Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Ten Reasons Why Writing is Harder Than You Think

And so it has come to this. A year that I ushered in by completing the first draft of a 550-page novel is now eight seven months before the mast and the novel only feels that much farther from being ready. That's not a whine (much as it sounds like one), as much as a completely adjusted perspective on just what an undertaking a novel really becomes when one is fully present about crafting prose instead of showing off his 100,000-words-in-a-month parlor trick.

And what an adjustment that has proved to be.

From 2000 to 2012 I wrote seven different manuscripts -- fiction and non-fiction alike -- in addition to contributing (irregularly) to this blog, revising and submitting short stories, and by the way teaching a full load at one or the other of the two colleges in my town. Those of you who write do not need to hear me say that these documents were generally pretty ragged and often downright terrible. The lesson of those quasi-lost years would seem to be that, sure, you can write a book and a third during your month-long trip to Eastern Europe... but not if you also expect anyone who isn't a blood relative or a first-circle friend to read it when you're finished.

Writing, it turns out, is friggin' *hard*. To make anything worth showing to a wider audience an author has to be completely present about every thought, every paragraph, every sentence, every word. And then after typing the signoff he or she must leave the room, and then return in a few days to tear the whole thing apart and start over. Again and again and again and again and, again. In the face of that kind of demand on one's resources the idea that I might have ever published any of the earlier crashed efforts is downright laughable.

But writing is also friggin' hard for a variety of other reasons, too: some of which are less than obvious and others of which are rarely accorded the full weight of their due. Some of which are things no one ever told me. Some of which are things I never even really considered until I went through this non-consensual transformation into the stately turtle you see before you now. And yes, your mileage may vary: writing is about talent, too, and not just perseverance, and a more talented writer may not experience everything on this list as acutely -- or at all. But this column isn't for them; it's for the rest of us: the journeymen. The folks who, like me, aren't procrastinating, aren't "blocked," aren't putting off until tomorrow what can be typed or penned today, and who still find the job of creating a worthy piece of art as seemingly elusive as ever.

These are the ten reasons why writing isn't just hard, in other words, but harder than you think:

1. It is based on a core skill that literally everyone has. From a very early age all of us can write. At least in the sense that we can set a pen on a sheet of paper and drag it around and achieve the limited goal of communicating. My first intact written effort, saved dutifully by my mother, reads:

"Dear grandma and grandpa. How are you? I am fine. 
How are Scamp and Charlotte? Love, David." 

This is worthy of mention because Charlotte was a calf who was injured during delivery and died in the winter of 1975. Which would have made me five years old when I wrote that letter. And while it may never be stored in a glass display case at the National Archives it is fully intelligible as communication. So why does this have anything to do with the art form of writing being so difficult?

Because the same trap doesn't apply to any other art form you can think of.

The guitar? Wood-carving? Paint? From age five, only some of us will be able to do each of these things and others of us will not. But because writing is something you don't get to leave first grade without proving you can "do," a great many of us walk around believing that a corner desk in the guest bedroom and some carefully hoarded vacation time are the only things standing between us and an interview with Terry Gross. It's a cruel deception, made all the crueller by the fact that so many people suffer from it. Then again, so many people aren't really all that deceived, either. Which brings us to....

2. There are a huge number of great writers out there. When I was seven or eight I was given a small Casio electronic keyboard for Christmas. After which I proceeded to inflict untold pain and suffering on my parents by trying over and over again to re-create the Toccata and Fugue (which I referred to as "The Theme From Rollerball") and Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. Over and over, with no lessons and no sheet music, I hunted and pecked and experimented with the various electronic "stops," never quite getting it. At some point in all that mayhem my grandmother suggested that if I studied and practiced I might someday be a really good organist. I remember my reaction like it was yesterday: Who wants to hurl the bulk of his life at a skill that is guaranteed to win the title of second-best-in-the-room at any Podunk church in the country?

I probably didn't phrase it quite that way (certainly not to my grandmother), but the argument was fully formed in my head at age eight and now at age forty-four it continues to feel true: One almost literally cannot swing a dead cat without hitting an organist good enough to get paid real money to play the organ. Who wants to swim in a pool that deep with surplus talent?

...So what did I do with that insight? I traded a craft at which I was guaranteed to be second-best in any random church, for one at which I was guaranteed to be seventeenth.

This is also a trap, just like Number One above. The people most likely to want to be "serious" writers are almost always the ones who have fetished some delectable turn-of-phrase among their favored reading lists and endeavored to come up with something just as clever or even better. The output created by such fetishists is often turgid and overwrought and sometimes literally unintelligible. Meanwhile the people who don't give a fart in a suitcase about Lorrie Moore or Richard Ford are out there getting on with the unfussy business of conveying a more interesting idea, instead of wasting days at a time trying to figure out how to convey it more interestingly.

The end result is a world in which you can ask five aribtrary friends to write the same page from scratch, and the aspiring writer's output will be the least suitable -- pretty-much guaranteed. But then again, not all of the explanation for that outcome may be attributed to the fact that there are so many better writers out there, precisely because the term "better" is inherently relative. In other words....

3. There even more terrible ones. When it's finally over, one of the recurring themes in this column will be that aspiring serious writers are rarely taken very seriously. But why? How does it happen that telling friends about a music composition, or an unfinished painting, or a wood sculpture in the glued-block stage garners fewer aggrieved eye-rolls than the latest breathless update on that 550-page novel that still isn't finished? The reason is -- and nobody reading right now wants to hear this -- most stereotypes in this world are at least partially true. We form them as a species because the act of taking every single new experience as a fully present exercise in good faith would quickly render us too overstimulated to leave the house. We form stereotypes because they work, mostly. And the operative stereotype for this column is that if you know someone fancies him- or herself an aspiring writer, he or she is probably bad at it.

It's an all but implicit cliche but nonetheless true that most of those aspiring writers are bad at it because they never even get around to writing -- and perhaps this would have made an entry of its own. I've never met a guitarist or a wood sculptor who talks incessantly about his or her craft and doesn't actually produce anything, but I've had people who have never conventionally published a single written word in their lives put big meaty hands on my shoulder, literally or otherwise, and then proceed to try to "teach" me everything they've "learned."

The guy who wrote a half-dozen letters to the editor of his local newspaper would love to share with me what he's learned about writing. The gal I went to school with who hasn't a single non-blog publishing credit to her name would love to share with me what she's learned about writing. The guy who photocopies tri-fold documents he's prepared on his own typewriter, and then literally tucks them under the windshield wipers of parked cars, would love to share with me what he's learned about writing. It doesn't need to be said explicitly that most of these three people are God-awful writers, but what might not be so obvious is that their insistence on mongering attention for themselves as practitioners of the craft has the effect of debasing the craft itself and all of us who are doing everything in our power to take it seriously instead of ourselves.

Meanwhile the other thing a person might have noticed about that list of three would-be mentors is that the media they've chosen are all extremely short. Whether each of them has something to teach an aspiring letter-to-the-editor-writer or not, I hope we can agree that such individuals have little to offer to the aspiring craftsman of a 550-page novel. And that is because....

4. As an undertaking it is almost inconceivably immense. I covered this to some degree in the preamble, but it bears its own place on the list anyway: it's that important and than under-appreciated. At a dead run a novel or screenplay or full-length non-fiction project takes a year or more of total investment. (Much longer if the wordsmith in question is also still trying to hold down a day job.) I'm sure there must be exceptions out there -- famous books written over extremely short periods of time -- but all the anecdotes I've heard about the process of creating a masterwork are of blood and treasure going up in smoke, sometimes literally. Writing is friggin' hard. And one of the ways that it is hard is that it takes a tremendous measure of sustained commitment. Imagine a wood-carving that took two years. Imagine a pop song for the guitar that took two years. Imagine an oil painting that took two years.

Not so easy, is it. And the worst thing about that angle is that the time itself doesn't guarantee good writing. The investment of all that time and effort can and does often come to nothing. This is because good writing is about a lot more than simple commitment to effort. Which makes for one of the biggest hidden reasons that writing is harder than most people think it is:

5. It actually consists of a loosely related series of completely different skill-sets. The formal features of storytelling are well known: plot, characterization, theme, setting, imagery, narrative point of view, and... depending on whether one considers this as a separate formal feature, dialogue. But here's the thing about that: Each is its own skill. And having one of them does nothing to assure or even help any of the others.

Consider the following passage from Robert Stone's astonishing caper novel from 1975, Dog Soldiers:

Macy's was at Number Ten. It smelled of perfume and breath and there were horrible little bells.

What makes this such an amazing passage is the efficiency with which Stone has established the setting through an extremely selective use of imagery. Lots of things are true about Macy's and lots of us have experienced all of those things by going to Macy's. But the two small truths that transport us to *that* Macy's -- the two things that make it completely immediate and real for us -- are that it smells like perfume and has those horrible fucking bells.

A reader who was lightning-struck by that passage and decided to set his or her life to creating something similar could easily justify spending a year learning how to pull this particular rabbit out of the hat. (Trust me.) And at the end of that year? He or she would be good at just that one small aspect of novel-writing -- maybe.

Being able to find those impossibly efficient details that get all of Macy's front-and-center in our conscious minds does absolutely nothing for dialogue attribution, or characterization, or anything else. And worse still, a writer only has to be bad at one of the formal elements of storytelling to suck as a writer. I've read authors who can excel at everything except each of these elements, and the books always end up hurled across the room after the first few pages. And that's assuming that the feedback they've received was 100% reliable in the workshop phase. Which it rarely is. Which is to alight on yet another of the ways that writing is harder than most people think....

6. The feedback is almost never double-blind. Human beings form social hierarchies. Some of the friends in your circle can "get away with" certain things, and others can't get away with the very same things. If you hesitate to agree, try to imagine the movie *Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy* but with the casting for Bill Haden and Toby Esterhause reversed. Or if you haven't seen that movie, try to imagine Magnum, P.I. but starring Don Knotts.

When it comes to workshop, a natural bias exists among the colleagues of an aspiring writer to notice the attempt in a much more meta-critical way. In this fashion even well-crafted prose sometimes comes across as a reach -- not because of what it is but because of who is trying to get away with it. There's even a figure of speech for it in workshop: killing your darlings. The good writer, we are to believe, is the one who finds his or her ten-cent turns of phrase and excises them before the rest of the group can have the chance. The best writing is what you leave out.

In many cases this is true and good advice, but as a one-size-fits-all mantra it says as much about how these documents are being read as it does about how they're being written. The uncomfortable reality is that many darlings in published writing shouldn't be killed. Fat is what gives a piece of meat its taste. If you remember where you were the first time you read Salinger or Carver or Fitzgerald, it isn't because those guys took the extra draft necessary to excise all the interesting tunrs of phrase. Like I said, killing one's darlings is often good and true advice -- many bad writers are bad at least in part because they get too enamoured with their darlings -- but as an ethos it's total bullshit.

Then again hierarchies are much more likely to be on a writer's mind than on that of, say, a ditch-digger's, and this is yet another trap to be addressed separately, namely....

7. Writers gravitate to the form by being bad at people. I've had the unexpected pleasure of meeting a great many successful writers in my life. And by successful I might mean, in one case, possessing of the highest literary craft, and in another case I might mean possessing of an impressively outsized bank balance. Very few of these individuals would you characterize as people-persons. Many of us who write are motivated at least in part by the fact that we don't want careers as something else, which is a tautology as far as it goes, but hidden in that tautology is the realization that all of those other careers have in common a higher social interface. Writing is the least social thing you can do, period. It's no accident that many famous people did the bulk of their writing in jail: in many ways it is the ideal venue. 

How this presents as a problem is that one of the most important of the formal features, if not *the* most important, is characterization. Nobody wants to read a novel or watch a movie in which many whiz-bang-interesting things happen to characters who are inadequately established as personalities in our minds. (Which see, episodes 1, 2, and 3 of the Star Wars saga.) Now consider how self-defining a trap this sets up: A group of persons who dislike interacting with people, are thence drawn to an art form in which their prowess as maestros will be adjudged largely on their capacities to understand people. That, friends and neighbors, *that* is a trap. You can't write well if you can't make me care, and you can't make me care if you were drawn to writing because you were sick of trying to make other people care.

But what of the people who do succeed, regardless of how one defines the term? Well writing turns out to be harder than you think for them, too. Sometimes even because of that success.

8. Even if you succeed you are likely to be criticized. If I walk up to you in a cafe and say the words "Dan Brown" you might not spit your coffee across the room from laughing, but if you've read this far it's a pretty safe bet that you would at least roll your eyes. Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code) has become the 2010s answer to Robert James Waller or John Gray: An author in whom "serious" writers like ourselves hold nothing but contempt. ...Okay, well, I might not have pissed you off yet but this will definitely do it. Ready? Here goes:

Dan Brown is a better writer than you are.

Suck it up and bear with me because it's true.

Dan Brown figured out -- presumably with a lot of agency- and editorial help -- exactly what the public was hungry for in that moment, and then he delivered on it. Jesus Christ, isn't that the job? I mean to say, even if one eschews commercial reward from one's writing, isn't the point that the words will end up in front of a large audience and affect them in some way? The DaVinci Code did that. Dan Brown did that. And his reward is to be treated as someone who rose to the level of Cardinal only to renounce his faith at the moment he was to be made Pope. A human punching-bag for unpublished literary types who think black corduroy is a suitable material for a bra and six dollars is a reasonable price to pay for a cup of coffee. Dan Brown doesn't owe us anything, friends, and what we owe him is the grudging acknowledgment that he pulled something off for which most of us would cheerfully part company with a limb. Most of us will never enjoy anything like the success he has enjoyed already as a writer, and we hate him for it. And he knows it. But there's an even worse trap hiding inside that statement -- namely that we don't have to share his success to share his pain.

9. Even if you succeed and aren't criticized, few other people will truly value what you've done. Writers rarely get any sense about when they might be breaking through, let me say that up front before I share the following story. But at least for now I can still distinctly recall a moment six years ago in which my Stepfather abruptly switched from lampooning my efforts to trying to cajole me into ghosting his magnum opus about the Lake Wales Election Canvassing Board and how it had intentionally failed to enforce the law in order not to offend the victorious candidate in an unfair election.

At that moment I went from being someone worthy of his disrespect for thinking that I could write, to being someone worthy of his disrespect for thinking that I ought to be in charge of *what* I write. If I could do it, in other words, then it must be easy. And if it was easy he didn't have to be bothered. Writers who make it, however one defines that, rarely escape being routinely disrespected in this very way.

In his book on the life of the writer William Zinsser recounts the story of a cocktail party in which a cardiac surgeon said to him, "You know, I've been thinking about doing a little writing myself."

"Really?" Zinsser replied, "I've been thinking about doing a little heart surgery."

This is taking things to an extreme, I think (see number one on this list, which clearly doesn't apply equally to heart surgery), but the core point is valid. People who know, on some level, that their reluctance to be bothered is driven by more than simple time conflicts, will nonetheless treat the fully arrived writer like a sort of Ghost-in-Waiting. And make no mistake this is a painfully disrespectful experience for a writer to endure. The message coming from the non-writer is that the idea part -- the part they claim for themselves -- is the difficult bit, and the rest is just an unusually flat and filigreed plumbing job. (No offense to plumbers.) No one ever talks like this to musicians. No one. Ever. Period. No one walks up to a guitar player and says, "'DUM, dum'dum, dum, dum'dum -- DUM!' ...Okay, now you do the rest, I've just given you your first gold record."

Then again, if one is able to derive a certain left-handed validation from these horrible episodes it's probably just as well, precisely because that is increasingly the only form of validation an aspiring writer may reasonably expect:

10. The free-market price of a good writer is rapidly approaching zero. Some of the smartest people on the web are rabid opponents of all forms of intellectual property law, on the bizarre grounds that our reckless adoption of a series of non-neutral technologies has made intellectual property law easier to break. This is nothing short of childish lunacy and it is entirely without precedent in our annals as a species. Imagine if we rolled *back* our vigilance toward environmental protection in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Or made murder legal after the invention of the Colt .45 revolver. Or did away with speeding laws once we developed cars that were capable of high speed. Madness.

The very point of law, the very reason laws exist in the first place, has been to ensure that unusually intrepid souls seeking to hurt other people wouldn't be free to work around whatever physical impediments were in the way. An increase in the frequency of shoplifting does *not* mean that the products on the shelves of your local CostCo should suddenly be free. And yet somehow it does mean this for writers. Which in turn means that whatever feeble income a person might have expected even a few years ago, for example from side-efforts such as magazine articles, is all but entirely a thing of the past. Writing may not be about to go away; the written art form may not be about to go away; but the professionally self-sustaining writer of today holds an incumbency about as secure as the Asian Red Panda.

All of which adds up to doing it anyway, of course.

Or at least it had better. For anyone who is seriously considering the commitment, these entries here today should strike a chord somewhere between casual bemusement and a call to personal offense. Which is to say that what writing does have in common with other art forms is a demand for personal investment that borders on religious mania.

When I meet people who aspire to become "successful" writers I always ask them the same question: "What time of day do you write?" More often than not the answer is hazy and indeterminate and contains a great many conditional prepositions.

Now more than ever these people will *never* be writers -- precisely because the only way forward for someone who wants to write, is to feel so compelled that not even this entire list serves as anything like a real deterrent. "We write," as Oscar Wilde once had it, "because the idea of not writing is even more unbearable."

Some of us learn that lesson very quickly. Others of us start writing seriously when we are twenty years old, and are still trying to learn it at age forty-four.

But, O the thrill of trying.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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