“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.