On Writing

Read­ing Time: 3 min­utes

So, you want to be a writer?

Writ­ing is a lone­ly, dirty, self-dep­re­cat­ing affair.  And that’s if you’re good at it.  Robert Hein­lein said that “writ­ing is not nec­es­sar­i­ly some­thing to be ashamed of, but do it in pri­vate and wash your hands after­ward.”  That feels just about spot-on to me these days, as I fight the blank screen to see who is going to win on any giv­en day.  Usu­al­ly it’s the screen.

When you feel so pas­sion­ate­ly about any­thing that you want to take the time and effort to write it down, there is an inevitable come­down.  Osten­si­bly the writ­ing is a cathar­tic expe­ri­ence and when you’re done, it should be over.  You’ve said your piece, made your peace, and should let it rest in peace.

But we’re all just a lit­tle narcissistic—writers more so than every­one else—and we crave feed­back, val­i­da­tion, if not of our writ­ing skills or our ideas, then at least that we exist some­where out­side of the vac­u­um of our own thoughts. We want some­one to notice and care, even if it is sim­ply to pick a fight or claim that we have no busi­ness writ­ing.  Writ­ers are used to rejec­tion, so that’s not real­ly a prob­lem.  What we’re not used to is silence—at least not at first.

As writ­ers, we spend an inor­di­nate amount of time obsess­ing over our words—the way they flow on the page, or the sym­me­try of the sentences—and when we’re done we expect a sim­i­lar lev­el of feed­back from what­ev­er audi­ence we may have.  What­ev­er the size of our plat­form, we expect some lev­el of acknowl­edge­ment com­men­su­rate with the lev­el of effort we put into the writ­ing, and the fact is that in most cas­es what we get is the prover­bial silence and crick­ets.

Vir­ginia Woolf said that, “writ­ing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for mon­ey.” Once you start sell­ing your soul, you’ve fall­en off the precipice into a tru­ly dark place, a place where the explo­sive mix of cre­ativ­i­ty and edi­to­r­i­al demands col­lide and ignite like the improb­a­ble mix of drunk rodeo clowns and Pamplona—comedic tragedy writ large.

We nat­u­ral­ly think our writ­ing is per­fect when it’s done, and we expect that at least the one per­son com­mit­ted to read­ing what we write—our erst­while editor—will see our bril­liance and praise us for it.  That does hap­pen, but often that very thing we crave comes sad­dled with requests for changes rang­ing from small bits of gram­mar to com­plete whole­sale rewrites.  We sac­ri­fice our cre­ativ­i­ty to feed the beast.

Self-doubt begins to creep into the mix, and the writ­ing becomes hard­er and more painful, the page more men­ac­ing, and the anx­i­ety of dead­lines more prescient—creeping in even before we’ve accept­ed a new assign­ment.  The work we do sub­mit can take weeks or months to get pub­lished, and just as long to be paid for.  And if you dab­ble in the dirty art of essay writ­ing, you begin to find that your opin­ion has often­times rad­i­cal­ly changed by the time your words show up to be read, and you find your­self argu­ing on behalf of a point you no longer agree with.

Yes, writ­ing is a dirty, sor­did affair. It’s a back-alley ren­dezvous with some­thing or some­one you shouldn’t be involved with. But for those of us who write, it’s also unavoid­able.  It becomes some­thing we absolute­ly have to do to feel alive—something we can’t stop doing any more than will­ing our­selves not to breathe.

If you want to be a writer, then write.  Just don’t expect it to offer any­thing to you but therapy—an out­let for your own needs that like­ly will grow more des­per­ate as a result. Writ­ing makes no promis­es, and deliv­ers no boons.  But even after all of that, for me, I will always be a writer.  But I will do it in pri­vate, and I will wash my hands after­ward.