Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Blood on the page.

I think this is important. Sit down. I want to take my time with this.

Remember these classic writing quotes?
Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
~ Gene Fowler
There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
~ Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

I'm starting to believe that these quotes are being widely and wildly misunderstood. I'm starting to think that some people think the meaning behind these quotes is, "Writing is easy, if only you give enough of yourself, you special creative creature, you." Art is suffering, isn't it all so terribly romantic, let us melt together, we unique snowflakes.

Unfortunately, I am also of the firm belief that these writers meant the exact opposite. Don't get lost in the clever language, it's actually just self-deprecating sarcasm. What they are really saying is, "I have to sit in front of this blank page to write, and it's hard for me, even though I know it's a lot easier than a million other jobs out there." And, "I have to be brutally honest when I write, and it's hard for me, even though I know it's a lot easier than a million other jobs out there."

A really good book is a thing of beauty. A book that resonates with you can change your whole world. Even a lousy book can be a lot of fun. But being a writer? It can be a thing of beauty, it can be special and magic... but it's also a job. Just a job. You have to be professional and do the work.

Let's be clear. Being professional and doing the work is hard. And not everyone is talented enough or lucky enough or persistent enough (or the-appropriate-yet-variable-combination-of-all-three enough) to "do the work" well enough to succeed on the scale to which they aspire. Just like not every high school student gets into the college of his or her choice, just like not every lawyer made law review, just like not every talented-and-persistent-and-professional person is employed right now.

But I personally think this is rather liberating -- There's nothing inherently special about writers and artists unless you do the work and do it on time and do it well.
The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life and one is as good as the other.
~ Ernest Hemingway

Maybe you suffer. Maybe you get lucky. But know that you're not a better or more important writer if you bleed. Maybe it seems more romantic and sexy to be emotionally wrung out by the power of your own words, to wait for the magic moments of inspiration, to be a fragile artistic flower in need of just the right sunlight and water.

But some writers -- some very good writers -- just have fun. This year, I choose to skip the drama. I choose to be healthy and productive. I choose to make my own sun and water instead of waiting for it to arrive from some mysterious outside place.

Do the work. Get it on paper. Be professional. That's all.

Here are the real secrets:
  • You don't need permission from anyone else to write. In fact, you should be really, really careful about how and from whom you seek permission and encouragement. It's giving away power that you should be keeping for yourself.

  • Similarly, you are the only one in the world who can kill your dream. Insecurity, lack of discipline, fear of failure, lack of professionalism, impatience... that's up to you to overcome. It's not up to anyone else, no matter what they say. Getting the approval of an agent / editor / family member / literary critic / published author / mentor won't be the thing that makes you better. And thank god for that, because it also means that it doesn't make you worse when the approval of those people isn't forthcoming.

  • Words are like blood in one way: you can make more.
Writing is hard. So is every other job that uses your brain. Don't be romantic about it. Be determined. If it's what you want to do, sit down and write. And when it gets hard? Remember that you chose this. And unless you want to quit, it's up to you to choose it again and again and again until the job is done.

Otherwise, there are a million other jobs out there...


  1. This post felt like one giant hug of support & smart advice. Thank you for saying it so eloquently.

  2. Great post and quotes. And what you said of not waiting for the magic moments of inspiration reminded me of this quote from Tom Waits: "I don't usually wait for the muse - I usually go out there with a shotgun and a mean dog."

    I wish you a year of walking a very mean dog and enjoying every step and stumble, wherever the hell it leads.

  3. Well said. Do we choose writing or does writing choose us? I don't know--I just write because I like to and I figure the more I write, the better I'll become at writing, and the more likely some of my writing will stick somewhere because I've been tossing it out there.

    Tossing It Out