Tag: a writer’s job

Who’s Your Gatekeeper: Writer’s Edition

Sometimes I swan around with a pen in my mouth not unlike a writer might.

Today I saw a quote attributed to a writer, shared by a different writer, and then commented on by a bunch of writers.  Here’s the magical gem itself:

Writer’s block? I’ve heard of this. This is when a writer cannot write, yes? Then that person isn’t a writer anymore. I’m sorry, but the job is getting up in the fucking morning and writing for a living.

I’m not actually going to say the person’s name to whom this quote is attributed.  I will only refer to him as “him” or possibly “that crusty old knob”. This quote definitely got a reaction out of almost everyone who read it.  I found this quote (by an author I’ve never heard of) revolting on so many levels I felt compelled to dust off Ye Olde Bloggenfort to unpack the misery of the above statement.

Let’s open this fucker up with the first nugget of shit it’s composed of:  the dismissal of writer’s block as simply the choice to write or not write, evidence of laziness basically. No writer chooses to have writer’s block, to sit down to their desk again and again to find that the conduit between their thoughts and the page has been broken, damaged, or become blocked up. Typically, when a writer experiences this enough times in a row they become so frustrated with the shit that’s coming out that they take a break to clear their head. Then they come back again and hope they’ve shaken off the dust and unclogged the pipeline of clear thinking to workable words on a page. Sometimes it’s just a blip. You shake it off and get back to the work.

But sometimes this continues on for such extended periods that a writer begins to doubt themselves, starts listening to all kinds of suggestions for getting their word skills back that they were sure they used to have. Sometimes it’s the story they’re trying to tell that’s the problem and maybe if they work on something else for a while and come back to the stuck story later they’ll be able to sort it out. Sometimes it’s the life all around them that’s blocking up the brain-pipes. Writers write, but they also have lives outside the words and also bodies that can become injured, ill, or exhausted caring for other injured or ill bodies that fall within the realms of their responsibility. Other things that can clog the conduit of brain-to-page flow is emotional or mental issues.

That Old Crusty Knob of a writer is saying that you must sit down to the page every day and fuck you and your troubles. Real writers power through no matter what and suck it if you become deathly ill – didn’t write this morning? I’M SORRY BUT YOU MUST HAND IN YOUR WRITER CARD AT ONCE BECAUSE YOU ARE NO LONGER PRIVILEGED TO CALL YOURSELF A WRITER. What a cuntish thing to suggest. The only part that old crusty knob gets right, in my opinion, is that if you want to make a living out of writing you can’t simply wait to be in the mood or hope for inspiration to move words out of your head and onto the page when and if they do. It’s true that you need to write on a regular and consistent basis because you can’t sell what you haven’t written. However, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at this writing life.

I wrote nearly every day from the time I was 10 years old until I gave birth to my son when I was 30. I filled a hundred notebooks with poems and essays and attempts at fiction. I submitted many poems to periodicals. I published my own crappy little zine of poems. I did not get published through those efforts. I did not get paid a penny. I had only flashes of brilliance mixed in with a whole lotta slosh. But I sat down every fucking day and I wrote and I got better at it every day. For twenty years. TWENTY YEARS. I was 23 years old when I decided to tell people I was a writer. That’s when I realized that it didn’t matter if I got published, or paid, or known. I might die an unsuccessful writer but at 23 years old I stopped letting anyone be my writing gatekeeper. I write. I am writer.

But like I said, after my son was born I tried to keep writing and found myself dried up inside. I had plenty going on inside my head that I was desperate to get onto a page but every time I sat down to get them out they evaporated like meager drops of sweat hitting the hot rocks in Death Valley. What came out was a pale reflection of my previous ability to put what was in my head onto the page. I still sat down to write and tried day after day until it became so frustrating and demoralizing that I just gave up for months. That was my first bout of writer’s block and it was awful. Losing that conduit from the mess of my loud brain to the clarity and satisfaction of the page made me feel like I’d lost a vital function of myself. But I was still a writer. I was a writer who suddenly couldn’t write a decent sentence. I played that game where you just get words on the page and worry about making them good later in edit stage. You can’t edit what you haven’t written, after all. But I couldn’t even get editable shit on the page.

Here’s what I realized much later as I eased my way back to language: the brain is a fertile field that can be worn down hard by too many crops that deplete it to the point where nothing grows in it any more. Some writers are good at frequently replenishing their brain fertility by reading books, watching movies, walking in nature, traveling, doing other creative things, or taking classes. But sometimes, even if you do this, you may find you need to let the writing fields go fallow. Maybe for a few days. A month. A year. There’s no right or wrong to it. There’s no good or bad to it. You don’t lose your writer’s card because there is no card that anyone can give or take away from you.

I’m going to also suggest that women experience a much harder time replenishing themselves while writing because, believe it or not, they are still the main caretakers of their children and partners and often ALSO have to work for income. We still don’t live in an equal world and I notice men find it much easier to shut their family responsibilities out so they can get their writing in and they have a greater expectation that their families will and should give them the space and time to do this. Even when women have really supportive spouses it’s difficult for them to shut out their family responsibilities to write. I did it to write my one finished novel and there’s no way in hell I would ever have finished writing my book (and then re-writing it over and over) if I hadn’t relegated much of the daily expectations my family had of me to my partner who did his best to give me the space I needed. It was hard on them and I’m not sorry I took the time and space I needed to finish my novel but I have ONE child and a supportive spouse, many women have multiple children and less than supportive spouses. Many women can’t do this without a great deal of guilt and push-back from everyone around them. So fuck anyone who doesn’t take into account that we do not all have equal situations, lives, experiences, spaces, monies, or time to write in.

Let’s unpack the other big hideous assumption the above quote makes: the assumption that every writer’s job is writing. Until you’ve broken through and already started making money with your writing you are most likely writing between other jobs that take up a lot of your time. For most people working towards a goal of writing for a living it’s a really tough balancing act that stretches resources and (as mentioned above) the needs of those in your life to the limits. The Crusty Knob who said that “the job” is sitting down to fucking write every morning is one who’s actually making money on his writing, so yeah, that’s now his actual job which is awesome. I don’t doubt for a single second that he worked his ass off getting to where he is. That is NOT in question. And most writers who make it commercially at some point put in a lot of writing time between other jobs and responsibilities and I am in no way saying you can achieve success as a writer without writing as often and as prolifically as your able to.

What I’m saying is that most writers aren’t making any money writing so writing is the dream job they’re working towards and not the actual job paying the bills and feeding the babies or dogs or self. We don’t all work at the same pace either. Even if every writer had all the time in the world and not a bill to pay, some writers can pump out books like a machine while others take a decade to finish a single book. Or a lifetime. I happened to take years to write a single book. I’ve finished exactly one book and it’s looking like I’ll have another one done possibly before I die. Maybe two if I live to be very very old. I’m envious of those friends of mine who finish a book a year or two books a year. Definitely jealous of them. But some people are jealous of my rapid pace of one book every decade or two.

We all have our own paces, our own processes, our own goals, and our own ideas about what success means to us. There is no right or wrong way to write and as long as you have put in a lot of time writing and working on your skills – taking your growth as a writer seriously – you’re a writer even when crossing a vast desert devoid of words. Once you’re a writer, you’re a writer. It isn’t just a “job”, it’s a passion and a driving force. If it wasn’t, writer’s block wouldn’t feel so much like a betrayal.

So let’s ditch The Old Crusty Knob’s entire quote now. Let’s toss it in the trash heap where it belongs and the next time you or I encounter another asinine opinion on writing like that, let it follow this one straight into the trash. Here’s what I want to put in its place: no one is the gate keeper to your writing life, your identity as writer, or your success as a writer except yourself.

There are enough challenges ahead of all of us who want to make a living being a writer without other writers breaking us down and telling us who we are or aren’t. I love listening to other writers talk about their processes, their struggles, their successes but I never want to be that voice that shuts another person’s dreams down.

I wrote reams and reams of poetry, short stories, and hideous attempts at novels and I became a writer doing it. Then I wrote blogs for years and even had an audience. Then I wrote and self published a novel that has gone exactly nowhere. I haven’t finished a single writing project for the last four or five years since I published my own novel because I seem to have been drained out in some way. I keep coming back to the page because I don’t know who I’d be if I didn’t still try to get words out. I might never finish writing another novel but I will be a writer til I die. Once you’ve become a writer inside yourself, once you know yourself to BE a writer, it ceases to be “the job” or even “the dream”, it becomes part of your identity as a human. I may die an unknown and unpaid author but I will die a writer.

I AM WRITER.

Ditching Strategy For Instinct

I keep trying to figure out what my strategy should be for my career as a novelist.  Should I start working on the next Cricket and Grey?  After reading a lot of industry blogs and articles about getting published, what agents are looking for, what people are actually buying, and how writers should build their careers and their “platform”*, I thought that was the way to go.  I don’t want to just stumble down the road towards some ill-defined goals, do I?  I need to know EXACTLY what I’m aiming for, make a plan, follow the blueprint to success without wavering.  Right?

Right?

If I set aside all the research I’m doing that says a book series will sell better than a literary fiction one-off, if I ignore all the formulas for writing success that are offered by the published masses, my instinct tells me to work on the first book I wrote.  The one I had to set aside for two years to let it breathe.  I mentioned it here a few times since finishing Cricket and Grey that Jane is speaking in my head and won’t shut up.  It’s a complete wild mess right now, that story.  I don’t quite know what to do with the plot and I know I need to figure it out before I dig myself deep in the hole of writing it again.  While doing agent research I have this nagging thought that Jane Doe is more likely to get printed.  It makes no sense.  I feel very good about Cricket and Grey but the other story is something powerfully visceral to me and it isn’t good for a series.  It’s a one off.  It’s very dark.  I made a concerted decision that I wanted to write mainstream fiction because I want a career writing novels, I want to actually sell books.  That’s strategy.  That’s smart.  But does it matter what’s smart strategy if underneath everything there’s a story that really needs to see the light of day that doesn’t fit into the plan?

I’ve come to an important conclusion.  We all have our roles in life, in our chosen industries, our chosen paths.  In the publishing world it takes editors to polish manuscripts, agents to sponsor them- to get publishers to publish them, and marketing firms to market them, and book sellers to bring them to the public.  There’s such a long string of people that have important roles in bringing books to life and light.

The writer’s job, as I see it, is to put their fingers on the pulse of their community and the world they live in and translate what is living underneath the surface of life that everyone feels but don’t have the words to describe.  Writers say what others are powerless to say for themselves.  Writers are the eyes and ears of our times, just as other artists are, and tell the truth with lies.  And sometimes, their greatest work is to make you forget your own life for a little while so you can face another day of it.  Each writer has to trust their own instinct for what they have to tell, what they are here to reflect, share, voice, or expose.  There’s no one way to do it.  There’s no one method to be the writer you’re meant to be.  Keeping in touch with and trusting your own instinct is the only way you’ll truly know.

That there is an opinion.  You may contradict it if it isn’t true for you.

See what I mean?  Everyone has their own version of how to become the writer they need or want to be.  I have been paying too close attention to what other people think I should do and how to appeal to the right people.  I think I will appeal best if I follow my instincts.  I have never been steered wrong following my gut.  Never.  So I will continue to send queries for Cricket and Grey because I think it’s a great story and when I find an agent who’s excited to represent it maybe they’ll tell me I need to immediately write a second book.  I’ll listen, at that point.  But right now, while I look for an agent for that book, I know I need to sort out the first one because it is taking up too much space in my head and so must be finished to make room for whatever story is next.

This week I finally figured out what the real title of the Jane Doe book is.  Ready for it?

THE WINTER ROOM

I was talking about it to another writer friend and I suggested this might be the title and as soon as I said it I knew it.

It’s nice when things are so clear.

I am opening files now as I finish this post.  Files of notes, notes about the disaster of the first draft which is such an emotionally heavy work trying to get to the surface of the ocean from the floor.  My job is to cut the cement from the body of the story and stitch it up before the sharks find the blood.  It will continue to be heavy with water but clear with light.

I can do this.

*I loathe that expression as much as I loathe describing oneself as a “brand”.  It’s just splashy marketing words that have become obnoxious and pompous.