The Hard Work of Writing Part 1

The wonderful Trudy Morgan Cole tagged me when she posted a link to an article on facebook. The article was from Elizabeth Gilbert, she of Eat, Pray, Love and took a poke at Philip Roth for trying to discourage a young writer from his profession. Trudy knew I’d love what Gilbert said and I did. I really did. Because I’d said it so many times before. To Trudy, had heard it from Trudy, ranted to others about it. Gilbert said it much better than I ever could but that won’t stop me. Because I like to rant, especially about something I rant about so often.

Pity the poor writer, slaving away in her basement or chained to his keyboard. Hunched over, fingers aching, brain reeling. I often hear, or read about, writers complaining how tough it is to write. How they agonize over a paragraph for hours and then finally, fretfully, after wrestling with their commas and periods and which synonym of the word ‘bend’ they should use, get that paragraph done. Only to cut it out in a couple of months when they revise the work again. How they torture over each syllable and every word.

Bah, humbug. Oh, I’m not saying it’s easy. But it’s not that hard. It’s not sit and stare “at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” But it’s not as easy as deciding to whip out a novel on your two week vacation either. It requires, just like any profession does, practice and doing it over and over and over until you get the mechanics of it down. The hard part is that even when you’ve done all that, you can still write crap. But I digress.

My husband is at work now. He’s a mechanic and is probably standing under a car in a cold garage as the snow under the car melts and drips down his back. Or he’s under someone’s dash trying to get some tiny bolt loose and has shredded his knuckles to blood while he’s at it. He’ll come home with a couple of new cuts, maybe a new burn, or several since the hot metal tends to roll after it burns through your shirt. He recently got an x-ray on his hand and the radiologist commented about the many pieces of metal embedded there. My husband can point out some of them and tell you where they came from. But he won’t. That’s just part of his job. He comes home and rarely complains. He just does it.

So how am I to moan to him, when he comes home, that I spent much of the morning trying to figure out if a sentence needed a semicolon or a period? Should I tell him I “tortured” to get 2000 words done? He’d listen and he’d care if I did said that but I wouldn’t. Because. Well. Tough. That’s my job and it’s a pretty damn good one. The pay is quite crappy but I get to make stuff up all day. And sometimes people tell you that something you wrote changed their lives in some way or made them happy or made them cry. I’ve been hugged and thanked by someone I didn’t know because of something I wrote. I get emails thanking me or telling me what a great job I did. That’s not too shabby as jobs go.

Okay, I know comparing jobs like that is not fair. Of course my husband’s job is harder than mine. But why do so many writers say that theirs is so difficult? Maybe they are just wayyyy better writers than me and if I had to literally spend days staring at one word to see if it’s the right one, I’d probably piss and moan about how awful it is too. Maybe they don’t put things in perspective or haven’t worked at a really crappy job. I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s that terribly hard to be a writer.

Maybe it’s that writers know they’ll be listened to if they complain. If not by friends and acquaintances then by people who read their blogs (yes, like you four reading mine) and tweets and facebook updates. People are fascinated with the minutiae of writing. With the act of writing itself. The first thing someone asks upon learning you’re a writer is how you write. Computer? Pencil and paper? Pen? Really? What kind of pen? What kind of paper? Unlined? Lined? I mean how many gardeners get questions about whether they like an electric or manual hedge trimmer? Maybe lots but I’m guessing none. And while people are listening about the mechanics of writing, why not toss in a bit about the pain of it all? The tortured writer. Then fellow writers can quote them and write articles about it.

See, they don’t write articles about other people complaining about their jobs. No headlines that say ‘Coal Miners Say Job Sucks.’ If you look up ‘convenience store clerk’ in a book of quotes, you won’t find Emily Pope: “I pored over that case of canned peas I put on the shelf last night. I agonized over every label to make sure it was exactly perfect. And then I had to put prices on them all too! My fingers nearly bled!” There are no interviews about how tough it is to clean a mall bathroom. No one quotes poor [fictional] Earl Shaw saying “that toilet was clogged up so bad a horse must have been using it.” There is no immediate follow up question about what cleaning method Earl used to get rid of that mess. Because he just did it. No thinking about it (although in Earl’s case one would think the less thinking about it the better). He just did it.

I believe it’s the thinking that’s the problem. We writers think about the job of writing so much. Too much. That’s the one thing writers do a lot. They think. But hey, that’s for part 2.

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