard part. The part where you start sweating and doing jumping jacks and developing really involved hobbies. You should see my bathroom: spotless. And then, if you’re me, you start hating yourself.
The guilt of not writing was making me not write. Self-imposed constipation. Utter bone-chilling fear. I thought I wrote things cause I liked to write things and I love comics. I thought this was *fun*.
The guilty blocked confused haze? Not fun.
The only advice that ever seems to work is to just. keep. writing. Hell, keep rewriting. What if you tried another viewpoint? What if it’s funny? What kind of story do you *really* want to tell? This is where other people come in.
For all my self-professed hermitage, writing is a social activity. Storytelling is a social activity. Stories *should* be talked about, at length, with people you trust and respect. A fresh pair of eyes is more precious than gold. Grab your thumbnails and drafts and doodles and have your friends or betters rip them apart and paste them back together. Be liberal with your literary masochism. You’ll thank them for it. You’re not alone, we’re all in this cloud of doubt and insecurity together. But having other people to talk to about writing or comic books or the proper panel sequence can mean the difference between finishing a book and drinking shoe polish.
Just don’t talk so much you never get to the whole letters-turn-into-words-turn-into-sentences-thing. Minimum daily word lengths can help, but I just go with naked fear of being a never-was rather than a has-been. Seems to work. So far.
P.S. Beer not done. The internet and its multi-armed ilk are excellent for getting feedback, not so much for getting shit done. I have personally broken more than one wireless router.
About the author:
John Leavitt is a cartoonist, writer, illustrator, and a libra. His cartoons and illustrations have appeared in: The New Yorker, The Chronicle Review, The New York Press, The Common Review, The Journal Of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Narrative Magazine. He has written for MARVEL comics and written two books with Molly Crabapple.
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