“Writers are liars, my dear. Surely, you must have figured that out by now.” – The Sandman, “Calliope”, Neil Gaiman
“Like anything worth writing, it came inexplicably and without method.”
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) – Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson)
“Writing isn’t writing unless a bowl of M&Ms is involved. And liquor.” – JoEllen Kwiatek
“First, write what you know.” – Common writing maxim
“No. First, write the shit you care about.” – Elmore Leonard
Maybe We're Born With It, Maybe It's Fucking Insomnia
It was 2:30am and I couldn’t sleep. I went to bed around 10pm, computer was off to reduce any impact the blue light from the monitor would have on getting to sleep. I’d taken a dose of Zzzquil, an OTC sleep aid, and drank a cup of chamomile tea to kick it all up a notch. It’s cool, the window’s open, that perfect level of white noise from outside. I was drowsy around 10:30pm for about 45 seconds, but it washed away because I’d watched a show I’d seen about eight times before and knew the script cold, but this time I noticed something new, a tiny tweak of a detail that foreshadowed a few things later in the season.
So, by 2:30am I’d already mapped out an entire essay on it, with arguments, ideas for an opening hook and a poignant closer, what I’d cite and point at. I was tired, of course, I knew I needed sleep, but my mind was too focused and building everything. I caught about 45 minutes of sleep and the essay was largely gone, a point mourned by some writer friends, but honestly, it wasn’t anything people would dedicate their time to reading. At the end of the day? I’d rather have gotten a full night’s sleep.
This is the life of one workaday writer. I don’t want to say “this is the life of a real writer” because I hate how fucking condescending that term is, as quality is an abstract and trying to objectively define it will drive a person insane. If you don’t believe me, just read Robert Pirsig. The only thing I know is that writers writing about writing is cliché as Hell but it’s a well that will never run dry because everyone has their own particular take on how to do it.
There are a lot of writers out there, I mean, a LOT, and some are wandering out into the world and the marketplace with newly signed writing degrees, some are fulfilling a lifelong dream and taking up writing at a late age, others decide at age 5 they’re a writer or storyteller. Some read dozens of books and figure they could write something better and decide to put up rather than shut up. And generally? They all like each other and hate other depending on the day. Art is emotional. It’s passionate. So you have to assume that artists are going to be emotional and passionate as well.
Because you have to be. If the artist isn’t expressing what they give a damn about, why should the audience give a damn?
The Prerequisite Backstory/Flashback
Now we’re getting to the part where every writer describes a significant event in their lives/careers that shaped the writer that they are today. Anne Lamott opens with a story of having to do a final project on birds that she’d put off all year and had to do in one night. Her brother tells her not to panic, just go bird by bird. Stephen King goes into how he and his brother had a totally rad ‘zine when they were growing up. The movie clip above shows a woman telling of the moment when she knew she was going to be an artist. You need these stories because that’s how you sell your book on how to be a better writer that’s your own take on “write every day if you can and inspiration is everywhere and be passionate about your art and the reader will be too”. It’s not rocket science, because rocket science is having the ability to perform extremely complex mathematics and having the awareness to recognize exactly which extremely complex mathematics to apply.
So yeah, writing isn’t rocket science.
Writing’s just having a toolbox thrown at you along with orders to build a house with whatever materials you can dig up, mine, or find lying around, and then you’ll either try to sell the house, or live in it yourself and never show it to anyone, or talk about it constantly at parties until you’re that insufferable friend that makes everyone drink more, hoping that you won’t go into your tirade about how analogies are dangerous because the world is like a sandcastle.
I knew I wanted to be a writer in the 5th grade, because I liked making up stories even if I was mostly ripping off plotlines I’d seen on TV or in movies that I was a bit too young to watch. In high school I filled up notebooks with fantasy stories I’d cringe to look at now, and once I got into college I had a fantasy of writing a science-fiction novel that would get published and be optioned to be made into a feature film. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
The Oft-Required Reality Check
Google “being a writer sucks”. I can wait.
Still here? Good, we’ve cleared out those starry-eyed “I’d even be published for free” suckers. The reason I included the Sister Act 2 scene is that writers, most artists actually, suffer from the same affliction: we’re creative, and the ideas aren’t going to go away any time soon, and the only way to exorcise them, briefly, is to make them into idea with channeled emotion and passionate to get a moment’s rest. It’s the reason I included the Sandman quote from an issue where a writer is so overwhelmed with ideas that he wears his fingers to the bone trying to write them all down.
But let’s talk about the feeling you get when you look at your work, read that one line, you know the one, and still can’t believe that you were the one who wrote it. Let’s talk about the time you poured your heart and soul into a story and you get an e-mail from someone you don’t even know telling you they wish they’d had that story when they were 17, or when they lost someone. Let’s talk about the time you lost yourself so completely to your craft that you were writing for four hours and didn’t even notice that the time had gone by.
Let’s also talk about the time your writing broke up or strained a relationship. Let’s talk about the time you mined your life for material and the subject came to you, hurt and betrayed, even though no one would know it was them. Let’s talk about the stuff you would try or do because you thought it was inspire you or give you ideas and you only succeeded in getting your friends and family worried sick about you. Let’s talk about the times you stayed up until four in the morning only to trash the file after you woke up.
When I started in a creative writing program, the first week our award-winning instructor invited a local writer to give a guest lecture. It was 55 minutes of rusty razors being dragged over our dreams, then soaking them in gasoline, lighting them on fire, and pissing on the ashes. Every sentence began with the word “No.”
No, you won’t sell your first book fresh out of college.
No, you won’t be able to pay your student loans with your writing.
No, you are not going to be on TV promoting your book alongside celebrities.
No, the book you’ve been working on since you were eight years old is not going to get picked up by an agent.
No, even if you’re published, you won’t break into the middle class.
It was, needless to say, brutal. A few people dropped out of the program after that class. The rest of us weren’t “cured”, we still had ideas that would splatter messily onto the page in suggestions of cookie-cutter shapes, and we wanted to get those ideas out, even knowing that new ideas would come flooding in to replace them whether we were writing genre or literary fiction. There were a couple students who believed that they were going to be the exception to the rule, of course, because they’re required.
So I’m going to let slip an overlooked truth about the craft of writing: it can’t be taught. The books on writing are only going to spit out anecdotes until you find something you nod your head to because it’s similar to your own life. You can’t teach someone to be a writer, because anyone can write. Anyone can turn a phrase, or make up a joke, or tell a lie, or guess the course of a narrative.
Granted, that doesn’t mean that they can do it well. Writing can’t be taught, but writers don’t just pick up a pen or sit at the computer one day and churn out a masterpiece. No, writing, like most “soft skills”, or creative/critical aptitudes, must be developed. When they say that writing’s like a muscle, it’s not really an analogy. Everyone has the muscle, and it needs regular exercise and nutrition in the form of regular writing sessions and infusions of material by way of art consumption or social interaction. It’s blitheringly obvious, but sometimes people have to be reminded of the fundamentals.
Write the Shit You Care About… That They Will Care About
My non-fiction professor’s favorite story was of a writing workshop he attended where Elmore Leonard, a prolific writer of Western and Crime fiction, was the headline speaker. Leonard was present before most of the attendees, and waited, without speaking to anyone, for several minutes until he was scheduled to start. He then walked to the nearby chalkboard and put “WRITE THE SHIT YOU CARE ABOUT” across it.
It’s a saying I’ve figuratively carried out on my shield whenever I sit down to write now. It’s a reminder that writing is art, and art is passion given form and voice. It’s a noble pursuit, and a consuming and demanding one, and frustrating as well when you realize that art is ideas that are meant to be shared.
I wrote an essay in college that I was proud of, thought was funny, personal, interesting, and when I brought it to workshop I got generally good feedback, the kind you get from someone who’s doing a sight-read. And then, a full-figured lesbian with a crew cut and a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt raised her hand and asked, “…why should I care about this?”
Unlike the rest of the class she’d actually read it.
I was insulted, and defensive, but it was the end of the class so I couldn’t respond. I still followed her out and stopped her to ask what exactly she meant. She wasn’t being cruel, or hostile. She pointed out the opening, the general plotline, and how outside of the jokes, there really wasn’t any reason to give this essay a second glance. There wasn’t any relevancy, nothing to make the reader identify. Sometimes the writer’s passion can be infectious, but the reader still needs a reason to look twice.
You’ll Have to Write Shit You Don’t Care About
Find Something in it That You Do Care About
There’s an unspoken reason why every 100 level class you took in college (if you went) was different from the one someone in another class was taking: the professor didn’t want to teach it but still wanted to get their paycheck, so they kept the bare bones requirements but taught the class they wanted to teach. The college I teach at it has an English department full of professors who wanted to teach literature or film or theatre but got stuck with Freshman Comp. It’s a class that’s boring as hell for the students, and just imagine how it is for the instructor.
I went in wanting to teach creative writing and NOT wanting to read a hundred nearly identical essays about how To Kill a Mockingbird shows us that racism = bad. So, I introduced creative elements and gave students autonomy on their writing subjects and got some nifty essays. It was the only way I stayed sane in that job.
When I was commissioned to write porn (oh yes, if you’re going professional “this is my fucking job” writer, you’re going to do this at some point), I’d get a list of fetishes, not a plot, so I’d write a plot so I could at least treat it like the most fucked up writing prompt ever that I’d at least get paid for. When I wanted to break into the publishing world and make contacts, I had to start off writing books with romance elements because it’s the surest way in if you don’t have 4-7 years to spend working on, editing, honing, and polishing your fantasy epic in the hope that an agent won’t roll their eyes at the first paragraph.
Oh, and writing that dreck makes you a better writer because getting outside your comfort zone is the key. Every genre and discipline has a way in, a new method to tap those ideas that won’t leave you until they escape the silence and emerge into the world.
Like I said, writing is the beautiful affliction for which you’ll pray there is no cure.
Until it’s 2:30am.