For too long, I’ve been living my life in the negative. At the moment, I publish this little blog called How Not To Write, a site I created in frustration as I continued to “fail” as a writer. Frankly, I have no sense that I have ever successfully defined what a writer is or is not. There are definitions to be had of course. In fact, there are hundreds of books that will define writer in any flavor that suits your fancy. However, the only person who can define you as a writer is you.
That may seem trite as you wander about the Internet looking for advice on how to get published, how to design a plot, how to create meaningful characters… But in fact, none of these things will actually make you a writer. They are techniques, skills.
Learning to make a flaky pie crust will not in turn define you as a baker. Learning proper syntax, the elements of style, or the proper technique for shooting pandas will not make you a writer. Instead, by apprenticing yourself to these rote masters, you will acquire valuable skills but the will to use them is not included in the base package.
My own will to write is a complicated beastie. At times, I have wondered if and how I will ever make a single dime from my work while simultaneously not giving a shit and wanting to write only for the love of stringing together words into sinuously serpentine sentences singularly savage and beautiful. In fact, my best writing (or so I’ve been told) is the stuff that is excessively angry or brimming with lust. Writing beautiful ditties usually elicits a polite response, for who, after all, is going to hammer a story that has obviously been written by someone at the very end of their emotional rope? Well, I might, but most people will not.
Being a writer is complicated. There is an immense amount of self-loathing involved. There is frustration. There is confusion. There is also anger. Lots and lots of anger. And shame.
My writer’s shame usually takes the form of weepy-eyed sessions of longing to provide material support to my family. The shame is that writing is a pleasure for me and of course pleasure is strictly forbidden.
I know, I know. This is a really weird world I live in, but you’ll have to forgive me. I grew up and still live in the Midwest. All of our values are essentially backward here. We work to work. Living is cause for general suspicion.
And yet, that is what writing is for those who feel compelled to do it: writing is living. To put down words is akin to breathing and like a good workout I always feel better when I create some screed or another and cast it into the ether.
Occasionally, I feel some sense of accomplishment in editing a work, making it shine. But more often than not, editing only makes what I have created worse, weaker, devoid of error (and thus devoid of flavor). Punctuation is something I do when I don’t know what to type next.
This is rather amazing though considering all of the books I have read on writing and all the writing I have done about writing. But then, maybe not. Most of my reading about writing has been geared toward figuring out why I feel compelled to do it. The writing I do about writing is a long argument about why I ought to be writing rather than doing whatever it is I am doing at the moment.
Does this seem remotely familiar to you? Do you have journals filled with chatter like this? If so, then you may be a writer. If you are afflicted with this disease, I give you both my pity and praise. It is a horribly wonderful thing.
Here are some interesting things I have learned about writing as I do:
1) I write in the morning before I go to work. This is a mistake.
I do this because there is literally no other time of the day I can successfully escape my life for two or three hours. However, two or three hours is hardly enough time to write anything of value. One is just getting warmed up by then (or perhaps even just waking up – I often wonder if I wouldn’t be better off just sleeping those two hours and tossing off something in the fifteen minutes or so I spend at the cafe right before heading into the office).
2) I think about writing when I am not writing. This is a mistake.
When I am off and about in the world, I spend far too much time thinking about the writing I either want to do or cannot do or wish that I could do. It’s depressing as hell and you should really make an effort to avoid thinking like that. Thinking about a story is one thing but thinking about the act of writing itself in such super abstract terms is damaging. This sort of day dreaming ends up making the rest of my life look like one huge pile of crap that is keeping me from writing when in fact it is my not writing that is keeping me from writing nothing else.
3) I write about writing thinking that I can help others to write. This is a mistake.
Since when did it become my duty to help all the would-be writers of the world to become their best writerly selves? And how am I even remotely qualified to do this? After all, I’m the dumbass who goes into the job he hates every single day and doesn’t write a damn thing except long and dreadfully boring essays about the not writing I’ve done these last few years. Anyone reading this column should stop now and erase their browser’s history. Wipe this site from your memory, unsubscribe from the feed. Google, if you are reading this, please do the world a public service and drop me from your index. I beg you. Do not let me infect another person with my lack of knowing.
4) I am creative. And this is a curse.
I have ideas. Lots of them. More than you do.
I know that sounds narcissistic. That’s because it is. However, just because it is self-centered doesn’t mean it isn’t true. When I am in the zone, the ideas come so quickly that it seems as if I might fall over from the strain of so much stuff firing through my neurons at once. The problem is that I can’t bring myself to concentrate on any single idea and so while there are lots of good ones in the mix, I can’t pick them out and execute them because I’m paralyzed with fear.
5) I am afraid. But please, do not feed the bears.
Fear. What a great word. When fear is the issue, people take great strides to console and pitter pat you on the back. No one wants to badger a person cowering in fear, unless they are seriously damaged and then well who gives a fuck about people like that. Anyway, fear is something that drags everyone down now and again.
My fear of writing has many shapes and forms, each more ugly than the last. Talking about that fear does nothing more than make it even more real as I can be very persuasive and convince myself that the fear is not irrational but very practical an logical.
I could list all my fears here but that would just validate them (again). So please, do not take pity on me. Do not post words of encouragement. Do not send me emails telling me that I am a fine writer (I’m not anyway so you would be lying if you said that). In other words, do not feed the bears.
6) I want to write so bad that I can’t do it.
It’s like working out. People know they feel better if they work out and eat better but really who wants to do it? Sure there are some people who love it, but that is a distinct minority of the population. Most people would prefer to sink deeper into the morass of their own personal hells. I’m one of them.
My personal hell is this writing thing. The typical response to getting frustrated is to dash it all and try something else. Lately, I’ve been toying around with art (drawing, painting, etc). I like to make pretty pictures. Its relaxing and fun, but it isn’t what I really want to do. It isn’t what I’m all about.
And so, because writing is so fucking important to me, I fail to do it (see fear above) which only feeds my desire to write and ultimately the frustration.
“Hello, circle of hell. Nice to meet you.”
In any case, here it is after 9AM. I should be at work now but I am still here writing in my studio. In fact, I’m just getting to the point where I am feeling warmed up. There’s an actual story brewing in my head that has nothing to do with any of this crap. I can feel the fiction rising, which must mean that I am nearing the end of this paragraph.