Today, as sometimes happens, I’ve been stumbling, unbidden, on writing posts on a theme.
First, J.H. Moncrieff on the problems of writers telling one another that “Writers write”: “If nothing has ever stopped you from writing, you’re very, very lucky. You’re also a rarity.”
Then, Terri Windling on hard times and some of the reasons writers don’t write: “For those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art and when that discipline fails us, when the fire’s been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do? I wish I had an easy answer to that question … or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire …”
Even though I’m writing consistently right now, I’ve been in both these places. I think most of us have, though I think most of us also hesitate to say so.
Then, after reading both those posts, I stumbled upon an old never-shared post of mine on the problems of ignoring all of the above when dispensing writing advice. So since the universe seems to be telling me to talk about this today (and was, perhaps, telling me to wait when I set this post aside months and months ago for reasons I no longer clearly remember), I’m adding this post to the conversation now.
Over on facebook, I recently (not so recently now) posted the following:
I used to think writing was entirely about being determined enough and wanting it badly enough to put one’s butt in the chair and do the work. Now I get that it’s also about sorting out both sleep and time, about keeping the creative well full, about so many complicated and intertwined and individual/personal things. While it may ultimately be true that in order to write we have to do the work, I regret all the times I put a “just” in front of that statement when giving writing advice, or went all “this is the hard truth” about it. It’s not that simple, not always, not for an entire long career. Don’t let anyone tell you it is, and don’t let yourself feel inferior when they do if their current truth isn’t your current truth.
That was the short version. This is the longer one:
I did once think writing was pretty simple. You just had to be determined enough and want it badly enough to put your butt in the chair and do the work. Nothing else mattered. If you didn’t put in the time, you simply weren’t going to be a writer because you weren’t committed enough to being one. End of story. Thinking this, I gave my share of tough love, “I’m sorry, but this is the hard and unassailable truth, no way around it” talks to my fellow writers.
As a beginning writer, I was so harsh–on others and on myself. I was incredibly intense about writing back then. I wanted this writing thing so badly I could taste it, I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way, and I had little empathy or understanding to spare for those who felt differently.
Over the next couple decades I mellowed, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve come to understand that that intensity is something you can maintain for a few years at a stretch, but not for a lifetime, not without burning out. There comes a point where we need to chill out, to relax a little, to remember to breathe if we’re going to keep doing this at all.
And we need to accept that not only do careers have ups and downs, lives have ups and downs. We’re in good and bad mental places and these things affect our work. We have higher and lower levels of non-writing obligations and these things affect our work.
None of this means we don’t want it badly enough. It means we’re human beings. It means not every day, year, or decade is going to be a perfect one, and that’s all right.
But here’s a thing: For every one of us who finally comes to this understanding and stops beating their fellow writers over the head with so-called tough truths, there’s another writer who’s still riding that first (or second, or third) wave of intensity, and so deliverting talks about all the things that they’re sure, so very sure, are hard-and-fast requirements for being a real writer and having a real career–with no time to stop, while being that intense, to wonder what that word, “real,” even means.
It may be true that we need to do at least some of the things, some of the time, to get our work out into the world and into the hands of readers–though it may also be true that it’s possible to do these things at a sustainable intensity instead of flinging our whole beings at the universe day after day to get them done. But that word, “true,” is as problematic as “real” is. Careers are long, time is long, people are individuals. None of us knows what will even work for us in a year or five, let alone for anyone else.
I’ve come to believe that when it comes to writing hard, necessary truths are neither as true nor as necessary nor as universal as we think. When we share our experiences–because there is value, immense value, in writers sharing their experiences, in connecting and knowing we’re not alone and finding common ground–we can share them with all of that in mind, and not only for others’ sake. Because when we become less harsh with others, we become less harsh with ourselves. This may be one of the writing truths–or one of my writing truths–that it’s taken me longest to learn–that time is long and careers are long, and in the end, no matter what anyone else needs, sooner or later we need our own self-kindness and self-compassion and self-understanding to see us through.