Sounds sort of weird, I know. I mean, what kind of tip is “Writing is hard?”
In all honesty, it might be the most important tip I ever post to this site.
Let me start by saying that this is for my wonderful, talented friend, Misty Massey, who wrote a beautiful post this morning for the Magical Words blog site about what it’s like as a professional writer to face the fear and self-doubt that strike at all of us now and then. You can read her post here. I’ll wait.
Writing is a strange endeavor. It seems easy. We start writing stories when we’re small children; it’s one of the first things we are taught to do in school. And like finger painting and coloring with crayons, it’s often one of the most popular of classroom activities. Perhaps that’s why so many people grow up feeling that they want to write, and that they can write with relative ease. I mean, we did it when we were seven years-old. How hard can it be, right?
Well, if you’re talking about writing as a hobby, writing for oneself, keeping a journal, or even writing stories — true or imagined — for friends and family, then it may not be all that difficult.
But if you want more, if you want to be a professional writer, with a career that encompasses multiple publications via a traditional publishing model, then it’s incredibly hard. I’m not even talking about the business end of things, at least not yet. The simple act of sitting down to write every day — because that’s what most professional writers do — takes will, determination, discipline. Coming up with story ideas that are fresh and new and exciting, not only for your readers but for you as well, can be an incredible challenge. Creating characters and relationships that are believable and compelling and compulsively readable? Also wickedly difficult. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
It may seem like everyone in the world is writing a book or story these days, but the fact is that only a tiny fraction of the population is even making the attempt. And a minute percentage of that subgroup is actually succeeding at it.
You’ve heard of writer’s block, right? That moment in a writer’s creative process when the words won’t flow, when the narrative gets stuck, when none of the characters seem to be cooperating? I don’t believe in writer’s block. Because the very idea of it presupposes that writing should come easily, that the words should just pour out of us. Writer’s block is a myth born of the larger myth of the ease of writing. What the world calls writer’s block, a professional writer calls a typical day at work.
Writers work in a relative vacuum. Yes, we attend conferences. We have beta readers. Maybe we belong to writers groups. If we’re lucky we have editors and agents who help us polish our manuscripts. But most of our work — almost all of it — we do alone, a solitary figure in front of a computer or typewriter, or perhaps even curled up on a couch with pad and paper. Most of us make very little money. I’m established as an author and have been for fifteen years, and I make less in most years than my wife, a college professor (and we know how well they’re paid…), makes in a semester.
With each new book or story we write, comes the familiar anxiety. Can I sell it? Will anyone like it? Have I run out of good ideas? We are only as secure in our jobs as our last book. If the book did well, we’ll be able to sell this new one. If it tanked, we might be done.
So how is this a writing tip? Well, let’s start with the obvious: J. K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Stephen King notwithstanding, if you’re doing this to get rich, you’re really in the wrong line of work. So writing tip number one is, write because you love it. Write because you have stories you want to tell, characters to whom you want to give voice. Write because the very idea of NOT writing is enough to make you weep. Because those are the only reasons that make any sense in this crazy business.
Second, understand that writing a book or story may well be the hardest thing you ever do. Take pride in the process. Give yourself credit along the way for making the attempt and allow yourself to celebrate when you finally complete the narrative. It is a marvelous accomplishment in its own right. Sales are great, rejections can hurt. But there is value in the act itself, in the completion of that Herculean task.
And finally, remember that even professionals wrestle with fears and doubts. We question our abilities, we wonder if we’ve lost our chops, if this might be the manuscript that beats us. Acknowledging those insecurities is not an act of weakness, it’s an expression of strength. The only weakness lies in giving in to the fear, in refusing to face it. It’s okay to fear; just don’t let that stop you from writing. And maybe that’s the most important tip of all.