IT HAS REQUIRED QUITE ASTONISHING EFFORT, ENDURANCE, AND FORTITUDE TO BECOME AND REMAIN A WRITER. IT STILL DOES.
HAS IT BEEN WORTH IT? IS IT STILL WORTH IT?
Life, as far as a writer is concerned, is all material. Every thought and every experience—whether good or bad, and no matter how intimate—is evaluated, consciously or subconsciously, as to its possible relevance to the written word.
A writer never stops working. Whether you are sitting at your desk actually writing—or lying in the sun on the Costa Del Sol (Spain) glass of wine at one hand, near naked companion touching the other (people do actually take vacations in Europe)—you think writing.
When you are asleep, your subconscious makes its own essential contribution.
And the damn thing works without pay!
Writing is an evolutionary process. It starts with gathering information in any and every way possible. The inevitably confusing and chaotic consequence of all this input tends to be compounded by the fact that the creative mind tends to be both questioning and restless to the point of exhaustion. It refuses to accept the incoming data on face value. It examines, queries, debates, prioritizes, changes—and, above all, struggles. It eschews the obvious and the predictable. It experiments with unorthodox associations. It rejects and re-examines. And the whole stress-inducing business takes as long as it takes. The truly creative mind has a strange sense of time and scant regard for deadlines. Yet, from such anarchy stems insight and clarity—or such is the goal.
Writing is the conversion of thought into the written word—a deceptively simple process when described—but agonizingly difficult to do well because you have also got to engage, entertain, and convince the reader—and keep doing it for hundreds of pages. Then, there is the modest matter of having thoughts of some value in the first place. That takes an original cast of mind—and more work than most can imagine.
A principle of life is that the simpler it looks, the harder it almost certainly is to do. What looks effortless invariably takes practice, experience, and sustained effort.
Clear, entertaining, and compelling writing requires formidable commitment.—and the persistence of Sisyphus. The professional writer is a driven talent. Such people have to be.
Today, you are not just competing with other writers in unprecedented quantities, but with more distractions than have ever existed throughout history—everything from TV to phone apps—and many free at that, and, where smart phones are concerned, constantly at hand.
Hemingway put it well. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Bleeding is no longer enough. Hemingway lived and wrote in a simpler time when a writer’s primary preoccupation was the writing itself. Today, a writer has to be concerned with a wide range of activities from cover design to marketing to the ever changing complexities of social media.
The process of writing alone can be agonizing—and break your heart, your hopes, and your spirit. It can be humiliating. Add in the other areas a writer has to be concerned with, and the totality of effort required becomes formidable in the extreme. It is relentlessly demanding.
Writing, in my case, isn’t a job. It’s a total commitment. It’s a way of thinking, and life, which influences my every conscious action to a degree many would find surprising—and probably unacceptable.
They would regard the price as being too high—far too high. Awful!
They have my sympathy. It probably is too high by most standards. A self-employed book writer like me faces:
- FAILURE. Chronic failure across the spectrum including being unable to write quite as well as one wants. A writer, no matter how successful, lives with failure because such creative endeavor is a search for perfection—an innately unachievable goal. It requires a particular kind of personality to live with that.
- YEARS OF LEARNING. Years, and then decades, spent learning one’s craft. It’s important to keep learning and to appreciate that breakthroughs come from pushing the envelope—and sometimes doing something you dislike. I loathed blogging but was encouraged to continue. I did—and it has had a profoundly constructive effect upon my writing. Now, I love it.
- LOST TIME. Denial of opportunity—particularly where time is concerned. Writing is time-consuming to a degree that most people don’t understand. As a consequence, a writer has to make hard choices which can be seen by others as being selfish. There is no alternative because time is finite. Creativity is not about compromise. It is about focus in pursuit of a result. Such zeal can be misinterpreted as cruelty. It isn’t. It is necessary.
- WORKING EXTRAORDINARILY HARD. Between research and writing, I put in more than 80 hours a week. I cannot say that is what every writer does, but I can say that most I know would regard a normal 40 hour week as being close to decadent. Mind you, we writers aren’t against a little decadence every now and then.
- LOSS OF PRIVACY. Most of us construct a carapace and conceal our doubts, imperfections, and fears behind it. Doubtless, we writers do the same thing—but then we reveal ourselves at length through our writing.
- SELF-DOUBT & STRESS. Chronic self-doubt and stress. Your self-doubt is not confined to your writing—where being self-critical is essential if you are to improve. But you also question your way of life because it is a ridiculously difficult and impractical path to choose. There are many easier ways to make a more financially rewarding living.
- REJECTION. Rejection—again and again. Rejection pervades the book business and even the most successful authors have normally been rejected multiple times. A writer faces rejection by agents, publishers, critics, family, friends, and most of the rest of the human race. Your best friend may end up being your cat. The worst fate of all is to be rejected by one’s readers.
- THE LOW PROBABILITY OF SUCCESS. The high probability of total failure. Very few of us earn enough to make a living from writing, and only a small elite group become consistently Best Selling Authors. And, in their cases, it is all too easy to become the prisoner of a genre—even though you crave to write something else. Being in a creative prison—even if you are wealthy—is soul-destroying. A tip—if you are going to have your soul destroyed, it is more endurable if you are wealthy.
- FINANCIAL INSECURITY. Chronic financial insecurity. This is normally enough to break most of us just by itself. More than a few writers live in poverty.
- IGNORANCE. A lack of understanding by the majority. In my experience, most people are deeply and profoundly ignorant about writing as a way of life. Since most of us know how to write—albeit to a minimal standard—that statement is somewhat counter-intuitive, but the point to grasp is not that they don’t understand the mechanics of the process, but that a writer’s mindset doesn’t resonate with them. We think differently. If they knew how differently, they would run!
- SOCIAL UNACCEPTABILITY. Being regarded as something of a failure and socially unacceptable by many. People tend to evaluate you by how much money you make (and who you work for—prestige by association)—and most writers just don’t make that much money. The more perceptive don’t particularly like the fact that writers are in the judgment business (as in wondering whether a person can be utilized in writing in any way). That can be regarded as closer evaluation than is socially comfortable. To make it worse, writers tend to be unusually observant and empathetic—so little escapes our notice. But, we tend to be hardest of all on ourselves.
- LACK OF SUPPORT. A lack of support by your nearest and dearest. If you are not a good breadwinner—and most writers are not—people’s faith in you has a habit of evaporating. Love can meet the same fate.
- CRITICISM. Editorial criticism. A good editor can be enormously helpful, but they are rare and over-worked. The corporatization and consolidation of traditional publishing has meant that there are now many fewer editors than there were—and they have markedly less time to work with an author. As to the quality of editors, the odds are against being hooked up with a good one. Working with an editor you are not compatible with can be a soul-destroying experience. I have been there. It is.
- AGENT & PUBLISHER EXPLOITATION & DISHONESTY. Frequent truly bad advice and exploitation by both agents and publishers. It seems to be generally assumed that a writer will be well advised by both agent and publisher. What they don’t understand is that the writer, agent and publisher have very different agendas. The writer is creative. The agent and publisher are sales people—middlemen who make a living by exploiting the talents of the creative. You can argue that such exploiters perform necessary functions in the process—especially because many writers are temperamentally unsuited to perform the commercial aspects of the process. Nonetheless, as a consequence, the writer may well be be lied to and otherwise deceived to a degree that is hard to credit. In my experience, the best advice comes from only one source—other writers.
- LONELINESS. Most of us both enjoy and require a high level of social interaction. In contrast, most book writers work alone in order to focus. Such solitude can be both depressing and soul destroying. In my case, I don’t find it so because my characters are real to me when I write—and I find writing generally is so fulfilling. But the potential for social alienation is there.
- MARKETING NEGLECT. Being badly marketed by publishers. It is a terrible thing to work for years on a book and then have it die because no one knows that it exists. Most books are merely distributed and not marketed at all. Readers stumble across them—if you are lucky.
- BAD REVIEWS. Public criticism in the form of really bad reviews. Such criticism may well not be justified. Nonetheless, these hurt your sales, your finances, and your pride.
- DESPAIR. A writer will be tempted to despair more often than I care to describe. You have to endure regardless. The qualities a writer requires—apart from writing talents—are somewhat paradoxical. It helps your actual writing greatly if you are emotionally sensitive and empathetic—which almost certainly makes you vulnerable—but you also need to be mentally tough and resilient, or the life will kill you. In short, you need to be simpatico, but stoic—sensitive, but have stamina—reasonable, but robust. Writing is a true test of character.
Have I experienced any of the above? Pretty much all of the above to some degree or other—though I haven’t been rejected by my readers.
That is a rather fundamental qualification. If your readers want you, you can survive just about anything. Better yet if they write to you—as mine have in their thousands.
But, the price, as far as I am concerned, has never been relevant. I didn’t just want to be a writer. I knew I had to be a writer if ever I was to have any peace of mind at all. It was an imperative I cannot explain.
I don’t think there was one specific moment when I made that commitment. It was more that I made a series of decisions over time—years and then decades—which have resulted in my current level of dedication.
I now realize that just about every action I take—from what I think about—to what I eat—is influenced by its relevance to writing. The issue is not whether I am right or wrong in that regard. It is just the way it is.
Do I think about the price I have paid—and continue to pay—for being a writer? Yes, I do—and relatively often. Virtually all my friends are financially secure, if not downright wealthy, and are able to do things which—in my current state—I cannot afford to do. Many are retired. I face having to work until I die.
That’s as lucky as it gets in my case. What else would I want to do!
Perhaps the most frustrating thing has been finding that I am almost completely unable to explain writing—and specifically my particular approach to it—to a non-writer (subject to rare and wonderful exceptions).
Yes, people understand the appeal of not have a regular job, of not being subject to the whims of a boss, of being able to travel anywhere (if you can afford it) and being empowered to ask anybody anything—but they can’t come close to grasping the appeal of writing itself—and that all the other aspects, from the research to the adventures you can have, are peripheral to the challenge of building a creation out of the written word.
On the contrary, they regard writing as hard work, and often near impossible—so something to be avoided.
Why would any sane normal person want to do it—especially all day and alone at that?
On the other hand, perversely, most people seem to think they could write a book if only they had the time. The unstated implication is that it would be a good book at that.
No matter how they talk, few people start writing a book. Fewer people still finish writing one. Very, very, few write a good book.
This is no reflection on them—or on you. I am merely making the point that most of us—whatever our skills and strengths—are not writers; and that to write a book of merit requires a great deal more than having led an interesting life, or having a few good ideas.
Now that Amazon (and others) have made independent publishing both respectable and often successful (if you put the effort in) that still means there are an awful lot of books out there—but that number still pales in relation to the size of population. Hundreds of thousands of books are published annual these days—which can seem overwhelming—but the global population is in excess of seven billion.
The issue of time is an interesting one. Many people have a regular job and write in the evenings or when they can (which is rarely as often or as long as they would like.
I decided fairly early on that if I was to become the kind of writer I aspired to be, I would need to work at it full time—or as close to that as possible. I would, if necessary, take time off to do a consulting job to avoid starvation, but I would be as near full-time as I could. There were several reasons for this.
- I thought it would take considerable time for me merely to learn how to write a book—let alone to do the deed itself. I started without any book-writing experience at all. I hadn’t even done much journalism. I was proven to be right on both counts.
- I have noticed that regular paid employment can have a corrosive effect. It is very hard to retain your creativity when you have to conform to the customs and practices of an organization—no matter its quality--and I loathe commuting.
- If you have a regular job—and family responsibilities—it is actually quite hard to find the time to write. That book you want to write never gets finished.
- I work best when I’m fully focused. I am a terrible multi-tasker.
- I wanted time to read and think as well as write—and reading in itself—at least as much as I do—is time consuming..
- A close friend of mine, Niall Fallon, a truly wonderful man (sadly now dead prematurely of a heart attack), also a writer but with a full time job as a deputy editor of The Irish Times, advised me strongly to commit totally to writing. His job required only four days a week, but he still found it very hard to write part-time. In contrast, he had taken a year off earlier to write a book and had found that worked much better. He stressed the importance and value of total commitment.
I did just that—and then steadily increased my focus on it to the point where—even if I want to relax—I write. I do other things too, of course—like walk or have dinner with friends—and I love movies—but writing is the focus of my life.
Has the sacrifice—and all the other difficulties—been worth it?
I wish I could think of a stronger word—but I guess ‘totally’ is as unequivocal as it gets.
In fact, even in my worse moments, I have never had any regrets about becoming a writer. I regret some of the other decisions I have made—and particularly my lack of courage on various occasions, or how I have behaved (sometimes) where interpersonal relations have been concerned—but I have never had any reservations about becoming a writer. On the contrary, I occasionally breakout in a mental sweat when I consider what life might have been like if I had not become a writer. I shudder!
I rarely feel envy in any real sense these days—and certainly not about material possessions, social position, nor status.
There is no mystery as to the reason.
I have my problems—and some are difficult—but, in essence, I’m doing what I most want to do in the world (or something related to it) all day—and well into most evenings—for nearly every day. I’m motivated, inspired, energized—and creatively, intellectually, and emotionally, fulfilled to a level that I didn’t believe was possible.
I don’t want anything in a fundamental sense I haven’t got. I would like to do more for those I love—and change the world for the better. But I feel beyond privileged to be a writer.
As for my angst—maybe that is what a writer needs to keep him (or her) going.
Regarding my comment about every writer needing a friend—and I cannot overstress the importance of this—I am much blessed in that regard. That isn’t to say that some friends have not lost faith in me—they have and it hurts—but some very special people I hold in the highest regard have hung in there (somewhat to my amazement at times).
With such close friends, and the support of my readers—and some are both—the friction of a writer’s life becomes of scant consequence.
The combination of writing—and such support—is the joy.
VOR words 2,919.