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.

The Sucker Punch of Anxiety, Depression & PTSD


Years ago I ran screaming from Corporate America  after a scene eerily similar to that moment in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls when Ace walks into the room with all of the taxidermied animals on the wall and commences to freaking out before he utters, “…this is a lovely room of death.” I kid you not, I left my corporate job over “a lovely room of death.” (You can read the fuller story here, lest you think I jest.)

I moped around for a couple of years before I walked into a government mental health agency one day and asked for a job. It was strange. I had no qualifications in social work and yet somehow I was led down the hall to speak to the guy in charge and, in a fit of transparency, I told him I really needed a job, that I was whip smart, could learn anything, and that I would love to work for their organization and make a difference in the world. I explained that corporate life was not for me and I wanted to be of service. We discussed my background and after a few quiet moments he said, “You know, we’ve been considering hiring a Representative Payee and it sounds like you’d be the perfect fit.” Voila! I had a job in the mental health arena.

A Representative Payee (also known as a Protective Payee) is someone who manages the finances of those who receive Social Security Disability (SSD) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and have difficulty managing their money. I was to work with those clients who were chronically mentally ill and lived on site at one of our assisted living centers. I was stoked.

On my first day I donned my khakis, tucked in my polo shirt, slipped on my loafers, grabbed my briefcase (I don’t even want to hear it, thanks…) and drove the six miles to meet with my first client, we’ll call her Joan.

Me: “Hi, Joan, it’s great to meet you.”

[We both sit down at the gray specked formica table in a drafty kitchen of sorts.]

Joan: “I’m Pocahontas.”

I froze. I didn’t know what to say. I had no experience in dealing with this. Should I acknowledge that she is indeed Pocahontas or should I remind her that she is Joan? If I made the wrong choice would I set back her mental health? Quickly I decided that if she believed she was Pocahontas then I needed to let her be Pocahontas.  It didn’t really matter in the end, because in that 1/2 hour conversation she was also Janis Joplin and some dude named Bob.

As I drove home in my pickup that day I remember, very strongly, having the feeling that perhaps Joan, and all the others I met that day, were somehow more connected than I; that the veil was just thinner for them and they had direct access to something I couldn’t even glean.

I worked for that mental health agency for seven years, went to school for two years for psychology, and Joan was many, many different people over the years (my personal favorite was Dorothy Gale.) I always maintained that theory and feeling that I had on the first day – that those clients were special and that they had  more direct access than most of us.

Fast forward to today and I’m in the throes of dealing with mental illness right here at home. Anxiety, depression and PTSD have their deep claws in my boyfriend and I no longer have the distance, the khakis or the briefcase to buffer between the two of us.

His is not my story to share but, with his permission, I can share how this is affecting me.

Namely, I’m scared shitless and I loathe not being able to help. I’m a life coach, for hell’s sake, with all of these amazing tools in my bag and I can’t use a single one. Mainly due to the fact that I’m too close to this situation, but also because this is a job for therapists and I know the difference between life coaching and therapy. My guy is sick and our life has taken a big blow, one that I believe will heal, but that is still mighty painful and yellowing from the bruise.

What I know more than anything is that this is not my process. I can’t experience this for him. I have to let him feel what he feels and navigate his process, but let me tell you – when it’s someone you love this is excruciating. Sure, I can hold space, offer support, give my opinion, offer unconditional love, but I can’t change this or speed it up or make it go away. And mostly I’m okay with that fact. In the main, I feel calm and peaceful knowing that this is not my journey and though I’m walking alongside, I’m not walking through the storm itself, as he is. I have to say that does feel a lot more empowering than sobbing, beating my thighs and screaming, “Why us?”

I remember when I was suffering from pretty severe depression ten plus years ago. I think folks thought I should just suck it up and get out of bed. In fact, if memory serves, a few did utter words close to those. I would just look at them with droopy eyelids, rub my pasty cheeks and lie back down. I think we believe that mental illness isn’t a physical ailment. No one told me to get my ass out of bed post hysterectomy. In fact, people told me to rest, to take the time to heal, to not climb the stairs. Why don’t we do this when our brain needs healing? Shamefully, I believe all of this and then have the thought, “But there is something within you that needs to waken and fight.” Maybe it’s the survivor in us. Maybe it’s that we’re too scared from being in a situation outside of our control. Maybe it’s that we’re ignoramuses. I dunno.

If I’ve learned anything through all this it’s that I know nothing, though I have had one deep realization and that is that if I don’t take care of myself, there is no way I’m going to be able to be of support to him. So I’m being super kind to myself – reading lots of fiction, eating Cheetos Puffs (hey, that’s kind sometimes), and moving super slow (hence my long delay in writing this blog post.)

I’d be super grateful for some love sent our way through the ethers, but I’d also love to hear your experiences with mental illness, whether you’ve suffered yourself or you’ve loved someone who suffers. What are your thoughts on mental illness?

“Living” with Endometriosis


Before you go running for the antibacterial wipes I just want to let you know that I’m not contagious. What I have is not catching. What I’m about to relay will not travel through your computer’s innards as a deadly Trojan virus or spread through the air like an uncovered sneeze. It’s called stage IV endometriosis and according to the information traffic jam, over 70 million women around the world live with it every day and, I’m guessing another 50 million or so women don’t even know they have it. Those women are probably lying on the bathroom floor right now, gritting their teeth, clutching their wombs while saying, “What the Fuck!?” and praying for the strength to live through the next couple of days.

So what is endometriosis?

I usually tell people, strictly out of exhaustion, that it’s a “girlie” disease. This comes from being raised in a household where you don’t talk about stuff like this. If by some circumstance of extreme horror a particularly cute boy asks, I worry that he thinks I have funky bacteria of the hoo-ha and imagine him running home to Google. A medical professional might say something resembling a foreign language like, “endometriosis is a disease in which the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus so that when one menstruates this displaced tissue bleeds as well, but has nowhere to go, thereby causing pain, infertility and various other problems.” Read more