A Duel Upon the Razor’s Edge: The Dangers of Zoning In

Apathy. For a writer, it seems like the worst thing that can possibly happen to you, a simple dysfunctional inability to engage in your own story, your own words. But sooner or later, all of us experience its opposite- a state that starts with utter keenness and a limitless rush of new ideas, and ends at 5:17 on a Tuesday (AM or PM? It’s impossible to tell by this point) writing an inexplicable assault on writers who died decades before you were born.

This frame of mind I refer to is nothing bad, if you control it, but if you don’t its powers of addiction border on those of actual drugs. It’s simply the somewhat Zen-like state every artist achieves from time to time, what most people call simply ‘the Zone’ or something like that. Here’s the thing, if you pay attention to what zoning is actually used for in the real world, you’ll note that it tends to pop up a lot in connection with things we don’t like. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, for example. That’s not a place I plan on visiting anytime before reaching my deathbed. So, not at all. To use a more balanced analogy, think of city zoning- when you want to eat or buy something, go to the commercial districts, and when you want to sleep, go home to your bed. The reason this particular zone is so hard to work with is that it exists only in your mind. Hitting the Zone for the first time makes you absolutely ecstatic- the way all the words just seem to materialize from the ether when writing, or how every line comes out just the way you wanted it when painting.

But sooner or later- and believe me, it’s usually sooner- there’s a point of no return. This is the point to start cutting yourself off from the Zone, restricting yourself so a good thing doesn’t go bad, much like ice cream will go rotten if you leave it sitting in the sink for easier access, rather than the freezer so you can keep eating it when it’s best. If you don’t do this, pretty soon you won’t be aware enough of what your normal is to return to it. It’s been over a year now since I let the Zone take over my entire body, but here’s an effective summary of how it progressed. At the beginning, I decided to sit down and really do some serious drafting on my future fantasy novel, so I could maybe start looking at publishing it. I found a starting point and just got going- and then, strangely, I never ran into Writer’s Block. That, of course, filled me with such moronic giddiness that I stopped paying attention to time. From half an hour, I went to one hour of writing a day. An hour is good, but two is better, so two is where I went next; I’d say six is the maximum I should do (your numbers may vary), and that with an hour-long break to let me recharge a bit.

Naturally, I didn’t stick to that maximum. One hour became two. Two became five. Within a week, I was going to bed at midnight only to rise at 4 AM and keep right on running myself into the ground, which hurt all the more since I started so very high up. I should’ve stopped there, but by now I was so far into the Zone that I genuinely believed I no longer needed as much sleep as I used to. Four hours was plenty, and more than that was virtual Sloth! As for meals, I took them when they came, but I certainly didn’t seek them out- and who needs breaks? What kind of pitiable wussbag are you, anyhow? That was more or less how I started addressing myself, and the natural next step after losing all restraint in how I thought about things was a sudden, vicious and wholly unprovoked attack on the legacy of Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because he wrote realistic Fiction, and I write Fantasy, and that’s all the reason my barely-cogent psyche needed at that point; I even completely forgot all the legitimate criticisms I can make about his style, and why it strikes me as too reserved! Afterwards, I started to understand why it is that officers in the military can make such transparently moronic decisions when caught between an adrenaline high, total lack of sleep and an onrushing enemy armor division. The only thing more powerful than fear is total incoherence, which is why drunk people are sometimes mistaken for new-age Samurai-where ignoring death is concerned, that is.

Now, the other thing about the Zone is this: equally terrible to its beginning is its end. Once I finally realized just how insane I’d become, how badly I needed to sleep- the way my carotids seemed to punch the sides of my skull and my eyes wanted to implode were good indicators- that’s all I did for a while, using August for recovery just as I’d used July to experiment in killing myself extremely slowly. Then, having rid myself of my horrific addiction, I stopped writing for fully half a year, and that’s probably the worst part of this whole thing- your very passion for your art can, like the most malicious of figurative alchemists, turn itself into a near phobia of using your talent. If we were dealing with anything physical, anything that existed outside our heads in a way we can touch (although when you’ve been on four hours of sleep for a full month, you might start to think you can touch your conscious!) then I would immediately call bullshit on this. Good things are not supposed to morph into bad things on their own. Stop doing that, damn it! Although if my old essays decide to turn into large piles of newly-minted and somehow totally legal $10,000 bills, I certainly won’t complain. But bad into good isn’t so helpfully common.

As with everything else, using the Zone without letting it use you takes time, practice, and someone to slug you if you start bobbing too eagerly to the Sirens’ hymn. That someone can be yourself, but yourself better train first before you try to rely too much on you. Whatever you do, don’t ever start altering your sleeping habits to give you more time to write. Sure, you’ll write more. That doesn’t mean it’s good. For the same reason, don’t take drugs to enhance your creativity. Some of the stuff you think of while high (actually, I’m willing to wager most) is just plain crappy. Unless you’re writing existential horror. In that case, I advise you to truly go nuts. After all, a hallucinogen a day keeps Cthulu in the bay.

I probably deserve a zombie-fodder character’s death in The Walking Dead for that one.

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