Lessons (and Confessions) About The Writing Life
By Leslie J. Hall
"Keep in mind that learning how to write novels is a process. It takes a lot of time and infinite labor. After only a few months of lessons, you would be foolish to conclude that you were unfit to become a concert violinist. With writing novels too, if you have a passion for it, you must give yourself years to practice, to learn to overcome your mistakes, and to prove to yourself that you possess the necessary skills."
- Albert Zuckerman
I was a young teenager when I decided I wanted to be writer. At that time, I didn’t have any idea what “being a writer” meant. I wrote poetry. I wrote short stories, but I really had no idea of what I was doing. When I told my family that I wanted to be a writer, they smiled and said “how nice.” It wasn’t that they weren’t supportive; it just wasn’t something they knew how to react to. Oh, you want to be creative… ah, yes.
Nothing I experienced in high school helped me in my pursuit. All the formula English classes and vocational aptitude tests didn’t lead me toward being a writer. (One even told me I would make a good arch welder!) But a writer was the only thing I ever wanted to be. I never had a desire to be a nurse like my mother or a teacher or an engineer or…
In college, I took English classes. Studying Chaucer and Dante, like diagramming sentences, didn’t make me feel like a writer. So I just kept writing. I loved television so I wrote scripts to my favorite shows. (This was in the early 80s so we’re talking Miami Vice era.) I wrote screenplays and short stories, and my pile of writing grew. But I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. And I still didn’t feel like a writer.
In 1986, I moved to Los Angeles. I loved movies and I thought I wanted to be a screenwriter. But I was still very ‘green’. My writing rough. I was really doing was concentrating on the act of becoming a writer more than the actual writing. I finally took some fiction classes at UCLA and I began to learn the craft of writing. I started a novel and it took me over five years to finish. That was 18 years, seven novels, and many, many articles ago. In those years, I have learned a few things about what it takes to “be a writer”. The one thing that matters the most is this…
Writer is someone who writes. That’s it. It’s that simple. But listen carefully. A writer is someone who writes. The statement doesn't say that the writing must be dazzling or even publishable, you just have to write. A writer you may have heard of, Danielle Steele, once said, “It used to make me mad as hell when people asked me what I did and I said I was a writer. They say, “Oh, have you published?” What difference does that make? Being a writer means you’ve written something.”
There are days I don’t want to write. Days when I will feel like I have nothing to say. One day I think what I’ve written is brilliant. The next, I read my pages and want to slash my wrists. I’m sure you’ve felt that way. The one consistent in the writing life is that writing is always an emotional roller coaster. Up and down and sometimes upside down until we feel sick.
John Steinbeck said, “The profession of writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.” And I found an anonymous quote that said, “I took up bullfighting because of the uncertainty of my life as a writer.” There are days I wonder why I do it.
Why do we do it? Why are you reading this magazine for writers? For me, it is not why I write. I must write. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted and the only thing that really makes me feel fulfilled. There’s passion in it for me. Why do I do it? Because I have no choice. This is my calling. Sometimes, I’m thankful for that calling. Days when the writing is flowing and my world is cooperating. But other times, it feels like a curse, a burden to endure.
Writing is often about struggling. The struggle to get words on the page, the struggle to make those words form a story or an article. The struggle to get an agent or a publisher. The struggle to write the next thing. The second thing I’ve learned about writing is that it’s about persistence. Writers must find a way of sticking with it in spite of the obstacles. In spite of the days when we feel completely uncreative. In spite of the days, weeks, or months when our “real lives” get in the way.
One of the techniques that has helped me persevere is my commitment to writing. Commitment is a big scary word, but it is a requirement to surviving the writing life. I must continually remind myself that this is what I want to do and be, and renew that commitment every day. In her book “The Writer’s Survival Guide,” Rachel Simon says, “The biggest impediment to writing is not friends or teachers or editors or any thing external. The biggest impediment to writing is you.”
That has been a hard lesson for me to learn. I have berated myself for the times I didn’t write. I have cursed first drafts and found error in published articles. Another thing I learned about this crazy world of writing is the need to be kind to your writing self. You must love yourself, care about yourself, in order to be truly creative. Learning to do things just for you is a challenge. But persist. Buy yourself flowers or a new pen or chocolate or whatever makes you smile. Parents know that if you are harsh, unreasonable, and demanding of a young child, the child will usually act rebellious, immature, and refuse to do what you asked. The same works with your creative self. Be kind to it. Pamper it.
That’s the next lesson. It’s okay to write badly. It’s all right to create things that will never be publishable. Trying to write well often makes one write too carefully. We tell ourselves what we are doing can’t be “real” writing. This isn’t how “real” writers work. Writing junk is part of the learning process, part of becoming a writer. What does “well written” mean any way? Who creates the definition? We can only do that for ourselves. Remember what rough draft really means. Rough. You must write poorly in order to learn to write well. Give yourself permission to write—whether or not you think the writing is any good.
Another lesson I’ve learned is that the phrase “I don’t have enough time” is fiction. In “The Right to Write”, Julia Cameron says, ”The myth that we must have “time”—more time in order to create is a myth that keeps us from using the time we have.” My years as a single parent of a small child, a full time job and a part time writing and teaching career, have taught me to grab for moments of time instead of waiting until I have “enough time” or until I feel motivated and inspired. People look at my busy life and ask 'how do you do it?' When do you write? Because I love to write, because I am committed, I make time to write.
Obsession with time is often just an obsession with perfectionism. Writers have no time for perfectionism. Julia Cameron also says “Making writing a big deal tends to make writing—difficult. Keeping writing casual tends to keep it possible.” Remember, it is okay to write junk. Allow yourself to write whatever comes. Because remember, all you have to do is write.
On a more practical level, there are some tricks that make finding the time and the actual writing easier. First, create a writing workspace. Make a spot in your home where you always go to write, even if it's just a corner or a chair with a basket beside it. Be set up and ready to go, so that preparation can never be used as procrastination. If you can, or if you have to, get out of the house to avoid distractions. Sometimes, Mother Nature can be great inspiration.
Second, if you can, set a writing schedule. This I have struggled with the most. Life is not orderly. Constant interruptions and distractions arise. But a schedule (writing at the same time every day or every week) provides continuity and builds a good habit. A regular schedule is another procrastination buster. Find the time of day you do your best work or just the time of day you have a free moment. Pretend that you don’t have a job, or kids, or other obligations, just for this moment. This is your time to “be a writer”.
My students know I am an advocate of getting support. Whether you join a local writing group or regularly participate in an on-line group or attend classes and conferences, build a support network of other writers. A writing group has always been my best “deadline.” I know I must have pages ready and I always leave the group feeling more inspired. But beware. There are unhelpful groups out there, make sure yours works for you.
Some people discount writing groups saying “how could anyone know anything about my work?” This may be true, but your fellow writers are also your fellow readers. They are an audience for your work in progress—but an audience who also knows a little of the struggle you face when you look at the blank page. What your group says, may have an affect on your writing, as will a critic’s review of published work, but it should never affect your commitment to writing.
If you decide writing is important, that should be enough, right? I always thought so. I love to write so I should just write all the time, never procrastinate; be disciplined, right? It just doesn’t work that way. I mentioned deadlines. Another helpful tool for writers is goal setting. Goal setting is a way of focusing your life and determining priorities. It’s about deciding what is truly important to you.
What is discipline and why don’t I have it? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, discipline means: --1. Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior. --2. Controlled behavior resulting from such training.
Ah hah! Training. Don’t expect to be disciplined over night. It takes time. Setting goals will help. But think them through. The goals must be specific, must have concrete deadlines, and must be realistic. Five pages by my next writers group meeting. One completed short story by the February deadline of a writing contest. One article per month for the next six months. A completed manuscript by next year’s conference. Now when someone asks for your time, instead of saying no you can honestly say, “I have other priorities.”
These are my lessons (and confessions) on how I survive the writing life. And I have survived. It is not an easy road to choose. Non-writers in our lives can’t comprehend the anguish of a rejection letter or the fear when approaching a blank page. Daily there is bad news about the publishing business, the lack of markets for beginners, or the decline in readers in our country. But writing brings a kind of clarity to my world. It’s what I am meant to do. It can be invigorating, up-lifting and stress reducing.
Remember. There is no trick to being a writer. All you have to do is write. In spite of everything, just write. Then you are a writer.
As I was leaving home this morning, I saw a framed print I have on my desk. It says, “Success is a journey, not a destination.” I think that’s what writing is all about. Enjoying the process of writing. If you publish and the world says you’re successful, great. But make sure you have enjoyed the journey.
© Leslie J. Hall 2004