For every novice writer it seems there is a book on how to write. Bookstores are almost collapsing with the weight of them. Many of these books will have the same homogeneous advice, some of which is vital to the craft of writing, but sometimes it’s repetitive and frustrating. After all, there are only so many ways you can learn about clichés. While many books discuss the technicalities of writing – like when to use adjectives, how to plot, characterisation, voice and style etc – few books devote more than a few pages to the psychological athletics of being a writer. Even fewer books admit that writing is hard work. Every piece a writer produces, whether it is 100 or 100,000 words, is a life lived. From the inception of an idea and its development to well beyond its realisation a writer will experience every emotion known to humans and maybe even invent some new ones. Writers are nothing if not inventive.
For non writers, the process of producing a single piece is little understood. Some pieces are more difficult than others, but few writers will ever experience a pain-free writing project. For some it might go something like this:
The writing process begins with an obligatory exercise in procrastination. During this phase the writer might pull at her shirt collar or reduce nails to nubs, play with writing props meant to stimulate the muse or convince herself that watching TV is an important part of incubation. During this phase, the writer might manage to drop a few words onto the page in a lethargic and noncommittal kind of way. The steps between procrastination and getting to work are often fuzzy – procrastination has no curfew, it is unpredictable and can end without ceremony. When the writer realises that it is time to sit down and write there is a sense of urgency about starting. This anticipation can lead to false starts, but most writers understand that this is necessary. During the writing phase writers often sacrifice sustenance and sleep to beat the keyboard or make ink marks with a favourite pen and notebook. With itchy eyes and aching neck the writer writes on, hunched like Quasimodo, smiling like a demon. The ferocity with which some writers can perform their craft during this phase is remarkable, but it isn’t particularly sustainable and eventually the sleep-starved writer slows down. Now it becomes more difficult to think of synonyms for words like hard. The piece is nearing completion. Ending can be harder than beginning and a new exercise in procrastination ensues. Deciding how to end becomes a religion and can take longer than writing everything before that point. When she does make the final full stop page one beckons for her return. It’s time to edit. The beginning of the editing phase finds many writers realising that the dog needs attention, the laundry needs hanging and the garden has become the most interesting place on Earth. The agony doesn’t stop when the writer leaves the little universe she has created. Even a disciplined writer, who knows to leave a piece before attacking it with the red pen, will drive her loved ones mad with bitter testimonials about why she does this writing thing and why she never wants to do it again. But do it again she will. After the washing is done and the dog is annoyed by so much attention, when the neck pain has abated and the appetite for fingernails returns, the writer is ready to go back to the private world of metaphors and conjecture. She knows that a new hell awaits her: the taxing job of reading and rewriting that fabulous prose. For some writers it’s like facing a panel of jurors, with the exception that she doesn’t have the luxury of unfamiliarity. Each juror wears the same face: hers. Never has it been more obvious than now that she is her own worst critic. Humans are inordinately bad at self-assessment, which makes the process of redrafting difficult for most writers. In those small moments when she is reading her own work she will indulge in worrying every word, sometimes to the point of neglecting other important components, like structure or fluency. She’ll brood over on a single sentence for too long, reread the piece too many times and end up staring at a blinking cursor until it’s no longer visible. If she’s like me her work will never be complete, but if she’s lucky she’ll get a unanimous “ok” from each juror. Unlucky writers will scrap the piece entirely, sulk for a while and start the process over. If the writer has the courage to circulate her work, either to publishers, or an established readership of indulgent family and friends, she’s done a great job. She’s let her baby go.
If it seems like the hard part is over, think again. There will be no soft landings. Writing is a continuous process and every piece is timeless. Every piece is a life lived and its success is measured not by how well it is received by others, but by how the memory of its writing lives within the writer, whether it makes it into the portfolio of pride or sunk into the file with all the other rejects, of which there will be many. This is a fact that all writers must live with. Not everything she writes is gold. So why do it? Why write at all? Writers write for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly a writer writes for the same reason humans visited the moon or the bottom of the ocean: to see what’s there, to feed a sense of curiosity and because the next step (or sentence) could produce the gold she’s looking for.