There are some things that only writers know. Because there is no other way to learn them than by living the life, no way to guess what it is like until you are staring down the face of a deadline or days in a row of blank pages. Most people don’t know what it feels like to have vague ideas and messages deep inside that you feel like you’ll die if you don’t get out. Most people don’t have a career that requires them to work for years on spec before they get paid–nor is their ‘success’ so dependent on the whims of an audience, editors and press.
Those are the painful parts of writing that many cannot even conceive of. The good news is that the pleasures are also out of the grasps of those who have never heard the calling. What it feels like to be in deep flow and creativity, or how satisfying it is too look back on what you’ve written and wonder where it all came from. Or just the pure pride that comes from making a living off your thoughts and the joy you feel in your characters and words which become living, breathing things.
There are so many things that only writers know. And therefore, only writers can truly describe.
1. Writers know that when Thomas Mann described a writer as “someone to whom writing does not come easy,” he was putting it lightly. Walker Percy said “that writing is like suffering from a terrible disease for a certain period of time. Then when you finish you get well again.” That’s why there is the old saying: Painters like painting. Writers like having written.
2. Writers know that books are the most painful thing to write. As Caitlin Moran put it vividly, “writing a book is literally worse than giving birth to a baby–in hell.” This is what George Orwell was saying when he explained that, “one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand.”
3. Writers know that writer’s block doesn’t exist. As Seth Godin points out, nobody gets talker’s block. Jerry Seinfeld lays it out: “Writer’s block is a phony, made up BS excuse for not doing your work.”
4. Writers know the pain of being edited. It’s why they laugh at the story Benjamin Franklin told Thomas Jefferson during the editing of the Declaration of Independence. A man had come into Franklin’s print shop for the sign: “John Thompson, Hatters, Makes and Sells Hats For Ready Money” with a picture of a hat. After getting feedback from his friends, word after word was removed. At the end, all that was left was the man’s name and a picture of a hat.
5. Writers know how indebted they are to their mentors and to the greats that came before, and how their own work pales in comparison. As the great playwright Aeschylus once admitted, even his plays were but “slices of fish taken from the great banquets of Homer.” They feel, but are not stopped, by what Bloom calls the “Anxiety of Influence.”
6. Writers know how to solve this anxiety. They follow it with Austin Kleon’s advice to “steal like an artist.”
7. Writers know the great pleasure of the perfect phrase. We can even see it on other writer’s behalf. God knows how satisfied with himself Shakespeare was when he first jotted down “full fathom five thy father lies.”
8. Writers know how interconnected the lives they lead and their work must be. It’s why Ben Franklin instructed that we “either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.” Ideally, we do both.
9. Writers know that it’s taking the first steps that counts. At the end of John Fante’s book Dreams From Bunker Hill, the character, a writer, types out four lines from one of his favorite poems. What the hell, he says, a man has to start someplace.
10. Writers must know that their biggest obstacle is not critics, not publishers, not marketing, not censors or anything like that. Real writers fear what Steven Pressfield calls “the Resistance.” We are our own worst enemy–because it’s our choice to give into distraction, fear, laziness, and all the other vices.
11. Writers know that they have to write every thought down or they risk losing it. That’s why they carry notebooks and keep a ‘commonplace book.’ Beethoven: “If I don’t write it down immediately, I forget it right away. If I put it into a sketchbook, I never forget it and I never have to look it up again.”
12. Writers know that they’re always looking for inspiration and sources for their work. Robert Greene says that “it’s all material”–everything that happens to us in life can be used in our work. Jerry Seinfeld: “I’m never not working on material. Every second of my existence, I am thinking, “What can I do with that?” Writers also understand that this is not how it is for everyone else, and understand it takes a toll on their friends, spouses and kids.
13. Writers know that reading is the fuel for their work. They, like Erasmus, spend their money on books, and only if any is left over, buy food and clothes.
14. Writers know what editors actually do. They aren’t magicians. They are all knowing professors who tell us what to do. As Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor, acknowledged: “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as handmaiden to an author.” That’s a very important role–and we’d be lost without them–but the hard work rests on the creator.
15. Writers learn the difference between writing and publishing. One is disappointing, the other is endlessly pleasurable. As Anne Lamott says “Publication is not all its cracked up to be. But writing is…It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the ceremony.”
16. Writers also know the difference between books and book deals. As Cheryl Strayed puts it: “One is the art you create by writing like a motherfucker for a long time. The other is the thing the marketplace decides to do with your creation.”
17. Writers know that inspiration is important, and so is brainstorming. But they also know how muchwork is required to execute on that vision. At a certain point, Robert Louis Stevenson, describes “the artist must now step down, don his working clothes, and become the artisan.”
18. Writers know that “style” takes care of itself. Schopenhauer: “The first rule, indeed, by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style is to have something to say.”
19. Writers know that little tricks help them improve, especially early on. Raymond Chandler would use really tiny sheets of paper in his typewriter so that he had less room for each scene. After three years he said, he could “finally get a character’s hat off”–that is get to the point–quickly.
20. Writers learn how much accident plays a role in their work and research. Shelby Foote: “I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.”
21. Writers know how hard it is to describe their work. As Aristotle remarked about a group of poets, “There is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves.” He understood that part of creative work is the result of the muse–which is what makes it hard to talk about what comes before, during and after.
22. Writers must know why they do what they do–that is, ultimately, because they enjoy it. Robert Louis Stevenson: “The artist, even if he does not amuse the public, amuses himself; so that there will always be one man the happier for his vigils.”
23. Writers learn that good writing is what matters and what will make your living–amateurs refuse to accept this. “What they want to hear,” Steve Martin said well, “is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script’…but I always say ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”
24. Writers know that yes, writing instructs. Yes, it can change lives. Yes, it can even change history. But at the smallest level, as Robert Louis Stevenson puts it, too many forget “the end of all: to please.”
Writing isn’t easy. The life isn’t for everyone. But for those who find themselves called to it, will find that there is nothing better. There is no other life they’d rather know.