How to Be a Guerrilla Writer

There is a strange mysticism around the creative arts – albeit one that has been slowly eroded by works such as On Writing, The War of Art, Stein on Writing, and many others. The traditional idea is that creativity is a mysterious force, and that artists are damaged madmen who are able to think and see on some other plane and connect with this force. They are compelled to write, yet sometimes the words ‘just don’t come’ or the muse is absent, or they can only write when they have achieved the perfect state of mind, brought on by a mixture of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and sleep deprivation.

I think most reading this have been enlightened beyond such ideas by the aforementioned books. No one can argue that Stephen King, writing two thousand words every day no matter what, ever waits for the muse, and Ramsey Campbell is at the keyboard at six every morning – no inspiration needed.

Still, there are some things even us jaded anti-musing, vomit-drafting, regular-producing folks will not do. For me in the past there have been certain conditions under which I won’t write. If my laptop breaks, for example. If I’m on holiday and between novels. If I don’t have ‘enough’ time.

Your own hang ups might be different: maybe you only write in the morning, or only late at night. Maybe you only write longhand, or only by keyboard. Or only in public places, or never, or only with music, or never. You see my point. Such conditions are not conducive to the creative process! you cry. I will never produce anything of value in the midst of such chaos!

But I thought we agreed earlier that ‘the creative process’ is nothing more than the act of creation itself. Isn’t that the whole point of not being afraid to write bad work, and to write as frequently as possible regardless of how you ‘feel’ at any given time?

The trick, my friend, lies in the art of Guerrilla writing.

In your element, under ideal conditions, you are the most effective soldier. Your gun is clean and fully loaded, your uniform spotless, your physical body at peak fitness. You can kill a lot of bad guys that way, but the problem is if you only train under such conditions, you’ll get eaten alive in short order as soon as you’re dropped in the jungle.

No, the best kind of writer is the guerrilla writer. You want to be like Rambo, able to disappear into the roughest of environments and subsist indefinitely as if you’d lived there all your life. Not only can you survive in the jungle, you can become part of it, thrive in it, even.

But before I get lost in my own analogy, allow me to demonstrate.

Not long ago, a couple of things aligned in my life that made me aware of this concept. The first occurred only in my mind, as I was pondering the concept of the Ideal Horror Writer. Who would this person be, I wondered, and what would he or she do? While I was contemplating this, I lost the use of my trusty laptop, ten hours a week of free time – which was scarce to begin with – and I completely ran out of story ideas.

Ordinarily, any one of these would have put an enormous dent in my productivity for at least a month or until I could figure out a way around the problem, but all three? No one could blame me for taking a little time off to regroup, right? And I would have, except…

Except I was bothered by that idea of the perfect writer. Would someone like that accept my decision? Surely not – they would be capable of working under any conditions! If I was that perfect version of myself, that highest conceivable standard, wouldn’t I be able to seal off the world at will, find the nearest available tools, and conjure at least the seed of an idea – enough to start?

Yes, I decided. I would. After all, if I had a gun to my head with the trigger primed to pull at midnight if I had not arrived at my daily word quota, I’m pretty damn certain I could do it, even if the result had to function as a first draft of a story.

Once I understood this, the way forward was simple – after all, the only way to be able to do something is to start doing it. If you’re a bad snowboarder, there’s only one way to become a good snowboarder: Snowboard. Some things don’t fall under this rule, I know. Practice being ten years younger all you want, it won’t take a minute off your life. But experience has taught me that most people vastly underestimate how many things do follow this rule, and I suspected that on-demand creativity was one of these.

Therefore, to become a guerrilla writer – the kind unfazed by exploding laptops, public places, mental exhaustion, breaks in routine, and all the rest… I would have to start pretending that I already was one.

And so, over the course of that one month, I wrote. I wrote tired. I wrote longhand, on sheets of paper taken from someone else’s printer with someone else’s pen. I wrote with only the flimsiest premises in mind and followed them wherever they took me, abandoning many projects along the way but taking an element from each until – lo and behold – I found myself writing an actual idea. I wrote late at night and early in the morning and in between; hungry, thirsty, drunk, caffeinated, in rooms with people, by myself, with music or movies playing in the background, and in the dead quiet of midnight.

I fought in all weathers, and I improvised with what I had. I had to use strategy – whatever it took to win the war, in other words, which is after all the ultimate goal of any guerrilla soldier.

But the big question remains: what did I learn?

You probably won’t like the answer. Most people don’t like simple truths, and for good reason: They already know what it is, and they haven’t been acting on it. That’s why.

So here is the truth: If you want to be able to do something, you have to just do it, over and over again. Then you can do it.

Do you want to be able to focus your mind in the space of a few minutes and smash out a hundred words of acceptable (relatively) quality, in between work shifts? Then you just have to start doing it. You have to act as though you already have that ability, and in the doing of the action you will attain it.

The famous soccer player Pele said: ‘Everything is Practice’, and I found the words returning to me every time I sat down to write. When I wrote under time pressure, I was practicing writing under time pressure. Keep in mind, however, that when Pele said ‘Everything’ that means negatives as well as positives. So, every time you decide not to write because of some circumstance, you are also practicing not writing. Every time you allow yourself to become distracted, you are practicing becoming distracted.

I found, soon enough, that by forcing myself to adhere to this brutal regime of guerrilla writing, not only was the quality of my writing improving under the circumstances, it was also becoming less hard (I don’t want to say easy) to begin. Suddenly the idea of writing longhand on scrap paper with no idea of how to start and less than thirty minutes available was automatic – a prospect I would have dismissed in the past. Impossible, I’d have said, I can’t work under such conditions. I’ll hardly get anything done, and what I do finish will be dogshit.

Which brings me to another thing I learned: it is entirely possible that even under the least hospitable circumstances/mental and physical states/whatever other confounding factors there may be – you can produce work that is just as high quality as if everything had all been in your favour.

Of course, ideal conditions are still best. But the good thing about being a skilled guerrilla writer is that you’re just as good – if not better – in ideal conditions as you were before. Plus, if the shit really hits the fan? You can shrug your shoulders, slather some mud across your war-mad face, and start killing.

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