18
Mar
12

Why writing stinks

I hate writing.

This confession will be astonishing to most people, as the sole overriding desire of my entire life, the one constant from about the time I was ten years old until today, is a burning desire to be a writer. This, of course, requires me to write. But as anybody who has ever tried to do it will tell you, writing isn’t easy. Many people (who have never written a complete paragraph and think it’s perfectly acceptable to use “U” when you mean “YOU”) assume that it’s a terribly simple process that any Tom, Dick, or Harriet could accomplish if only they had the time in their ever-so-busy schedules to sit down and do it, because really, you’re just making stuff up. How hard could that be?

The truth is, when someone says they want to be “a writer,” what we really mean is we want to have written something. Because that’s a great feeling. Looking down at a story that feels complete, that feels finished, that draws a little praise and (if you’re extremely lucky) a little money is a feeling that doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve ever experienced. And the act of coming up with an idea, similarly, is wonderful. When a good one hits you like a bolt from the blue, or when a thought that’s been mucking about in your head for a long time finally breaks free and takes a life of its own, it comes with an intense feeling of power. You’ve become a creator of worlds, and that’s awesome.

Everything in between those two stages sucks the big one.

Those moments when you stare at the blank page, trying to figure out where to go next (or even worse, where to go first). You don’t know this story well enough, you don’t know these characters, you don’t know this place. You’re not black/a woman/short/Methodist/a six-tentacled alien from Grimbullax XII… how can you possibly get across in your writing of what it’s like to be any of those people? You’re conjuring it all up and it’s all horribly inauthentic and nobody will ever want to read it and you wish you could just lie down behind the sofa and die before anybody calls you out on it.

Then there are those times when you begin to realize you’re a worthless hack. Okay, this sounds pretty good, but didn’t they do that same joke on an episode of Seinfeld once? This concept is brilliant, but c’mon, Isaac Asimov must have written virtually the same thing. These are the times when you’re certain, at any moment, the Literature Police are going to break down your door with a battering ram and someone will point at you and scream, “HIM! THAT’S HIM! EVERYTHING HE’S EVER WRITTEN WAS ALREADY DONE BY SHAKESPEARE AND EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS AND J.R.R. TOLKIEN AND THE SIMPSONS! GET HIM!” And you will calmly hold up your wrists and allow them to cart you away.

These feelings are awful, most of all, because you know on some level that they’re justified. Every creator in the world is influenced by their experiences — either by what they’ve lived through, which makes you question how you can convey the feeling of being marooned on a desert island since you’ve never done it yourself for any extended period of time, or what media they have consumed, which means that every book you have ever read and every movie you have ever watched is in your subconscious somewhere, and it may well crawl out onto the page without you even realizing it.

Several years ago, a friend of mine read an early draft of a story that eventually turned into Lost in Silver. Upon finishing, she asked me if I’d been reading a lot of C.S. Lewis lately. I had no idea what she was talking about, until she directed me to the penultimate book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew, where Lewis described a “Woods Between Worlds” that sounded a hell of a lot like my description of Evertime. Not having read that book in about 15 years at that point, I rushed out and found a copy, read it, and immediately began bashing my head against the wall. Clearly, although virtually everything else about the story had leaked through my brain like a sieve, the Woods stayed there and, lacking context, my brain started to adapt it to the story I was trying to tell. T.S. Eliot once said that “mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal.” Eliot forgot to mention that theft is sometimes like robbing a bank in your sleep, waking up surrounded by piles of money, and deciding you must have won the lottery.

Ultimately, I kept most of that original Evertime concept, after doing what writers have been doing ever since there was a second one: I rationalized the hell out of it. It was, after all, only a small part of the grand Narnia mythos, while it was a vital part of the story I was trying to tell. And I couldn’t come up with a way to accomplish the same thing that I liked nearly as much. And it wasn’t exactly the same, it was my take on the idea. And part of the main theme of the Evertime stories is that there are enough worlds in creation for everything ever imagined to co-exist, so naturally there will be elements that seem derivative of classic creations. And they’re never going to get around to making that book into a movie anyway.

All writers do this. We have to. Because when the brain creates it needs building blocks, and it gets those blocks from every bit of information you’ve ever fed into it. Every writer is influenced by every other writer whose work they have ever experienced. And this is true whether you’re blatantly copying somebody else by moving Kevin Costner to another planet and turning the Indians blue or whether you’re intentionally throwing away every element that made vampires threatening, entertaining, or interesting to read about and replacing all that with sparkle paint. In both cases — and in every case in between — you’re still reacting to an earlier work. It’s impossible to escape.

So the hard thing about writing, you see, is trying to think of something to say that hasn’t been said before. And when you realize that’s impossible, trying to think of a way to say it that hasn’t been done.

It’s just not easy.

But if you honestly want to be a writer, you eventually shove all that crap out of your brain, sit down in front of the computer, and start hitting keys until you’ve got something that may be worth showing to someone.

Which, if you’ll excuse me, is really what I should be doing right now.

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4 Responses to “Why writing stinks”


  1. March 18, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I’ve often attempted to explain to family and friends that I “like to have written.” They still seem to think that for me writing always come easily and that “work” is not part of the equation.

  2. March 20, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Neil Gaiman has been known to say, ”I hate writing. I enjoy having written” for those reasons. You are in good company.

    For the record, I enjoy the fruits of your labors, and from experience am well aware of how difficult the craft of writing can be. I tip my hat to you.

  3. November 7, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I’m sure I read this when you first wrote it, but read it again when I clicked on a topic in your e-mail. All so true. I agree. It’s much easier (and satisfying) to look at the finished product – perhaps even years later – and say wow did I really write that? Even better if you can says That’s GOOD! :-)


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