Advice from on High
Elite writers are never short of advice for the stragglers and strugglers, and new years is the national speaking convention of the successful. I read the other morning that success will come if you "keep working hard and never give up."
Damn, if I had just known that 10 years ago I would have made it by now. Not to be pessimistic, but persistence does not equal monetary success or fame in writing.
These kinds of generic feel good statements sour my stomach, as I think of the countless hours spent at the keyboard, seemingly in vain, writing to an imaginary, nonexistent audience. The audience comes and goes in the vapors of my sleepless nights, sometimes supporting, other times taunting.
While I appreciate the pat on the back and the well wishes of those writers with status, the empty words do little for my reality. The once sage advice has become trite and hollow, as every success in life requires hard work and persistence. How novel.
Worse yet are the thousands of marketers on the web, feeding off our lust for success. We writers are a gullible bunch, not from stupidity, but because we want so intensely for people to read our the words from our essence.
My bones ooze the pernicious vain desire to be heard. Many profiteers feed off this vulnerability, taking money from the poor, in payment for a hope. For a profiteer to sell copies, a book of writing tips only has to make the author believe that he will succeed. Not all, but many prey upon the mass of writers, who only want to believe.
Loving Bloody Fingers
Why are we compelled to write when the process is so painful, if you are truly writing. Phillip Pullman suggests that writing is an inborn urge, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Evolution, perhaps, has gifted us with this legacy of longing. We long to communicate with other humans and for our language to be valued.
This oversimplifies, as we all have individual motives, but they are powerful, all-consuming at times. When we value, love a thing so much, we put ourselves at risk, but love is the ultimate quest of human existence. Love makes us vulnerable. The pairing of love and pain plagues me.
Is Love Suffering?
We love to write, and yet writing is suffering. Unless you are a hack, putting words to page is anguish. Hemingway painted the perfect image: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The psychological drive to write must be potent if we love the pain it brings, rendering our heart on the page for all to see.
You know that feeling well: sitting at the blank screen in agony over words, the right words, until finally we bleed and the words flow.The suffering does not end with the writing, but intensifies with the sharing, exposing our love to the world, opening ourselves to the real bloodletting.
Some of the greatest writers, maybe all of them, experience the same pain you feel, and the well wishers I refer to are right to encourage us. We need support to make it through the birthing. George Orwell, one of my favorites, confessed that:
"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."
The Demons Driving Us
We write because we must, whether it's a blog post, a poem, or a book. We are writers possessed by demons. This defines us. However, this is not negative suffering.
We are better human beings because of the process of writing, whether we attain the top of lists or not. The struggle of our mind and soul to communicate powerfully with other human beings makes us stronger. We elevate ourselves and create the potential to lift others. Our hearts and brains are permenantly changed.
The writing process is all important, not the product or public reception. You are a valuable author because you experienced the writing process, the grappling with words, the probing of too deep wounds, the mental and emotional triumph of creation. The readers are irrelevant, and the motivational words of successful authors miss the mark, suggesting that our writing will have value when we sell. Our writing has value when we write.
If you do not see this yet, follow some solid advice: “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” Rainer Maria Rilke captures the depth of our devotion to story, the emotional profundity of our need to bleed on the page.
Give up writing if you do not feel the demon, rooted in your heart, as potent as life itself. I don't mean that. Continue writing, but for the right reasons. Stephen King, after recovering from being tragically run over by a van, said soberly:
"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."
He hints that writing is a form of therapy for us, and I know that he is correct.
So, I resist those who encourage us to persist until we succeed because they construct an erroneous frame for writing, that we must achieve acclaim and monetary success to validate ourselves as writers.
The reality is that few slots are vacant for fame and fortune. The traditional frame for writing success is a harmful illusion. The attitude stems from the old American Dream, that sees a land of opportunity where all can succeed, as if we were all equal, the same. We are all different with unique skill levels, capacities and weaknesses. In addition, we have unique opportunities, not equal ones.
We are not all great writers, and many of us, despite our best efforts, lack the skills to compete in a writing market saturated with brilliance. Risk of tremendous failure is one of the doors that lies wide open before us if we buy into the traditional model of success. Many great people will work at it for ten years, a life time, diligently practicing with the Strunk and White handbook, and still fail by those standards.
I can pound out 750 words a day endlessly, and I might see little improvement, even if I follow every piece of advice of the greats. My audience may never be anything other than the vapors and illusions.
The Successful Writer
We miss the significance of writing entirely if we measure ourselves this way. You are a successful writer because you write and continue to do so. Feel validated that you have gained something priceless through your writing. You are a different, better person because of your hard work.
Don't look ahead to future success, but find satisfaction in the process of the present moment. I will not tell you to be persistent in working for acclaim, but I will tell you that you are already a success.