Being a Writer is Easy. It’s the Writing That’s Hard.

01.10.19 Posted in Uncategorized by

I think the hardest thing for a writer to do is write.

Someone very wise once said, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

I say writing is easy, but starting is hard. Here’s the problem with being a freelance writer: I write ALL THE DAMN TIME.

Let’s say you’re a bookkeeper. You love what you do and you’re good at it. But it’s work. You don’t want to do it for fun. You’re sick of numbers. You don’t want to open your computer on Sundays and enter figures into spreadsheets. You don’t seek out opportunities to do it in your spare time.

I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to write for a living. Seriously, the number of people I know who actually set out to study something in college that they were passionate about, got a degree in it, and then embarked on a career doing that thing, I can count on one hand. And I’m good at it. I’ve won awards, even.

And I can do it from home! I mean, I know I’m lucky. I write blogs and websites and interesting magazine articles. I edit books and magazines. I read for a living, guys. And I teach young writers!

But what it’s done is turn my passion into work.

I went to a book signing a few months ago — the writer is an acquaintance of mine whom I know from my annual writers’ retreat. Her novel is amazing and I’m impressed as hell by her. And after she read excerpts from the book, she was interviewed before the attendees about her story, her process, and her thoughts on YA fiction. She explained that she writes at night, when her daughters are in bed. She goes into an office, closes the door, and writes for hours late at night.

This is something I can’t get my head around. Seriously, when I’m done with my workday, after I’ve picked up my daughter from school or whatever after-school program she’s in, made and eaten dinner, done the various weeknight chores that need doing, and put her to bed, the thought of opening my computer up fills me with utter dread. I can’t do it. I just can’t. I could sit here and offer up excuses—my office has no door and thus no privacy or assuredness of quiet, for example. It’s true, but more than that, I am ashamed to admit: I have nothing I want to write about.

There’s this perception that all of us writers are dying to write some novel. We all are supposed to have stories burning holes in our notebooks, desperate to find life on the page if only we could commit time to it. No, not me. It’s a source of deep, deep shame.

Doesn’t this make me a fraud? How can I call myself “a writer” if I’m not really writing anything for myself? In fact, I don’t even have anything to write about. My ideas are nonexistent. I feel tapped out, as if I’ve written it all already. What’s left? What’s new? What could I write that I won’t be sick of by next week?

But this is also me. I get too caught up in stuff that’s six steps down the road.

When I was a child, I came up with this cool story idea about a couple of friends who go time traveling together. I wrote what I knew was an excellent beginning. I had it, man, and it was good. I had it all: fleshed out, likable characters; well-drawn settings; crackling dialogue. I wrote about their journey through the hole in the back of their closet that took them into a cave in the forest. The scene reached a sort of conclusion, where I’d need to take them to their next destination… and then I ran out of steam. I had to go eat dinner or something, I don’t know, but I figured I’d think about what was next, where they’d stop next on their journey through time. I started thinking about how I’d need to research points in history if I wanted this thing to be any good. I’d have to figure out where the conflict would be, what challenge they’d face. Maybe they’d get stuck somewhere, the door to the portal being closed off in some way. Maybe they’d encounter some ancient monster, or have to right a wrong from the past in order to save the future.

I don’t know. After a few days, it all seemed too hard. I gave up.

When I was in college, I double-majored in English and French. I was pretty good at French, too—I could write a five-page paper entirely in French about some Baudelaire story and I’d get an A in it.

But then when I got into the higher-level courses, the number of students in each class dwindled. No longer were we in lecture halls where I could avoid speaking in French. In my English classes, I wasn’t exactly super vocal, but I didn’t hesitate to raise my hand and answer the occasional discussion prompt. I knew my stuff. But in French classes, I worried I would mess up. I got caught up in conjugating verbs correctly, getting the masculine and feminine articles correct, and arranging the words in the sentence in exact and perfect order.

When my native French teacher in my third-year class—populated only by myself and four other students—called on me, I stood out like a sore thumb. Tall, rakishly handsome Chris, whose mother, I think, was French, could rattle off a sentence without hesitation. My friend Cecily could fumble her way through a response, without worry of mishap and with a sort of casualness and willingness to try that I found astounding. But when Madame called on me for a simple response, my mind went utterly blank. “Je… ne… sais… quoi…” I stuttered. I got so caught up in where I was headed that I forgot to just start talking.

These days, as strange as it sounds, writing for pleasure seems to be just as foreign a territory for me. I’m a deadline queen, a master of the comma, and I can leap a 1,000-word profile in a single bound. I can grind out any writing assignment you hand me with aplomb and I’ll love it. But in my own personal work? Where am I headed? What do I want to say? For I must say something. Something good, right? After all, I am A Writer.

I attend a writers’ retreat each fall in Marin County, California. It’s a sacred, special place where I and women I have grown to love and respect and admire convene to get in touch with our deepest selves. To speak and write the stories and thoughts we don’t give space to at any other time of the year. Each year for five years in a row, I have gone looking for inspiration and wound up doing work. And this last year, I was called out.

“What are you working on?” I was asked by a dear friend. “When can we hear something you’ve written? What have you written for yourself?”

The question moved me to tears. I was caught, exposed for the fraud I am. I had nothing to share, nothing intimate and creative and moving that resembled anything these lovely women had dared to write and share. It was time to face the music.

I realized then that I can only do this for so long. I cannot continue to do this thing I always thought I loved and view it with dread and exhaustion because my creative resources are tapped by work. And I cannot rekindle my joy at writing unless I write something that brings me joy. I cannot be afraid of writing for myself unless I try it. I cannot hide behind my work as an excuse to not do the one thing I have said I wanted to do and LOVED since I was three years old.

That last night at the retreat, through tears, I asked the women to hold me accountable, and they’ve vowed to do so. The occasional Facebook nudges I’ve received have warmed my heart. Now it’s time for action. So in this new year, I am resolving to find ways to write for myself, just for fun—to FIND the fun in it again. I am not only going to be accountable to these fellow writers, but I will be accountable to myself and my craft. I will find time to carve out a little of myself in the midst of the deadlines and the projects. I will rekindle my romance with writing. Part of this is putting it on Front Street for all to see, here on my blog.

It started this week, by the simple act of putting one hour of “Personal Writing” on my iPhone calendar today. I blocked it out on my desk calendar as well. It was a task I viewed all morning as something daunting, nearly wishing I had a task to finish instead, a kind of busywork I could use as an excuse not to delve into my deepest fear: Having nothing, at last, inside me worth saying.

It turns out, I’ve said some things here. A little over two typewritten pages’ worth, in fact. It’s not much, but it’s a start. If you have other useful ideas, let’s hear ’em.

“Let your body go and your mind will follow, they say.” At least, I think that’s the saying. But I’m hoping that by cranking out, sometimes laboriously, a few non-assigned, personal pages of writing, whatever they end up containing, maybe some truth, some little valuable nugget, will spew out. Here’s hoping.

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