On Writing

So, you want to be a writer?

Writing is a lonely, dirty, self-deprecating affair.  And that’s if you’re good at it.  Robert Heinlein said that “writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterward.”  That feels just about spot-on to me these days, as I fight the blank screen to see who is going to win on any given day.  Usually it’s the screen.

When you feel so passionately about anything that you want to take the time and effort to write it down, there is an inevitable comedown.  Ostensibly the writing is a cathartic experience and when you’re done, it should be over.  You’ve said your piece, made your peace, and should let it rest in peace.

But we’re all just a little narcissistic—writers more so than everyone else—and we crave feedback, validation, if not of our writing skills or our ideas, then at least that we exist somewhere outside of the vacuum of our own thoughts. We want someone to notice and care, even if it is simply to pick a fight or claim that we have no business writing.  Writers are used to rejection, so that’s not really a problem.  What we’re not used to is silence—at least not at first.

As writers, we spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over our words—the way they flow on the page, or the symmetry of the sentences—and when we’re done we expect a similar level of feedback from whatever audience we may have.  Whatever the size of our platform, we expect some level of acknowledgement commensurate with the level of effort we put into the writing, and the fact is that in most cases what we get is the proverbial silence and crickets.

Virginia Woolf said that, “writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” Once you start selling your soul, you’ve fallen off the precipice into a truly dark place, a place where the explosive mix of creativity and editorial demands collide and ignite like the improbable mix of drunk rodeo clowns and Pamplona—comedic tragedy writ large.

We naturally think our writing is perfect when it’s done, and we expect that at least the one person committed to reading what we write—our erstwhile editor—will see our brilliance and praise us for it.  That does happen, but often that very thing we crave comes saddled with requests for changes ranging from small bits of grammar to complete wholesale rewrites.  We sacrifice our creativity to feed the beast.

Self-doubt begins to creep into the mix, and the writing becomes harder and more painful, the page more menacing, and the anxiety of deadlines more prescient—creeping in even before we’ve accepted a new assignment.  The work we do submit can take weeks or months to get published, and just as long to be paid for.  And if you dabble in the dirty art of essay writing, you begin to find that your opinion has oftentimes radically changed by the time your words show up to be read, and you find yourself arguing on behalf of a point you no longer agree with.

Yes, writing is a dirty, sordid affair. It’s a back-alley rendezvous with something or someone you shouldn’t be involved with. But for those of us who write, it’s also unavoidable.  It becomes something we absolutely have to do to feel alive—something we can’t stop doing any more than willing ourselves not to breathe.

If you want to be a writer, then write.  Just don’t expect it to offer anything to you but therapy—an outlet for your own needs that likely will grow more desperate as a result. Writing makes no promises, and delivers no boons.  But even after all of that, for me, I will always be a writer.  But I will do it in private, and I will wash my hands afterward.

  • I always find it difficult to be content with those that will just read my writing, as apposed to the few who will comment on it. Secretly, I want so many more to comment, to get some sort of feedback. This is usually because, as you stated, when I release that 'perfect' piece out into the etherwebs, I deem it to be conversationally worthy. After the initial deployment phase has worn off, however, I realize that it is in fact more therapeutic for me to get my thoughts down than to worry about what others will have to say about it.

    This is an inspiring post! I hope to rid myself of the anxiety that sometimes comes along with making things 'just right'. I feel like it can stress me out sometimes. (even though I have no official deadlines) Maybe it will come over time?

    • While writing should be enjoyable there is always the burden that other people won't "get it" or that the ideas presented will be considered cliche or not worthy of attention. This is especially true when writing fictional pieces that we hope will make an impact.