Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4 , Part 5
Earning the "ER"
"Isn't this the same story you're using in your other class?" I ask.
Willbehuge looks at me and nods. "Yeah bro," he says. "Actually it's something I used in a bunch of my classes last semester too."
"Nothing new to turn in?" I ask.
"Nah I don't like writing the stuff they want us to write," Willbehuge says. "I have about three or four stories I wrote as my first year. One of them usually fits the prompt."
"So you write your own stuff?"
"Yeah. I've got this novel at home. It's about vampires being humanities savior against the zombie apocalypse."
"That sounds neat," I say. "How's that coming?"
"Well it's mostly in my head right now, but the wheels are turning. I'm always, like, thinking of things I can add to it."
"So what are you actually writing?"
"Well...I don't do very much writing. I don't have much time..."
So writing is a process, and so far all we've talked about is the part that happens before the actual writing, but I want to say one thing that needs to be said.
You might be thinking to yourself that there's no way I could have possibly had a conversation like the one above in a Creative Writing program. Holy flaming cow testicles on toast do I wish that were the case. In fact, I had almost exactly this conversation, with a few minor variations, no less that five times. I noticed a LOT of my fellow classmates were "double dipping" with their assignments. (Turning in the same thing across multiple classes even though the assignment was to generate something new.) When I asked them about it, most of them said some variation on this theme. It's almost like they thought writing didn't involve much more than thinking about writing. Like they would wake up one morning and just casually splat out the novel in their brain if they only thought about it enough.
The halls of creative writing programs and the legions of would-be-writers have so many among them that think about stories, imagine being writers, and picture their Leno interview before they ever really sit down and write. At best you'll discover that they write for a few hours a week when they have to for school or when the mood strikes them. They've been noodling on that one story for nearly a decade. One of the reasons for so long I never called myself a writer was because I was standing in a sea of such people and I was painfully aware of how pretentious it sounded. I was among a group of people who were usually saying things like "When I'm a best selling author..." or "Once I make it..." and I didn't want to be lumped in with them.
It might seem like the stupidest, most inane, most obvious thing I could possibly say about what writing means, but if you take the time to start talking to people who want to be writers or identify as writers, you will come to a rather shocking conclusion: most of them don't actually write very much. They kind of think they're going to sit around and think about writing and that will cut it. ("Hey, Willbehuge? This is Leno. Listen, I know you haven't actually written anything, but I heard you've got some great ideas in your head that are like Firefly/Dawn of the Dead crossovers, and I simply MUST have you on the show.") So even though it should go without saying, at some point when we talk about writing, we are talking about the actual physical act of doing it.
Eventually, at some point, with pen, pencil, typewriter, word processor, voice recognition technology, chalk on sidewalk, or chisel on wall you have to actually write.
I had an instructor that called this "earning your ER". If you want to be a "writer" you have to write to earn the "er." But today I'm not even talking about the thousands of hours a writer puts in that don't ever even see a peer review let alone submission. I'm not talking about the endless hours spent clacking (or scribbling) away that probably won't ever see the light of day. I'm just talking about how that is part of the writing process.
For many writers struggling to find success, the problem is they simply write--without any regard for the other parts of the process, and they sort of expect the flotsam and jetsam of their brains to be spun into gold because they rock fucking hard it hurts. But for many other writers, and the obstacle they are actually dealing with in the writing process is the writing itself. There are a lot of reasons "writers" don't write, but many of them involve not respecting the process. One of the most paralyzing effects can be expecting the first words out to be good. They won't be. Anne Lamott refers to these first efforts with eloquence and beauty: shitty first drafts. Don't be afraid to write them. Ironically the inability to write comes most often from the unwillingness to revise extensively--which is the next part of the process. [And which I will write about next week.]