Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Writing

Eventually, every writer feels the need to offer his own contribution to the vast library of essays called "On Writing." I can't fight the urge any longer. So, herewith let me moan, gripe, explain, exult and generally ramble on this subject of imperishable interest to writers.

Like actors, writers constantly look for affirmation, for someone to say "I liked what you wrote," or even better "You're a terrific writer." Why are we so needy? Maybe because the world doesn't show us much love. Certainly, few writers are showered with accolades and lucrative contracts. For every Big Name writer there are at least 20,000* who labor in relative obscurity, filling bookshelves, but never achieving stardom, and wannabes without number.

For most of us, writing is going to have to be its own reward. While I get a nice check for magazine pieces every now and then, I'm in no danger of getting carried away, like a lottery winner, buying cars, boats and diamonds with my earnings. My highest ambition for my fiction-writing is to break even financially someday.

And did I mention that writing is hard—sometimes really, really hard? I ran across this quote from playwright Paul Rudnick recently: "Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write."

Amen. Although I am a better procrastinator than Paul. When I run out of ways to avoid writing, I just go to bed. Siempre maƱana, y'all. Scarlett's got nothing on me.

Many years ago I learned that "fear is the root of all avoidance behavior." So what do Paul and I fear about writing? Are you kidding? Failure and more failure. Another writer I'll have to paraphrase because I've lost the quote (See? Failure.) said he sometimes reads over what he wrote the day before and thinks, "This sucks. This is garbage. I suck. I'm garbage."

There it is. We want so badly to write well, but it all gets tied up with our egos and even our basic sense of self-worth. Every sentence or paragraph I write is not going to be wonderful. That seems obvious to a sane person (or a reader of this blog, alas), but to us writers that is a horrifying thought that assaults our very identity. It must be wonderful or we're worthless.

Is it any wonder we eat cereal from the box?

*This is a bogus statistic. Treat it like the number 40 in the Bible. It means "lots and lots."


  1. The only writer I knew before he or she really "made it big" was Rheta Grimsley (Johnson), one year ahead of us at Lee. Someone told me, I think, that Linda Bowles from our class was a writer, but I'm not sure about that. I do know she was really smart and funny.

    I don't know why I blog. Maybe I'm just envious of the local newspaper columnists who get so many column-inches once or twice a week. I'd like that.

  2. Chuck, if you really wanted to do it, I'll bet you could pitch a column to a local newspaper. As long as you're willing to accept laughably small pay for it, there are possibilities. And you can point to your blog to show you have the chops.

  3. As for sucky writing, all I can say is thank goodness for the time to edit.

  4. Agreed, Rita. Although, perfectionism raises its persistent head here, meaning we tend to revise and rework until someone or something—a deadline—stops us. On my last magazine assignment, I just ran out of time and had to send it in less than perfect shape. It's still gnawing at me.