On writing (and not writing)

“I don’t like writing – I like having written.”

This over-used and widely attributed phrase is by far the most succinct summary I have ever heard of the sublime agony that is writing. Despite what popular culture would tell us, writing rarely flows from the fingertips like grammatical gold. It’s hard. Like, really hard.

You sit and stare at your computer, willing the embryonic ideas swimming around in your brain to present themselves on the page in a neat and orderly fashion. A sentence comes to mind, then a paragraph, and occasionally a page or two. Sometimes you love what you’ve written, and you can sleep easy knowing that your place in the pantheon of brilliant writers is secured. Other times you agonise over every word, worrying if you’ll ever get it right. Doubts circle over the carcass of your prose like vultures, waiting to feed on the thin veneer of your self-esteem. Why is it so hard? My last book/story/article/chapter was so much better – am I losing my knack? So-and-so writes so much better than me – why would anyone want to read my tripe? And perhaps the biggest doubt of all – why does everyone else find it so easy?

I can answer the last question with two simple words – they don’t.

As someone who seems to have developed a reputation for being a prolific writer, I’d like to put the kibosh once and for all on this idea that writing is all puppies and kittens. Oh, sure, sometimes it’s wonderful – the muse whispers gently in your ear, and the words fall into place like a well-played game of tetris. But most of the time the muse is screaming obscenities in your face, and such words as you can dredge up feel like an endless stream of those stupid L-shaped blocks. Honestly, who needs that many L-shaped blocks, tetris God? Screw you, you block-faced son-of-a-bitch – I’m going to the dairy/doing some housework/rewarding myself with some facebook time!

In other words, writing is sublime agony – and by that, I mean about 15% sublime, 85% agony. Not a single day goes by without me doubting myself at least once. And having written both fiction and non-fiction, I can say that neither is more sublime or less agonising that the other. Writing fiction is like taking a road trip across the country – you know roughly where you’re headed and some of the stops along the way, but you still have to figure out what route to take, where to eat, and where to stop each night (not to mention those unexpected detours and potholes). Writing non-fiction is like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle without the image on the box – and, what’s worse, the pieces can fit together in a number of different ways.

The trick, if you can call it that, is to just do it. There is no magic bullet – or if there is, nobody has had the decency to shoot me with it yet. Force the words onto the page, even if they feel like an affront to the English language. Set a realistic daily goal for yourself – whether it’s a word/page/paragraph count or a period of time – and don’t stop until your bladder (or some other valid emergency) forces you to. If it’s just not happening, try writing something else – an article, or a short story. If you’re really desperate, you can always write a blog post about writing (see what I did there?). The point is to write something – anything. If you still hate it the next day, you can always change it.

And remember – agony is normal. If you weren’t meant to be a writer, you wouldn’t worry so much about it!


3 thoughts on “On writing (and not writing)

  1. I’m agonising over a writing project now, and a friend kindly (wonderfully!) sent me to your post. I am so encouraged in reading this post. And, your writing is amazing!

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