A long, unbroken, solitary afternoon before me; sunlight in my window or rain and a fire laid in the stove, as the case may be; a cup of tea at my elbow; and best of all, a blank screen in front of me—that’s what writing is on a good day.
There are few prospects I relish with more delight. But that isn’t something you want to admit lightly among writers.
It isn’t just that it’s fashionable to play the tortured writer persona. I’ve seen dozens of blog posts about the grueling nature of professional writing and the amateur nature of all enthusiasm. Writers forums are full of the self-important, who will tell you that the easiest way to tell an amateur from a professional is to ask if they really enjoy writing.
The typical explanation goes something like this, “When a small child first encounters a piano, they bang away at the keys in delight. It’s great fun and they think it sounds beautiful. They want everyone to be quiet and listen to their noise. But it is only painful, boring practice that can turn that banging into real music worth listening to. Writing is the same way.”
The proponents of this line of reasoning also like to insist that there is very little real artistic, musical or writing talent innate to anyone. Everything is learned and can be learned through practice, they insist. Writing at a professional level or playing music at a professional level must always be a carefully calculated task. and while some satisfaction in one’s skills is permitted, enthusiasm and passion is the mark of an amateur. And this holds some internal logic.
Except that it doesn’t fit my experience.
My daughter first got to sit at a piano when she was two. She’s a particularly active child and I was concerned that she would bang away at it. Instead she gently touched the keys, heard the sounds and began working her way up and down the keyboard. I have seen countless numbers of children pound on a keyboard, but not her. She immediately found that some notes go better together than others. Within a few minutes she was making cords.
I can’t do today what she could do at two. I can’t hear the sounds that way. Once in a while, I come across a writing student who is that way with words and story. The sense of it is there before any teacher. So, I don’t believe in the “talent doesn’t exist” theory.
At the same time, I know that talent isn’t everything. Talent won’t get you much of anywhere without practice. And for most people both solid musical skills and good writing proficiency are there for the learning. There are countless technical assists in writing, things that could almost allow a computer to generate infinite variations of entertaining stories using standard plots, characters, devices, dialogue norms and tension points.
A lot of modern fiction reads like that too. I could swear someone plugged in an algorithm and churned out a series of thrillers or romantic mystery novels with artificial intelligence. They all have perfect pacing, neat and tidy plots and snappy dialogue. But they also have predictable characters, transparent plot devices and lack-luster climaxes.
And yet. as the purveyors of writing as a miserable profession are eager to tell you, those cookie-cutter novels make money. Publishing houses recognize the same elements I do and readers are so accustomed to the standard fare that most of them, those who still read books at all, continue to read them.
There is a lot to be said for practice and the rules of the craft. Without a lot of practice my daughter will never have the full freedom and experience of music. And without a solid understanding of the rules, writers who break them do so badly. I have no quibble with that.
And there have been many times when i didn’t want to write and had to anyway. I would go so far as to say that that experience—writing under pressure when you are tired and disoriented—is probably a necessary step in honing the craft of writing, or at least a way to significantly speed up the process. I spent ten years as a journalist, forced to crank out endless “copy” on subjects that I usually found boring and almost always on too little sleep.
It was called “copy” but we never copied anything. Every sentence had to be crafted and polished. It took energy and determination and focus. Doing it while tired and bored ingrained the rules deep.
I learned the trade, so that I could sit down and write anything quickly and easily, conforming to whatever standard was required, short or long, technical or atmospheric, any structure, any voice. But that doesn’t mean that all writing must from then on be unpleasant or that all of the learning and practice was unpleasant. I still remember my days as a young reporter fondly. Despite the difficulty and tedious stories about small towns and the machinations of the ministry of transportation, I got to go to work every day in a room where I sat with other people furiously writing and I got to write all day long.
I grew up doing heavy chores. Then I spent years in academia, studying and taking tests. I worked at jobs that didn’t give me purpose or fulfill my intellectual needs. And the reality of writing every day, even if it wasn’t very exciting writing, was wonderful for several years.
Even today, while I prefer to write things closer to my interests, if offered a job at a cash register or a job writing technical manuals, I’d still take the technical manuals any day. But sitting down to an afternoon of writing on a subject I enjoy, or better yet fiction—that is pure pleasure.
Is it always easy? Certainly not. That is a good part of why it is fun. I don’t really go in for easy, even in my hobbies.
That feeling you get when you’ve been writing for two hours and you get three quarters of the way through a key chapter and the plan you had isn’t working and you feel a heavy drag on you because you ,know you’ve got to go back to the plotting board and probably rewrite several major scenes to make it work—yeah, that feeling—that’s when you know you’re in the thick of it. I do tend to go get another cup of tea but I eagerly plunge back in. It’s a challenge, a battle with word counts and plot holes, and victory is that sweet zing of a successful line of tension running through the story from beginning to end.
The preachers of the miserable writer theory probably believe what they are saying. It seems likely that they have followed a path of genre writing that leaves them burnt out and frustrated but in possession of certain skills. They assume that these two things must necessarily coincide. If someone comes along and argues that writing can be a lot of fun, even at a professional level, it is the easiest thing in the world to paint that writer as an amateur. No one wants to risk that, so few ever try to argue.