(No offense to The Oatmeal)
So this cute little cartoon popped up about 30 times in my notifications yesterday.
Mostly it was sent to me by non-writer friends, as in, har har, look at that, it’s funny because it’s true… etc. And we writers are good at self-deprecation. We’re practically self-deprecation virtuosi. “Writerly self-deprecation” has become its own subgenre: see Young Adult or just about any movie or book featuring a writer.
When we’re not being dismembered by an Annie Wilkes-type, we’re wallowing in self-pity, whining about poor sales, or behaving in various pathetic ways in a futile attempt to cure writer’s block. And, of course, we’re drinking heavily.
But… no offense to The Oatmeal, if that’s all you do to be a writer, you’re not going to get very far. Here are things that real writers actually do:
Yeah, it’s a cliche, but they exist for a reason, and let’s be honest, it’s a much more productive cliche than the-writer-as-self-hating-alcoholic. Whatever your own definition of yourself as “writer” entails, whether it’s having written something (anything) at any point in your life or reaching the #1 spot on every best-seller list… guess what, you can’t get there without writing first. Because writers write. The end.
They work hard.
Okay, I think I’ve dropped the anvil in the previous paragraph and we’re in agreement, to be a writer, you must write. Something. Anything. But you must write. Now, to make what you’re writing publishable, it must be good. And to make writing good, you need to put in the work. Revisions. Rewrites. Writing 10 manuscripts that will go straight to the trunk. Every writer must pay her dues, whatever they are. And for that to happen…
They make sacrifices.
Yup, that means cancelling social plans and skipping happy hour with your buddies and letting the kitchen get REALLY dirty and eating frozen pizza for a week straight. The sacrifices are physical, mental, emotional, financial… the list goes on. From tiny little ones to major ones (getting a pricey MFA you won’t be able to use for anything and taking a year off work to write a novel), you can’t do without them. Unless you’re a reclusive multi-billionaire living on a desert island, being waited on twenty-four hours a day. Your friends will shake their heads, your parents will judge you, your spouse will contemplate leaving. People will ask if you’ve had enough of your cute little hobby yet and are ready to get a real degree/real job.
(Those are usually the same people who, when you attain any measure of success, will say things like, “See? I always told you you could do it, you just needed a little perseverance!”)
This should go hand in hand with writing, because you can’t write if you don’t read. If you want to write good books, you must read good books. And not just what’s topping the bestseller charts and what sits in the window display of your closest chain bookstore either. If you want to write original, interesting stories, you must read widely.
They find the time to do all these things.
I already went over this when I talked about sacrifices, but it bears repeating. I’m fortunate enough to have enough leisure time (my course load at school isn’t overwhelming, I don’t have children, and I have my own room I use as an office, with a door that shuts (very important!)). So I was very surprised to find out I got more writing done during the semester than on break, and even the quality of the writing was better. Why? Because of the adversity effect. On vacation, I’d get up at noon, have a coffee, another coffee, hang around social media, and before I knew it, oops, it was five in the afternoon and I’d written a whole lot of nothing. During the school year, though, it was more like “I must get in another chapter between writing these two gigantic research papers!” and I’d be hammering out 3000 words in my forty-five-minute lunch break because I knew it was the only writing time I’d have all day. That feeling of time crunch motivated me instead of stressing me. So the good news is, perhaps having to find time isn’t such a bad thing after all.
The point of all this is, if being a writer was only about self-hatred and booze, there would be a lot more NYT bestsellers around. Sadly, no, it takes a little more than that.
And by the way, I don’t need to drink. I can stop whenever I want.