Is Writing Hard?

melanie bates

“So, what do you do?” the girl asks. She has a gold star plastered on the chest of her snowy white sweater. Silver tinsel adorns the neck and cuffs. It matches her adult braces perfectly and I think her quite clever.

Her gaze tells me we’re in a competition, though, and that we’re on the train, the whistle’s been blown, and she’s five cars ahead of me already. I can feel her superiority in my solar plexus as I answer, “I’m a writer.”

I glance at a guy a short distance away who’s wearing a bright red sweater with green trim and stuffed cats sewn all over it. I haven’t been able to decide which sweater is the ugliest, but I do wish I could vote for the sleigh bell earrings that jingled past me moments ago.

“I’ve always wanted to write a book,” she says. “I just don’t have the time. I’m too busy with work. Maybe when I retire.” Her braces flash and I wonder why she didn’t go with Invisalign. I realize I’m not being very charitable.

I want to tell her I’ve heard her answer exactly three million times. Tonight. Here in this room. But I don’t. Instead I choose the passive aggressive stance that I take when I’ve allowed someone to make me feel small. “So what are you working on?”

“Oh, that’s way down the road.” I fill in the rest of her answer in my mind, except I make her small like one of those Brownies in the movie Willow, and I make myself as tall as the Jolly Green Giant. Her voice squeaks in my head: I’m busy with real work that actually helps real people live better lives. But I have this idea for a book where-

“Do you read?” I ask. I’m already situated in the Passive Aggressive car, and the train’s going too fast. I can’t jump off now.

She laughs. “Reading just makes me fall asleep.”

“So… have you studied the craft at all? Taken any classes?”

“What is there to study? Writing’s easy. You just sit down and write.”

We stand in silence for a moment before she wanders off to talk to someone wearing a Gingerbread man sweater with its leg bitten off. It says “Bite Me.” I don’t find it ugly at all. He should be disqualified.

I head to the kitchen to see if I can find some bowl to refill or a loaf of bread to break up into bite-sized chunks. I’m not even the host of the party, but I feel safer putting myself to tasks.

But the conversation plagues me for days.

Is writing easy? And if it isn’t easy, does it have to be hard? Or worse… have I been buying into the idea of the suffering artist since I wore my first black turtleneck back in high school and drank Bacardi 151 out of a brown paper bag?

As so often happens in my life, the conversation comes up a week later with a brilliant client of mine who is pondering the idea herself. We spend a fair amount of time discussing the value of something being hard. We wonder together: if something is easy, and there is no suffering, do we value it the same? Or do we place more value on the things that we suffer through; the things that are hard?

And in terms of writing…would I be proud of something that sprang forth from me with no effort at all on my part?

Before I twist myself into an existential piece of Christmas art to adorn your coffee table, I can only speak my own truth.

Writing is extraordinarily hard. There are days when I sit at my keyboard, open my manuscript, and stare at it in a haze. I struggle to write every single, solitary word on those days. I spend much of my time hating on every letter that already exists and I tell myself that I am the worst writer in the history of writers. I let myself know, with no uncertainty, that I’ll never be published, and I should just give up. Let it go. Have an easier life. Who am I to think I could be a writer anyway? It’s all rubbish. It’s 100% shite.

Writing is extraordinarily easy, too. There are days when I’m in the flow and I read what I’ve written and marvel over where it came from. I love on every single word and tell myself that I’ve got this writer thing down. I literally clap my hands with joy over my story. I imagine myself being published, and I feel such immense gratitude that it hurts—I get to be a writer. Me. How lucky am I? It’s all beautiful. All the reading, craft classes, my bachelor’s, my master’s, the gazillion craft books, all of it has been worth every penny.

I believe that whether writing is easy or hard is a choice I get to make. And value? Who gets to assign that? In part, me. I have no control over the rest. But, I also have a sneaking suspicion that those days when writing is hard, are the days when I’m comparing myself to other writers, or thinking about who might read my work, or judging myself before I’ve finished a single paragraph.

Regardless of easy or hard, I use these tricks to get stuff written:

  1. I show up regardless of how I’m feeling. I just write. I “Turn Pro” as Steven Pressfield calls it. I understand that every day isn’t going to feel as if the Muse has descended onto my fingertips and guided my work. Rather, some days it feels like the Muse has abandoned me for a six-pack of PBR, a sleeve of Saltines, and a can of spray cheese.
  2. I don’t allow myself a single thought about who might read my work if I can help it. (<— That is the #1 cause of writer’s block, in my humble opinion, and will freeze me faster than Ralphie’s tongue to the flagpole.) I’m only allowed to write for myself, and I remind myself that the only one reading my words at this moment in time is me.
  3. I write without re-reading a single word. I write until the first draft is done, and I don’t allow myself to go back and read, or judge it. <—- Judgement belongs in the realm of editing, and editing should not be done until you’re finished with your first draft. (If I were to edit in the drafting phase, I wouldn’t have written a book. Ever. I would have written ten words, and deleted nine, until after seven years of writing, I had about two pages of my novel complete. Oh wait, I did exactly that back in the day.)
  4. I understand that I can’t fix what hasn’t been written. I know that I have to have something down on the page to work with. And…as Anne Lamott says, no one get away with not writing a shitty first draft. No one. Except that one woman that no one likes very much, so I embrace that my first drafts will be spectacularly shitty. And they are.

One final note, my friends, before I log off to make Christmas goodies for the neighbors.

It’s a choice we get to make every day.

I still pull out that black turtleneck from time to time, and put my hand to my forehead while sipping proverbial whiskey, and angsting over word choice.

In fact, I wore my black turtleneck to that ugly Christmas sweater party. I was disqualified.

On Writing the “Shitty First Draft”


I’ve been working on the same novel since 1999. Let me do the math for you. That’s sixteen years, folks. Now, mind you, I wasn’t “applying ass to chair” every day of those sixteen years. I took a five-year hiatus to drink my face off in Cleveland, for example. I was on break during my divorce and moves back and forth across country. I was definitely on leave during my five surgeries.

When I look back with my hindsight goggles, however, there weren’t many days that went by when I wasn’t thinking about my story and my characters. (Okay, perhaps while plugged into the morphine drip, but otherwise, yeah, I was writing in my head the whole time.)

On paper, I had written 224 pages of my trilogy. One day last fall I decided it was time to get back to it. (I’ve often wondered if I had a whole lot of living to do before I could tell this story.  I think there’s real truth there or, at least, that’s the story I’m sticking to.) Suffice it to say, I signed up for a master’s program, trashed my glorious 224 pages, plus notes, and started over on draft number two which, in essence, is really just another first draft because, just like me, my beloved novel had changed. I’m 128 pages in this go-round and, holy hell, is it awful.

Disclaimer: My “glorious” 224 pages were awful too. A complete and utter heaping pile of bat dung.

I’m not being modest.

Trust me.

The state of my second attempt at a fecal first draft has me pondering the brilliance of Anne Lamott and her concept of the “shitty first draft.” I haven’t read “Bird by Bird” (my favorite writing book of all time) for years, but I’ve used the term “shitty first draft” a billion times since then in my writing coaching. I’m not going to try to recreate Anne’s words or write them in my own voice because you just shouldn’t fuss with perfection. Here’s what she has to say:

“…shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)”

Here’s the rub… As I re-read those words I realized I really did think I would get an exemption. A hall pass. An official letter that said, “Hey, you’ve read thousands of books in all the genres, you’ve taken every writing course known to man, you went for a bachelor’s in creative writing and now you’re working on a master’s in the same vein. You’ve studied all the craft books. You’ve been blogging consistently since 2009. You go ahead and write out your brilliance on the first take.” I quite literally believed that all of those logged hours of writing, reading, studying, and helping folks to birth their own books, would mean I was off the hook for the “shitty first draft.”

I wasn’t.

But in knowing this concept inside and out, what strikes me most is what a hard time I give myself over my crappy writing. I mean, this is my work in the world. I give writers permission to write their own shitty first draft every single day. I profess it like a mantra. I’m sure my clients would like to bash my head in sometimes. I also give writers full autonomy to write what comes and I advise them to keep the creation process wholly separate from the editing process so their inner critic can’t raise its ugly head so often, or so harshly. And their books are born that way. Yet somehow, I assumed that my book baby would rush out of my creative center devoid of mucous, cooing happily, and without the cone head.

What an idiot. Or not… How can I say yes to a shitty first draft? Well, for one, I know what I want my book to be and I know it’s not there yet. That is beautiful, people. Enough cannot be said about that inherent knowing of how you want your work to be in the world; of how you see it in its future incarnation; of how glorious is its potential. That’s where all my logged hours of reading and study comes in. I know what makes up a good book, for me, and I know I’m not there yet. So I get to sit, draft after draft, and clean off the slime. If I didn’t enjoy the process so much, I’d take up nail filing or something.

Regardless, I don’t get a hall pass. I don’t get an exemption certificate. No letter is coming anytime soon. I get to sludge through every gaping hole in my plot. I get to tackle every character detail disconnect until I know my characters as well as I know myself. I get to swim upstream through my passive voice and my cloyingly annoying adverbs and -ing words. <— See what I did there?

Just like every other writer in the world.

[tweetthis]No writer gets a hall pass excusing them from writing a “shitty first draft.”[/tweetthis]

Except that one woman Anne mentioned.

And… I don’t like her very much either.

For my visual peeps out there:

final3234 copy

How to Write


I’ve been writing a novel since the beginning of time. Okay, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but it sure feels like it. In actuality, I started it in 1999 and have been working on it, on and off, for twelve years or so. It’s all kinda fuzzy.

And I’m only about 160 pages in, so take my advice with a single molecule of salt.

The How

Start with a clean space. Spic and span. Not a grain of dust. Get out your Swiffer and, quite literally, go to town. Buy fresh flowers and spend six hours arranging them flawlessly. Run to Bed Bath & Beyond in your pajama bottoms and 2 XL tee. Peruse the Yankee Candle aisle, picking each jar up by its bottom (you don’t want to have to buy all that broken shit), and smell each fragrance until you find the one that matches your flower arrangement. Go home, take two Excedrin to rid yourself of the fume headache that likely ensued. Take a nap.

It’s not like I spent that whole eleven years writing every day. I spent twelve years getting my education. I spent a few years drinking Jim Beam and Jagermeister. Mixed. I spent some time on a tractor at a Journey concert. I’ve been busy. Read more

5 Truthful Tips on Waiting for Acceptance from Others


I’m sitting outside my creative writing professor’s office. Waiting. I’ve been here every Wednesday for the past eight weeks during his office hours. Waiting. You see, last semester, for the first time in eleven years I shared a portion of my novel with another living being.

Let me tell you, that wasn’t easy.

I haven’t shared my novel with a.n.y.o.n.e. Period. Ever. But with the coaxing of some very dear friends I found my courage, buried somewhere in the trash bin of my mind under some broken eggshells and a couple used ketchup packets, and just did it.

This professor was supposed to read sixty pages of my novel and offer feedback and a critique. As he had hundreds of other “shitty first drafts” to sift through, he said I could pick up my critique on the first day of Spring semester. I’m still waiting. Read more