Imagine the scene:
You're at a restaurant with someone making chit chat over breadsticks while you wait for your food. Maybe it's a date or maybe it's a friend or maybe it's even a family member. They are asking you about how things are in your world. Perhaps you just told them you are a writer (or want to be), or maybe they've known for some time. Whatever the case, they're asking you how it's going and what you're working on.
You start explaining to them why you can't really write right now or why things aren't going well.
And you notice something happen...
Their smile starts to...change. It warps along its edges. It becomes incredulous...maybe even a little dubious. It's like the look a mother gives a child who started explaining why they were not doing well in school because the teacher hates them. Eyebrows begin to arch. Their head rotates slightly so they are looking at you sidelong.
Why it's almost like they don't actually believe you!
What the hell is going on here? These are real reasons. This is the really real reason you can't write! Why is this person giving you that look. You've talked to your writer friends--maybe even read some writer blogs--and so many writers talk about this stuff. This stuff is very common in the writing word. All your writer friends pat you on the back, and share your feels. Why doesn't this person believe you?
Your first thought might be that they just don't know what it means to be a writer. Maybe, but it's more likely they know excuses when they see them, and you've actually ponied up one of the famed rationalizations for not writing that no one but writers actually believe. Unfortunately for writers, most non-writers already know how to translate these excuses into what they really mean--that writing is not actually a priority in your life, not really something you're dying to do, not particularly important...even though you're talking about it like it is. That's why you're getting the "do-you-think-I'm-stupid?" smile.
But fortunately for you, I can tell you what they hear when you make these excuses*.
1- What you say: I don't have time/I'm too busy.
What they hear: Of course I have some time, but writing isn't a priority. I'm not willing to get up a little early or skip evening TV/video games/online time. That's the stuff in my life that matters. I couldn't possibly stop arguing politics on Facebook. It's not that I can't find an hour in my day, it's that I can't find an hour that I am willing to give up. If I were as busy as I pretend I am (like being a single career mom with no help at all) I wouldn't dream of being a writer; I would dream of taking a nap. If some time fairy comes along and gives me an extra couple of hours so I don't have to carve out my schedule, I'll write, but it doesn't matter enough to me to do it myself.
2- What you say: There's not much money in it.
What they hear: I say I love writing. I say it burns my soul. I say matters to me more than anything else in the whole wide world. But I won't do it for free. I know every art has a period of struggling with making little or no money, but I'm not willing to go through that for writing. Sure, I do lots of things in my life that I don't get paid for: watch TV, play video games, Facebook, or just hang out--heck I even spend money on some things I love, but they bring me pleasure. I say writing matters, but clearly despite my florid claims, watching TV or video games is more important to me. In fact, even though I fancy myself a writer and like imagining my post-success life as an established author, in order for me to actually write, you would have to pay me. The best things in life are free. Writing isn't one of those things for me.
3-What you say: I support my family financially/I work full time
What they hear: I like sounding responsible when I explain why writing is not a priority because it takes the curse off of what I'm really saying: that writing is not a priority. I'm going to pretend like I work 100 hours a week and only have time to come home and sleep. Please ignore all the leisure time I spend doing other things. I know a lot of people, who worked longer hours than I do, have found a few minutes a day and a couple of hours on weekends to write, but writing is not important to me. It's not important enough to wake up a little early or skip going out after work or pack a sandwich in a bag and work through my lunch break. It's not important enough to talk to my family and have them give me a little chunk of time to write. It's not important enough to tell the boss I can't stay past X o'clock anymore, even if that means I'm probably not going to get that promotion. It's certainly not important enough to find a job with a little more free time--especially that might involve a pay cut. There is no way we could possibly spend less money each month. I totally want to be a writer....as long as I never have to give up anything, ever, to do so.
4- What you say: There's a lot going on in my life right now/I'm too stressed
What they hear: I'm not willing to create the kind of life that supports writing. I'm not willing to advocate for myself or promote a lower stress environment. I have a vague sense that if everything were utopia perfect, and I was under no stress that I would be willing to write, but I won't change my life to get that. Sure much of my stress is due to my own decisions--things I take on or things I'm not willing to give up--but I kind of like having a lot on my plate. It's totally more important to me to play Slappy Spork Warrior Molepeople with the gang on Thursdays. It's important to me to binge watch Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black and House of Cards and The Killing. Or maybe I'm not even a frivolous person and it's more important to me to get a PhD or work a second job to buy mutual funds. What ever it is, it's a choice I made, and it's not writing. Even though being less stressed might be as easy as giving up one craft circle, skipping one party, or taking on one less commitment from the P.T.A., those things matter more to me than writing.
5- What you say: I'm too distracted to write
What they hear: Not only am I not willing to prioritize my world with fewer distractions. I know that I could simply walk away from distractions, but I kind of thrive on them. I'm certainly not willing to insulate myself from the outside world in any way that would make me more resilient to the things that are pretty much constantly going on somewhere, at any given time. I mean life is distracting, so I would have to close a door or turn off a phone or stop checking Facebook or something if I wanted to not be distracted. That shit is just not an option!
6- What you say: I can't get my own space/time to write
What they hear: I'm not willing to work until and unless the environment is perfect. I've heard that writers like their own space and a dedicated time ("a room of one's own"), so I've chosen to ignore all the stories of writers who sit at dining room tables after supper while the family watches TV, work in the living room while their kids are napping, or take a laptop to the laundromat with them. I need everything to be just so before I can consider starting, which should give you some indication how much of a priority writing actually is. I also won't talk to my family or friends to carve out any time or space. No trade off babysitting. No sticking a desk in the corner of the living room and declaring the hour from 6-7 to be "Leave mommy/daddy alone time." I don't like writing enough to try to come up with innovative solutions to these problems. Makes a fine sounding excuse though, right? Right? RIGHT?
7- What you say: I'm taking a break/I'll write later
What they hear: Writing is not a skill I take seriously, and I also consider it a burden. It's neither something I do for pleasure, nor something I consider to be a worthy of daily practice even if I'm not completely in the mood. Despite the fact that any skill decays if unpracticed, despite the fact that performance artists go to rehearsals and even performances when they're not 100% in the mood, and despite the fact most artists describe anxiety and depression when they don't do their art, I think that I can not actually write for weeks, months, even years at a time but still identify as a writer.
8- What you say: I have writer's block/My muse is not really giving me anything lately.
What they hear: I like blaming imaginary creatures for the fact that I don't want to work. I latched on to the idea of muse and inspiration, and now I use it when I'm not really interested in forcing myself to produce something. A perfect idea has not descended upon me like a lightning bolt such that all I have to do is convert it into sentence form. I'm not willing to do freewriting, work on prompts, journal, or do one of a hundred activities that keep me writing and are designed to jump start the creative engines. I also ignore every bit of conventional wisdom that the longer I don't write, the less likely it is for creativity to spawn from that fountainhead. I would rather personify my muse as mercurial and fickle and sound artsy than do the sweaty work that lays the foundation from which creativity actually springs. But it sounds artsy doesn't it? MUSE. MUUUUUUSE.
9- What you say: I got a rejection letter/My last thing wasn't received well
What they hear: I failed, so I'm giving up. I had no idea this was going to be so hard. I don't want to do it unless everyone thinks I'm fucking brilliant. Writing isn't really the important thing to me--being a great writer is the important thing to me. Really, actually, being recognized as a great writer. I don't want to work to get better. I want fans. I want people who tell me that my every word is the greatest thing they've ever read. I can't handle rejection. I'm certainly not going to just cry into my pillow for a day, and then get right back on the horse. The idea that I'm not as absolutely magnificent as I think I am is so difficult for me to bear that it will actually shut down my writing process for weeks, months....possibly years. Despite every two-bit, cliche, sentimental, Disney-pimped bit of movie-of-the-week advice that says winners are just losers who didn't quit, I'm quitting.
10- What you say: I don't know where to begin
What they hear: I have no fucking clue how the writing process, or really even art, works. I don't realize that wherever I start, it doesn't have to be perfect. I could start in the middle, or I could start with the scene in my head that's kind of close to the end. I am paralyzed with this perfectionist fear because I don't really have any idea how much I'm going to revise and change this before it's ready to meet an audience. I don't know how messy the artistic process is. I don't know how I'm going to take out whole chunks, maybe even entire characters. I don't know that just starting ANYTHING is miles better than simply making an excuse about not knowing where to begin.
11- What you say: My laptop/computer/Macbook Air/Dropbox/Lucky Tamagachi Pet doesn't work
What they hear: My affectation is so fetishized that I am totally fucking incapable of writing with paper and pencils for the brief period of time it takes to get the situation fixed. I also don't care about writing enough to have a back up plan or even to jump on fixing this like it is the most important thing in the world. I won't use a library computer. I won't write in a slightly different way. I won't work to find a bandaid solution. I may actually like having my ability to write stymied more than I like writing itself. Hey are you buying any of this?
12- What you say: I'm too tired to write
What they hear: I don't like writing enough to get sufficient sleep. I'd rather stay up raiding Terrace of Endless Spring than write. I'd rather watch half a season of Supernatural on Netflix than write. I'd rather socialize with friends than than take a nap so I can write. Even though what this really means is that I just don't consider writing enough of a priority to get some sleep, I'm hoping that you'll relate to the tired part not realize that I'm really just saying that writing isn't a priority. I'm hoping the buffer of a single step between my prioritized decision making and writing will obfuscate the fact that it's really just me choosing things over writing--I just happen to be making those choices before bed.
13- What you say: I'll start after this event
What they hear: I'm using this event as rationalization. I seize upon reasons not to write instead of finding the way to write. Perhaps in a world with no events....ever...I might find the mental bandwidth to write. No such world exists, however, and in this world, I have a nearly perpetual excuse. There will always be an event--a holiday, a visit, an unfolding life drama, something coming up, something just finishing, or something going on right now. There will always be something that I can look at and say "this is no time to start writing!" Because that's sort of how life works. If I really wanted to write, I would start yesterday, and I would be doing it unless bombs were falling like rain from invading aliens, but I don't really want to, so this is as good an excuse as any not to. Hey why are you smiling like that?
14- What you say: I haven't lived enough to write anything worth reading
What they hear: I would literally rather do anything than write. I'm going to call it living, but it is literally everything BUT writing. Because if I wanted to write, I would just be writing about the parts of life I have experienced in new and inventive ways. Also, I probably haven't actually read much. I don't know that some of the best literature in the world is about people doing shit on the day of a dinner party, or a love triangle very similar to the one I experienced in high school. I don't know that the fiction that is about "great" things is often about stuff that no one could possibly have experienced like space travel and killing dragons.
15- What you say: I'm not good enough/I'm not ready
What they hear: I believe that writing is a mystical skill that people get better at by not doing. I'm not working on getting better at writing. I'm not practicing. I'm probably not reading much. I'm not risking rejection. I'm just enjoying the feedback loop that if I'm not good enough, I can't write, and if I don't write, I'll never be good enough. That way I can want to be a writer without ever taking the chance that it'll be hard, people won't love me, the struggle will be too much for me, or this dream will be anything but a fantasy. I can't imagine why you don't believe me.
So fellow writers, if you're going to make excuses, give up on these two bit crap excuses, and make those fuckers good: "I actually had this whole fucking thousand-page manuscript about the zombie apocalypse written, but there was apparently something in it that embarrassed Emperor Akihito of Japan. See there was this one part that was about his underpants, but I guess somehow I actually got it correct, so they thought I knew state secrets. And so right after I showed my publisher, he disappeared and these...these ninjas--honest to fucking god, 21st century NINJAS--showed up to destroy my book. There was this total badass fight because I've taken like six years of Taekwondo, but in the end the ninja attacking me was just a distraction for the ninja who was wiping my hard drive and Dropbox account, and so I totally have to start over. And fuck, that's been like the last two years....down the drain....because of ninjas."
That's way more believable than any of the crap above. Seriously.
Disclaimers and shit-
*No excuse is always invalid. I'm sure there really ARE people who work 100 hours a week just to scrape by in a mega-stress living situation where they can't possibly make any cuts, or people who have experienced traumatic events (like the death of a loved one) that would distract anyone from writing for a while or maybe have crippling insomnia and really do get tired in a way that has nothing to do with their choices. But the irony is that the more valid something is, the less it sounds like an excuse when they talk about it, and with most real writers, the more emotional crap you pile on them...the tighter you turn the screws on their life, the more intense their need to write as an outlet becomes.
I'm also NOT saying any of this stuff isn't important. I'm saying people set their priorities. If you have a lot of things that are more important than writing, your life tends to look like it. The point isn't "X is unimportant." The point is "when writing really matters, you find a way." Our lives are usually a better expression of our priorities than our mouths.
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