My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Mailbox: Why Don't They Write?

Why do you think so many writers are so antagonistic towards the idea of daily writing?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I can even do pop psych analysis.]    

Lenée asks:

Hey Chris! So tell me, why do so many writers--and I use that term loosely in this case--balk at the write everyday philosophy? Sometimes they can get very defensive and pissy. If it's your dream/goal, why wouldn't you want to write everyday? If you want to be a professional writer, shouldn't you treat writing like another job or career? Is there some envy, anger, resentment behind this kind of behavior. Thanks! Still loving the page!

My reply: (I added the link to the question above. Lenée wrote this to me on Facebook.)

It turns out this is kind of a complicated question, and I obviously can't answer for the deep psychological foibles of every person, but I'll do my best. But it might be a kinder thing also to turn the ol' elitism dial down a notch or three.

First, a disclaimer: I don't spend any time trying to dissect the truth from writers as to whether they are "real" or not. I think I know what you're getting at, but I sort of hate the "I-art-writerer-than-thou" elitism that is so endemic in aspiring writers. If people earn their "er," they're writers. I'm not the writer inquisitor sent to judge worthiness.

I certainly don't have dark robes and an official seal, if that's what you're asking. How absurd.

If people want to write on weekends for fun and fulfillment, I don't think they're not "real" writers. And if they want to burst into tears when they see themselves in the mirror because they know their whole life is a pathetic sham, that's their business. I'll pretend I don't hear them snurfling up their own snot, and that I don't see their tear streaked cheeks or their bloodshot eyes. I'll nod understandingly like I don't really know what's going on. And they'll be in bed that night, wide awake, and they'll wonder if I saw right through their veil of lies as I watched them in my dark robes and.....


But as you have mentioned a different bellwether--professional writing--I'll go with that. That's easier to work with than concepts like "real" or "fake."

The super simple reason: Many don't really want to.

Frankly put wanting to "BE A Writer™" as an identity often exists for years (even decades) within some folks without facing the fundamental reality that at some point the desire to write has to overcome the desire not to write. If there is always something more fun, more pressing, more interesting, more distracting, or even more stressful then maybe someone doesn't really want to write. All writers tangle with discipline and time management, some reinventing the wheel of their writing regimens constantly. But some folks don't really realize that when the years start coming and they don't stop coming, that's not unforeseeable extenuating circumstances. That's life.

Many writers try to pump up their contributions to put in professional levels of effort instead of amateur levels, and "get serious." And some writers fall out of writing for months or years because they haven't established creativity and discipline as a habit (like flossing) but all are drawn inexorably back to the page at some point.

If all of life is more fulfilling than writing, maybe that person really needs to face facts that their vociferous passion may be more talk than walk if video games and Tarantino movies always win out. I sure won't be giving them my seal of approval while wearing robes that I totally don't have.

Still, it doesn't really serve anyone (even ourselves) to be shitty to people for whom life happens you know? We can't all casually set aside hours a day or keep plugging away while going through crises. It can be downright ableist to sneer over your typewriter at someone who can't make the identical sacrifices. Maybe they really have had just an unfathomable three years. The balance between "life happens and this isn't a priority" and "life happened and I can't do this" is quite thin and very quite not our business.

The slightly more complicated reasons (a writer may have one or more of these):

1- Writing is the path to something they actually want.  Usually this comes in simple packages like "fame," "money," or "groupie threesomes," but it can also take on slightly more complicated shapes like "validation" or "exhibitionism" (that's the mental kind not the one where you tie your partner to a chair and make them watch a stranger...um...you know what--I'm getting distracted). Some people just want to tell a particular story. But their desires for these things are WAY bigger than their actual desire to write.

Most art looks easy from the outside, and writing is particularly seductive in this regard since almost everyone can do it a little bit. It's fun to imagine being famous and comfortably rich doing a job where you don't have to wear pants.

2- Someone once told them they were good at it. Some people write, even though they don't actually like it very much, because they really want to be good at something. They want some way in which they stand out and are special and someone told them once they were good at writing (probably by invoking the dreaded word: "talent"). Everyone wants to be special.

3- They don't know any better. So there's some pretty weird shit that happens around writing that doesn't really happen around other arts. I can't tell you why, but it's seeped into the writing culture to the point where it's as invisible as heteronormativity to most people. You've got plenty of actors working community theater with a day job. You've got plenty of musicians who just play for fun. You've got plenty of painters who fiddle with oils and acrylics and never have a gallery or a show. They work at it, even work hard at it, because they love it. But there isn't really any honest sense that one day they're going to turn it into a career. It's a hobby.

Put the gun away, bro.
It's actually okay to be a hobbyist.
People don't really do that with writing.

A few do. I can't make a generalization that broad without being wrong. There are some bloggers who write for pleasure alone, and I know one woman who loves writing hand written letters--she writes two or three a day. But I don't think most people have a real sense that they could write mostly for their own pleasure. And that missing nuance has infected the whole culture of writing. People either want to be working novelists or they don't even bother. So sometimes it doesn't even occur to someone that they could enjoy writing without taking on the mantle of being "A Writer™."

So I think the writing world is filled with a lot of writers who have hobby commitment (and are very "real") but their default expectation is career results.

4- Effort Sticker Shock. They want to be a writer, but they have no idea the gulf between the draft of the novel they write and being a working novelist. It can be pretty horrifying to realize you might have to be a dedicated writer (at hours a day) for something like ten years before you might make real money. Or that publication doesn't mean you've "made it" in most cases. That revelation, whether it comes all at once or piecemeal, can be tremendously frustrating.

5- Failure fucking blows (even though it's awesome). The reason I think most people call themselves writers who maybe don't write very much, express florid love of the idea of writing but partake in the act only once a month or so, or who dream of that day when they write fiction to pay the bills, but never treat writing like a job is because dreams are fragile and delicate and they shred easily when exposed to the big bad world. The less realistic a dream is the fewer exposures to reality it will take to tear holes in its gossamer exterior. And it is so, so much easier to avoid those encounters and be forever on the cusp of taking that leap. "I'm going to write my novel as soon as...."  "I just need a new writing space." "When Billy is older, I'll have free time." "When I retire."

Because as long as someone hasn't made the effort and found themselves lacking (or outright failed) then the dream is still alive. As long as they haven't tested it's mettle they can still cling to that fragile hope. Most people would rather never try than fail. Because as long as they never try, they always have that reason ("Well, I haven't really tried yet!") The idea that they may come through failure galvanized, perhaps with a better sense of how to achieve their dream, or maybe even with a better dream isn't worth the risk.

Why are they cranky, pissy, defensive, angry, envious and resentful? They probably just figured out that the groupie threesomes were a joke.

This is a disconnect that is particular to certain forms of art. You don't get many aspiring professional musicians (as in orchestra, not rock bands) who aren't aware that daily practice is a must. You don't see a lot of aspiring professional actors who don't spend hours a day memorizing lines or working on blocking. You certainly don't get aspiring professional visual artists who think they can work a few hours a week (or month) and pay the bills.

Pie in the sky dreamers maybe, who are obviously kidding themselves, but not the ones actually making some modicum of effort. They seem to know what they're getting into.

You see this a lot with garage bands and writers, and I don't know why. Even the people who think they're going to break into Hollywood seem to know they're signing on for a life of long hours and hard work. Rather than a job that needs to be worked at people kind of think of it as trying to hit it big. Everyone secretly believes their story is at least as good as Harry Potter.

What they don't seem to really realize is how much work anyone who ever hit it big has put in. (Rock bands and writers alike!)

The most frustrating thing you can do to someone who is convinced they're convincing (even if they aren't fooling anyone) is to blow their cover. Maybe they've even convinced themselves and you've become one of those meteor showers of reality, ready to shred the diaphanous wings of their magical fairy fantasy. A lot of people don't want to hear that they can't command a "day job" salary with a "weekend warrior" effort simply because it's a pleasant fiction and you're harshing their motherfucking squee.

It's probably best not to bother engaging them (unless you maintain a blog about writing or something totally masochistic like that).  It's basically a waste of effort for as much as it will change their minds. They're sure they're right. They're like teen agers being told that spending their college money to buy an ice cream truck is a bad idea when they've been romanticizing it for the last week.  (Not...uh....that I would know anything about that.) It's just a good way to get hit with backlash and cliche statements like "well what do you know?"

I let them go on about how beneficial it is to a writing career to not actually write while I do the work. I check back in on them periodically to see if they've actually somehow discovered the secret of being a writer without writing, but, shockingly, I am never disappointed. There they are when I check back (years, sometimes even decades later), still just about to take that jump, still sure they're going to make it. Still not doing the work.

And also (shhhhhh, don't tell anyone), I secretly learn to cherish the looks on their chimera loving little jealous faces when I mention that I'm making money or have a thousand readers a day. But I don't like to admit that part in public.

And once you're done with all these generalizations about some types of writers that might keep you warm at night in righteous fire, just remember this too: everyone has a story, elitism is an ugly trait, and the only writer you really need to worry about is you. (And maybe the one who you give your work to for feedback.)

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