Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Writing Life

I caught the end of an interview on TV last night with horse trainer, David Hayes (this being Melbourne Cup week). He was talking about horse racing, I imagine, but his last sentence struck me as applying to anything, even writing. To paraphrase (I don't think I wrote it down exactly):
If you treat it as a job, you won’t do very well. If you treat it as your life, you’ve got a good chance of succeeding.
He's right, I think, but he's also talking about fear. As long as something is a job, it conveys a number of things - validation, expectation of (regular) income, that showing up every day is enough, that meeting deadlines and working hard is enough.

But when you make something your life, that means a whole different situation. You put everything on the line. Regular income, security, respect from others (you're trying to make it as a writer?), probably sleep, sometimes family, self-worth, self-confidence. After all, what if you fail? What if you write for five or ten years and never get your novel published? Then what will happen? If you're the guy who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, you kill yourself. And then his mother got his novel published and it became a best-seller. So making writing your life might also, to you, mean you put your life on the line. Drinking yourself to death from disappointment still counts as dying.

Let's say you don't go that far or get that depressed. And let's say you'll put the fear aside for now. What benefits are there to making writing your life? Firstly, it gives you a sense of purpose and meaning you may never have had before. It gives you permission (said permission given by yourself, to yourself, the most important kind) to pour your heart and your mind and your energy into writing. It gives you permission to write about what you feel passionate about. Job writing is doing commissioned stuff for other people's needs. You can do that, too - it helps to pay the bills. But if doing that sucks all the creativity out of your life and your real writing, maybe you should consider a job at Pizza Hut.

Making writing your life can mean other unchallenging, boring things can fall off your plate, and you let them without any sense of obligation. Your life is now a challenge instead of a trudge from day to day. It's scary to get up in the morning, but that's a good thing. You might finally have the chance and the reason to go back to study, and study writing. And as you study, you only want to get better and better. Good marks help your confidence, but what you really want are those comments from your teacher. You skip past the grade and want to know what your teacher thought of your dialogue, because you know it needs work.

You buy writing books that 'speak' to you, and you learn from them, too. And then you buy writing books that are more complex because you've grown. You stop reading romances or movie tie-ins as escapism and dive head first into books that last year looked 'too hard'. You persevere with them, and grow to love the use of language and different ideas. You learn to read as a writer, and keep growing. You write every day, and celebrate at the end of the day, even if you only managed 50 words you were happy with.

You are on a journey that will never end as long as writing is your life. You will stumble, even fall. You will find others on the same journey at different times who will help you up. You will carry on with scabbed knees because the scars will also help make you a better writer. You will learn to grow a thicker skin for the rejections. You will learn how to talk to an editor at a conference as if you are a professional, intelligent being. You will keep adding things to your Ideas file, because you have learned that the more you write and read, the more ideas you have. It's a hard life, and it's an excellent life.

Some people make the decision that writing is their life in an instant. Some take several years to work up to it. Fear is a hard thing to overcome, especially when it can be many fears rolled into one and you have to deal with all of them. You can start slowly. No one will know but you. And somewhere along the way, you may discover that writing will never be your life. You just don't have that kind of feeling about it anymore. I have known writers with books published who have given up and found an easier life to live. That's fine, too. It's your life, after all.


Anonymous said...

Good post Sherryl, thanks for this. I've decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. It was a last minute decision. My writing may never be published or then again it may, but for me it is really important to write and so I am.

Sherryl said...

It's a great way to think, Cathy - to write because you love to, and want to, and never mind the publishing part. That might come later, if you're into revision!
Good luck with Nano - even just trying to write 1667 words a day, never mind good ones, keeps you busy. Or should I say, on some days, frantic!

Claudine Gueh said...

Loved this post, Sherryl. I find it tremendously stressful to think of my career in terms of logging in the hours, sales and expenditure. But when it comes to freewriting, reading, doing research on a story, and writing the story, even if it stretches through till late night, I'm happy.

SWPAnnA said...

I appreciate your advice on the layering of development that brings you back to attempt challenges for which you were not quite ready at that point when first you had the opportunity. I've learned that if I set minimum goals for myself, I get even less accomplished. The right combination of pressure and challenging goals moves me further toward success.

Sherryl said...

It's a balancing act, isn't it? For every writer, the scales tip one way or the other - bigger goals or less pressure? The key seems to be experimenting to find where your balance lies.