The other day, I wrote a chapter in which the words did not come easily. It was a first draft, and full of suckage. I had posted about this suckage on Facebook, but added this: “On the plus side, I wrote today.” It was worth celebrating.
A couple of days later, I wrote another chapter that I felt much better about, and celebrated that as well.
Suckage is part of the process. So is self-doubt. I don’t know any writer that doesn’t struggle with either at some stage of writing, be it a novel, essay, screenplay, you name it. Of course I’d like the words to flow easily and effortlessly all the time. But when it doesn’t, I take comfort knowing I can keep working on it until it’s as best as I can make it.
When my husband or I finish a first draft of a novel, we celebrate. Yes, there’s more work to be done, but hey, he wrote a novel! I wrote a novel! As writers, we created this thing from a thought, an idea, an inspiration, and manifested it in words. And now we each get to shape it, refine it, make it even better. The revision process is something we each look forward to.
A couple of weeks earlier, I came across a post by a writer who had also completed a first draft of a novel. To protect this person’s identity, I will use the non-descriptive “them,” “they,” or their” (even though it’s a singular person) and not use any direct quote. Instead, I will share some of the words they used in their post:
Overall, the post suggested that the accomplishment of writing a novel wasn’t as much an accomplishment as it was torturous experience.
I don’t mean to criticize or be judgmental of this author. Rather, I’m perplexed by the contrast of experience between them and me. Why is it that for some writers, the act is anything but joyful, a slog and a crapshoot and a burden of suffering, while for others, myself included, the process, even when arduous, is something to be celebrated? I couldn’t be a full-time writer if I didn’t enjoy it so much. And I believe I would be doing my readers a disservice if I brought such an attitude to the writing day in and day out.
I wonder if the former is the result of the mentality (and the myth) that artists must suffer for their art. In his book Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins dispels the myth that a writer, painter, musician, or any artist must suffer for his/her art, or that artists can’t make a living from their art. Moreover, while they’re actively working on making money from their art, artists can see “the day job” as a supporter of their art as opposed to an inhibitor of it (that last concept was an eye-opener to me!).
What is the payoff for the suffering that I saw in that writer’s post, evidenced by their word choice? Are they martyrs to their craft? Does it elicit some kind of reverence from laypeople who might find the writing process elusive, even romantic? I don’t mean to suggest that they are intentionally manipulating their readers for this response. Just a bit of amateur armchair psychology on my part. I’m always interested in what’s behind the behavior.
Or maybe they truly are suffering.
In his 2001 speech at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, Ray Bradbury said:
Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it.
And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.
I admit I’m an eternal optimist and an idealist. I have written several blog posts about how important it is for me to love what I do and do what I love, and to make a sustainable living doing so, be it writing or any other profession. I’ve even reached the point where I’m not clinging for dear life to that outcome. I also cop to wishing I could bottle my enthusiasm—whether it’s for writing, Duran Duran, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, or a beautiful fall getaway with my husband, to name a few—and giving it to everyone I know (and don’t know!). Who wouldn’t want to feel this good all the time?
I also don’t mean to be glib or naïve with this subject. Some artists, writers, etc. are making art as a means of expressing their pain, be it from depression, trauma, or injustice. I respect and honor that, and know that such conditions aren’t simply cured by “think happy thoughts.” However, generally speaking, if anyone is going to spend most of their waking moments at work, I just can’t see any other means of getting through it other than joyfully. In this context, joy isn’t necessarily synonymous with feel-good, happy-go-lucky. Writing can definitely be difficult. Stressful. Doubt-inducing. It can leave the writer vulnerable to criticism and pressure. But before, after, and even during those things, there can also be accomplishment. Celebration. Satisfaction.
I’ve never heard my husband refer to his novels as meeting his standards of quality. I have heard him, however, say he was proud of every novel he wrote, regardless of how it sold. He wrote the stories he wanted to tell, he told them to the best of his ability, and loved what he wrote.
That is what I aspire to with every novel I write, and what I wish for all writers.