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Monday, March 5, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing Part-1

writ•ing [rahy-ting] noun
1. the act of a person or thing that writes.
2. written form: to commit one's thoughts to writing.
3. that which is written; characters or matter written with a pen or the like: His writing is illegible.
4. such characters or matter with respect to style, kind,quality, etc.
5. an inscription.
6. a letter.
7. any written or printed paper, as a document or deed.
8. literary or musical style, form, quality, technique, etc.: Her writing is stilted.
9. a literary composition or production.
10. the profession of a writer: He turned to writing at an early age.
11. the Writings, Hagiographa.

“Writing?” he asks. “What does that actually mean?”

I pause. What DOES that mean? Because it sure as hell means a lot more than the act of a person that writes. I’m so used to stupid plebs assuming they know what I mean when I say “writing,” and being so very, very wrong about their assumptions. It has literally never occurred to me that someone might actually ask.

“So,” I say. “It has come to this.” I am instantly aware of the dramatic tension. I feel the cool press of the Glock in my hand, and in a swift move and a sharp report, it’s all over. I wonder briefly if it is smoke or steam that rises from the gushing vermillion hole in his chest.

If anyone asks, I’ll tell them he asked me to read his fanfic that he wrote in high school. That seriously happens like twice a week. Bullets are on the monthly budget. But just to be on the safe side, I better work out an answer to the question so no one sees something untoward when they examine the trail of bodies left in my wake.


The problem with the word “writing” is that most writers use that word differently than other people, most creative writers use it differently than other writers, and most fiction writers use it slightly differently than creative writers of other genres. The definition above is from dictionary dot com, and it will not help us. Definition eight, down in the dregs of definition limbo where angels fear to tread, perhaps comes closest, but even this is woefully insufficient for the kind of damage writers are talking about to psyche and social life alike when they use the term “writing.” These definitions don’t talk about the caffeine addictions, the muses, the moments of despair, or how writers know they might be writing something good when they have completely forgotten having written the last three pages.

Let’s start with the very basics. Forget creative writers with their namby pamby artsy-fartsy crap, running around and trying to figure out if they want to be the kind of writer who does talk shows or gets Nobel prizes for literature before they’ve even submitted to a magazine. Let’s just talk writers in general. They could be professional writers, or they could be amateur writers, but what they are NOT—and let me be absolutely clear about this—is people who aren’t writers but want to be, dream of being, or THINK THEY ARE. These people might have some stunning “I don’t do that” sort of stories to share with you after you read them this article. (Or preferably after you send them the link because I REALLY need the page hits.) Some may have fanciful tales and tell you "I don't really see that as part of writing..." and you'll wonder if your old pal Chris has played you false.

However, investigate these fantastic claims a little further, and you’ll find that those people aren’t really writing. I’m not kidding, if you poke at those wildly contrary stories for a good Perry Mason minute, you’re going to discover those people like to think about themselves as writers, but they usually aren’t actually doing much writing that might be put out in the world. You will find that for writers that are serious about writing, and perhaps more importantly, who are serious about making their writing be something that other people would want to read, there’s no real way of getting around a few basics of what is writing, and what isn’t writing. A couple of very special snowflakes might have a talent they recognize is freakishly weird and makes them an X-man, but those people realize almost instantly that they have an extremely odd quirk, that theirs is not a common experience, and that they would be doing a disservice to other writers to try to tell them they should expect the same. In thirty years, I have never met an exception to this. I have met a few people who can side step some of the writing fundamentals but each of them seems keenly aware that this is unusual and do not encourage others to forgo the entirety of writing.

So what separates the writers from the not-writers? So glad you asked! When your basic literate human talks about writing they mean the moment of actual writing. If they have to write a paper (let’s say for a college class) they would say that they begin the paper when their first word shows up on the page at three in the morning, five scant hours before the paper is due. After two break downs, three panic attacks, and a cruise through the university website to see how hard it is to drop a class after deadline, they finally hook themselves up with a Five-Hour Energy intravenous drip and begin working. They write the first line of the paper, and at that moment they consider themselves to be writing. For these people, our definitions up above are sufficient.

“Isn’t this true of everyone?” you ask. No, of course it isn’t. This is true of the un-writers. Writers do this whole thing completely differently. For a writer this entire landscape is part of a larger mosaic. Oh sure they probably still abuse stimulants, often have breakdowns and panic attacks and most of them dick around until the deadline is elbow deep up their ass. But a “writer” recognizes that this is all part of the process. A writer wears these moments of panic and distress like old, comfortable shoes. As the panic attack sets in they say “Oh splendid, the panic attack portion of the evening! Things are going right according to schedule.” Such a writer knows that the moment of panic between the first round of vomiting and needing the oxygen mask is when their real work can begin. Or maybe they work well when they’re not under deadline and have steadily plugged away. Regardless of what their process is, they know it, understand it, and anticipate it.

And you wouldn’t believe how much fucking mileage you can get out of this. Your boss can burst in, find you playing World of Warcraft and if you have set yourself up right with this whole “process” thing, get quality work in under deadline, and you are VERY good at acting you can totally say “I’m actually writing” with a straight face.

Seriously. (I mean don’t go around inviting your boss to raid with you during office hours or anything. Just know that you have one last ace up your sleeve if you need it.) This has happened to people I know. It works. You have to have the reputation for on-time excellence first, but if you do...

This is partially because a writer (who knows their process and how it works) will turn around in the eleventh hour and pull it out, suddenly appearing from an office with finger cramps, caffeine psychosis, and a draft that isn’t half bad for what is expected. The other part is because, it’s sort of true. I wasn’t just making up the most ludicrous example I could think of. I wrote a lot of papers while my gnome Warlock farmed Fel Cloth in Felwood. I didn’t physically write those papers while playing W.O.W. I would have gotten terrible grades, but when I was still percolating those ideas in my head it actually often helped me to keep part of my brain busy doing something repetitive, mostly mindless, but also kind of fun. Two hours of WOW could probably generate a dozen really good ideas that I would jot down on a notepad next to my computer, and then unpack later when I’d put Esk to bed, and it was time to get some work done.

Writing is a process. When writers talk about writing, they are talking about the whole process, not just the part of the process where ink or pixels actually start to spill.

Our hypothetical student who sits down and writes their paper from beginning to end will probably end up with comments along the order of: “Your paper lacked focus,” “I think your real thesis statement is hiding in your conclusion,” and “Holy BALLS, did you get your introduction off the back of a cereal box, or what?” This is because despite the sleek and sexy depiction of writers in popular media (especially writer action heroes in those summer blockbusters) no one sits down and writes something from beginning to end—even the people that actually sort of do.

Writing is a process, and most of that process isn’t actually what is commonly thought of as writing. Writers know this process. They respect this process. They understand it, and they use it. And even when they can do certain steps of it SO FUCKING FAST that it looks like they just sat down and wrote something from beginning to end, they are actually engaged in this process every time they write.

When writers talk about writing, they may be using definitions 1-11 just to keep you on your toes, but what they are probably talking about is the whole crazy process from beginning to end.

[To be continued on Wednesday...]

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