Dearest Blogmaker (or else P in thy stead),
I was recently handed (electronically: hands) a copy of your essay/post/admonition on the writing life, wherein you call upon all would-be-writers (including yourself) to write every day & otherwise stop complaining about how hard it is or making excuses for being a “hobbyist” rather than a “writer.” & while I applaud & even take lesson from the ever-necessary spur toward focused & disciplined attention to craft, I also felt somewhat discouraged by what I took (& upon re-glance continue to take) as an incredibly narrow view (or at least a narrowly expressed view) of what it means to “be a writer.” I think that rather than encourage artists, yours is a message that preaches to the choir, mainly. That “work” need not be pejorative,—as you point out—I think you’d be hard pressed to find a writer who would (at least in sober moments) disagree. Still, the expression that “it feels too much like work,” persists, & I think it behooves those who write much (& who think about how to encourage other writers) to do so with an ounce or two of empathy toward the indignities & obstacles toward process & with a mind to benefit others by one’s experience & inso-doing, provide some potential framework for application.
A conversation between writers:
1: It’s hard to write every day.
2: Who cares. Do it!
(Is actually a great bit of advice. My problem comes in when it goes further into the “who cares” of 2:)
1: I know, I know, I know I really should, but I get distracted & when I think about sitting down to write again & again & again, it feels monotonous & dull & repetitive & unproductive, just like I’ve felt at other jobs where I didn’t feel I was being challenged or that the work we did was really rather stupid & unsatisfying.
2: Hard work is good for you. If you don’t want to do the work, don’t call yourself a writer.(Presumably 2 gets to say who is & isn’t “a writer”)
1: Yeah, you’re right. I should just try harder then, so I won’t be just a hobbyist.(Unfortunately, 1 never actually figures out how to live up to the standard,or, maybe she does, or maybe not, who knows? My experience is that the 1 on this end of the conversation continues feeling guilty about her craft. Even writing two or three days a week, since it is not enough, fills her with doubt & dread & there she stews forever & ever. Or if she does make it to daily practice, new bars will be set for how to feel like she is not quite good enough to call herself writer. The problem is—as I see it—that she begins with a feeling of deficiency, so her actions will always be in service of erasing the deficiency, which becomes habitual & material to her process, such that no amount of beating herself up over what she is not doing will ever lead to a feeling of satisfaction in her work. It can only ever lead to more action in this service, more feelings of this kind).
In praise & furtherance of call to daily discipline (& then I hope I shall nuance away into other areas of concern):
In the opening of his 1906 address to the American Philosophical Association, noted physiological psychologist, William James, related the following regarding the “energies of men:”
On usual occasions we make practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the first effective layer
(so to call it) of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked ‘enough,’ so we desist. That amount of fatigue
is an efficacious obstruction on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, & we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed.
He is, of course, describing the phenomenon of “second wind,” with which most are likely familiar, & it is precisely the determination to press into a difficult labor without giving in to desires to let up that is more than likely to break down a person’s resistances & allow them to open into ever-expansive realms of what it even means to “do one’s work.” I find this point & your point about hard work to be somewhat two sides of the same coin—or, rather maybe even, the same side of the same coin, excepting that you mention that “when telling a story stops being fun, uninstall your word processor & find another way of filling your time,” explaining that if writing isn’t fun, it means you’re thinking about the wrong things. But, of course, in the process of any intensive labor, especially one such as writing, which, at many odd times, requires a writer to be engaged in any manner of unpleasant plumbing of the depths of her own dark psyche & the strange violent hearts of humans, sometimes this isn’t fun at all. It might, however, be necessary. Necessary for the story, perhaps. Necessary for the writer, likely. Necessary for the human being who is doing the writing, absolutely. These kinds of necessary obstacles can certainly leave a person pacing around the study/kitchen/neighborhood/America/&cet., leaving the page untouched for quite a number of days, perhaps questioning self at first, “how do I get in there & speak truth?” perhaps avoiding truth as it feels too big, too real, too unruly, perhaps deciding never to return. In this case, I would feel justified in admonishing anyone who calls this person lazy, who stood before the looming wave & decided, you know what, that thing might kill me. I would only ever think it wise to encourage them with expressions about loss & grief & infinitely listable difficulties—most human in nature & always relatable—that the wave is (almost) never as bad as the fear of the wave. Sure, it might knock a person down & hold ‘em under a while, but it eventually subsides & when I’ve decided to allow such a wave, rather than resist it or struggle in its midst, I’ve found the experience remarkable & freeing & incredibly creative in nature. I’d rather relate this experience than judge another over her own: un-name her.
Well, perhaps dealing with demons is not the problem for some. Perhaps it is this feeling of “being a writer.” Which, as I’ve sat with your words, seems inextricably linked to the selling of one’s writing—a business, “so get over it.” First, I find your claim that selling writing is business to be absolutely correct. No arguing that selling isn’t business. It’s also—even grammatically, within your claim—not writing. You have to name the two acts separately. Writing. Selling. You can be a writer without being a salesman. It’s tougher to earn a living as a writer that way, but there are also benefits. If you’re not worried about basing your income off your writing, you’re also not bending your work to the gravity of a marketplace—which some don’t have to do: some love to tell stories in such a way that perfectly in-tunes with the desired “product,” but others find their sincerest craftsmanship & honest expression to be anathema to concerns of the market; in which case I’d refer them to a teacher of mine who was fond of saying, “if you want to be a poet, you’d better be good at working with your hands,” meaning, you’ll have to make your money somewhere else. Most writers don’t make money from their writing. Journalists, yes. Very successful novelists & writers of non-fiction books, yes. But most of the rest of the writers who even sustain on moneys made surrounding writing are not making money selling writing. They are making money on hit-counts & advertising. They’re making money teaching writing. They are making money selling ideas. The time a writer spends writing doesn’t pay most writers. Are these folks not writers?—Goodness, this is something of a digression(so I’ll disengage), but it leads me to my point about IDENTITY as a writer.
Question: What makes a person “a writer?”
It seems to me the criteria your short piece puts forward are 2-fold:
- That she writes consistently.
- That she sells her writing.
I’ve already shared my views on selling writing, which are admittedly very arguable, so let’s look at consistency. I wouldn’t dream of holding the blog’s author responsible for comments on his thread. However, there is one comment I’d like to look at in beginning this thought: A commenter identified as Martha Simons writes: “Spending five hours once a week on a working project isn’t nearly as valuable as spending one hour per day for five days straight.” This does seem in keeping with your definition of consistency & I have no problem accepting that it’s better to have a daily practice than to not. It keeps one responsible & in-tune (so to speak) & like any exercise regimen, it’s good for mind & body to not sit idle for great periods of time, so as to make one sluggish or affect atrophy of one sort or another respecting one’s readiness or capacity to produce the desired result. I personally write every day. I would never say that I write seven days a week, because what does that even mean? Every day is every day. Weeks stop holding meaning. The sun comes up & it’s time to write. The moon shows up & it’s time to write. I understand the benefits. But, what is more valuable to a project?—Spending just enough time every day to get a little ways into a thought, or deciding to spend the whole day immersed in the thought?
Allen Ginsberg somewhere said that
If you walk down the street, in New York, for a few blocks you get this gargantuan feeling of buildings & if you walk all day you’ll be on the verge of tears. But you have to walk all day to get that sensation. What I mean is, if you write all day you’ll get into it, into your body, into your feelings, into your consciousness.
He also said that he made most of his work little by little, bit by bit, “diddling around.” So, in light of Ginsberg’s perspective, it seems it’s all valuable. The more the better. I’m sure we’re agreed on this. But at what point do I call you NOT a writer? If you write every day, but only “diddle” & don’t spend full days writing, are you a writer? What if you only spend rare full days, but never diddle. Are you a writer? What if you write all day every day & never publish a word (& this has been known to happen)? Writer?
Since the question is not, “are you writing? & how is that going?” or “are you in a healthy relationship with your creative nature? & what can I learn from your answer & what can you learn from hearing yourself give your answer?”—but, instead, seems to be, “are you living up to my external standards or your impossible standards for what a writer must do to be awarded the name “writer,” then it seems the mantle itself is, in this way, entirely too problematic to worry anything about. So, then, let’s do the natural thing & correct our phrasing: Rather than “are you a writer?” we’ll ask “are you consistently writing?”
What counts as writing?
I’d like to assume that all recognized aspects of “the writing process” are included in an assessment of whether a person is writing or not, such that if one is freewriting or brainstorming or involved in “discovery” in some way, or if one is editing or revising or reading one’s work aloud to oneself, these activities count as an act of writing, & not just the act of drafting—such that the movement of one’s hand with pen or typewriter or keyboard while making letters to make words to make statements to make poems or narratives is not the only activity considered writing. I would like to assume this & so I will—& I think this distinction becomes important as to how we might respond when fellow writers “complain” about the difficulties in their processes—but then if I assume this entire-process-based understanding of what counts as writing, more questions begin to ask themselves:
What if I have my eyes cast at the ceiling, waiting several minutes for a word that wants to come?
-is ceiling-time also considered writing-time?
What if I’m stuck on a sequence & decide to take a walk to refresh my approach?
-is walking-time not considered writing-time?
What if I’ve been writing every day for three or four years & finally reach a point where no more words are coming out of me, & I sit in silence during my writing hours & stare blankly out the window for a month or two?
-is fallow time also writing time?
What if I decide I need to understand something about love that I don’t already understand, & I embark on a ridiculous adventure in love & have my heart busted into its many various smithereens; I write no words on this adventure, but upon its completion, I return to my desk & begin to make words happen?
-is the seeking of experience not to be counted as writing?
& if I find all of these fallow, resistant, drifting, seeking moments to, yes, count as writing, what, if anything is there left not to count?
A conversation with another writer about what they’re working on?
A glass of bourbon & a little jazz?
A day in bed, depressed, staring into the abyss?
Don’t writers do these things? Don’t they do them “as writers?”
Don’t writers share their doubts with one another?
I think what I’m after here is trying to figure out what gives writing its sense of continuity in the life of one who would be named as such. & I think where I’m concluding for the moment is that it’s best worked out between the writer & his own self. I can make myself feel better by calling someone a hobbyist, if I want to. I don’t have to. But I can.
Your words: “stop telling me about it. I’m not going to help you justify your laziness, your pampered life, your disappointment…” By all means, please, if you feel that your interactions with others are not being helpful to them (nor yourself), I think it very wise on your part to disengage from that conversation, at least until you find a way to feel more constructive with them.
It’s interesting to me that your piece indicates that you conducted further inquiry before arriving at the decision to admonish others for telling you about it. Not to say you can’t change your mind once you’ve heard the answer, but it does seem you opened the box. Maybe this is you trying to close that box back up again after learning what’s inside is pretty stupid & incessant & wearying to you. That’s perfectly relatable. A defensible course of action.
I’m not sure how much I trust a writer who says she isn’t writing, though. I have gone periods claiming that I’m not writing, only to find that I in fact WAS writing, that I DO have some tangible proof to show for it, & that mainly my problem was not that I wasn’t writing, but that I was immersed in doubt of my process to the point of denying I was engaged in it. This can be a long, protracted engagement for any writer: the wrestle with doubt; the echo-chamber of horrors; the internalizing of all those outward voices & externalizing of the inward voices that tell you “you’re no writer.” I have found in my engagement with other writers, no shortage of messaging in their lives & in their heads, belittling them for not being writer enough. Personally, I want to see more building-up & showing writers how to forgive their processes in order to move forward in them—less beating-up & chastising.
Anne Waldman once stood before an auditorium of aspiring/accomplished writers & said, “no one ever asked you to be a poet.” I found this heartening & inspiring in that way of encouraging hard work & self-determination—in line with your “you won’t be missed if you stop,” line. It’s asking an individual to take responsibility for his own engagement, to work as hard as he needs to, to find within himself the reserve to never quit. Then, later, a poet stood in front of many of the same writers & corrected the omission. “No one ever asked you to be a poet,” he said, “Also, I’m asking you to be a poet. Please be a poet! We need poets so badly.” & I found it inspiring in that way of seeking from the outside-in the inside-outs of those who might not see the value they possess for a world that seems always pretty cold towards them.
“I can’t do it,”
while admittedly silly & illusory, is nonetheless a daunting obstacle that comes from a variety of different spaces. Adding to that noise & reaffirming a person’s self-doubt is easy to do. It’s comfortable. Maybe it feeds my sense of “things as they ought to be,” “putting people in their places,”—for myself or for their own good or what-have-you. But it doesn’t feel very helpful when I consider it. Maybe it’s good-natured chiding. I’ll try & buy that:
I noticed another comment on your thread, thanking you for your advice (which he says he usually follows), so there you go. I want to chime in after him & thank you for placing your thoughts into the stream to be mulled-over & considered by other writers. It’s not any easy thing to do, for sure. & although I find myself in disagreement with the conclusion you reached, I am glad for the opportunity to clarify my own thinking on the matter, which I might not have done without your challenge. Honest conversation can usually be useful, yes?
Now’s the time I’ll admit to not having read any of your other posts & to express my intention to do so.
Yours in Words,