👋 Hi, friends!
This week I’m thinking about the expectations that writers feel they must meet. I had a conversation a week ago about writing, and someone said this to me: You finished Book X so fast, I’m wondering where Book Y is? It might be one of the most panic-inducing things a writer can hear. What do you mean you’re wondering where my project is? Are you saying it’s supposed to be done already? That I’m not writing quickly enough? I AM BEHIND?
Thankfully, I’ve spent the last few years gathering a pile of things that other artists have said, and a quick examination turns up so many things that are useful in resetting the balance of my world.
For instance, last November Ron Hogan, in his very good newsletter about writing, wrote:
One of my favorite books of advice for writers is Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake, which starts out with, as the subtitle says, “four noble truths for writers.”
Writing is a process.
You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.
I haven’t read Sher’s book (though now I might have to track it down) but I found this list extremely calming.
Writers write. Presumably this truth is about just doing the work, but I also get a jolt of confidence from this: You don’t need anyone else to tell you you’re a writer. If you write, hey, you’re a writer. You’re a writer? Now write.
Writing is a process. In other words, you’re going to suck at first. You just will. But don’t let that stop you from doing it. Stick with it even though it’s hard and unpredictable. It won’t go the way you expect, and that’s probably a good thing.
You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process. Boy, has this one ever always been true for me. Even when I’m writing often and with focus, I find that if I think too hard about what I’m writing and whether it’s good enough—whatever good enough means—I am extremely likely to stop writing. But it’s only by not quitting that you produce a piece of writing that you can assess and improve. You have to write it first, and it’s okay if it sucks; you can always make it better. That’s the process.
If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write. There are many things that are not writing which are still writing. (See Rebecca Makkai’s list of things that aren’t writing that are writing.) But there are many things that are not writing which are definitely not writing. Figuring out the difference can be tougher than you might think.
Austin Kleon wrote about writing and motivation once, referencing the self-motivational notes of a few very successful writers. Among them was James Salter, who often left himself notes on the inside covers of his writing notebooks. There’s some good stuff here, like this quote Salter copied by André Gide:
Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.
That’s really nice. Don’t leave anything on the field, as they say in the big leagues.
But I quite like the unattributed directive that Salter wrote right beneath that:
DO NOT BE EAGER TO PLEASE.
I thought about that a lot this past week.
And then I went ahead and wrote many more words than I wrote the previous week. I’m not impervious to this kind of thing.
As a result, The Dark Age has crossed the 50,000-words mark. Maybe I’ll finish a draft by the end of August, as I’d hoped, and spend September revising. Wouldn’t that be something?
✏️Until next time,
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