The Writing Life


pen and cup of coffee on cafe table

It’s a tough gig being a writer. Lots of isolation, lots of intense concentration, lots of rejection from publishers and agents. Sitting in a cafe with coffee and fountain pen is one of the good bits.

Why do I write? It’s a good question to ask yourself.

  1.  Because I’m a fool.
  2.  Because I want to impress my old school friends.
  3.  So people will like me.
  4.  So my friends will hate me.
  5.  I’m no good at speaking up.
  6.  So I can invent a new way of looking at the world.
  7.  In order to write the great Australian novel and become famous.
  8.  Because I’m a nut case.
  9.  Because I’m an undiscovered literary genius.
  10.  Because I have something to tell.
  11.  Because I have nothing to tell.

Hemingway has said, ‘Not the why, but the what.’ It’s enough to know you want to write. Write.

One of my favourite books on the writing process is The Writing Life by Pullitzer Prize winning Annie Dillard. It’s a small and passionate guide to the terrain of a writer’s world.

Book cover 'The Writing Life' by Annie Dillard

 Dillard begins:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” —E. B. White

There is a famous story in the Zen world:

The student, newly arrived at the monastery, asks the master, “What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?”

The master replies, “Chop wood, carry water.”

“And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?” asks the student.

“Chop wood, carry water,” says the master.

So how does this stay apply to the writing life? A writer writes. That’s all there is to it.

“You’ll fail only if you stop writing.” – Ray Bradbury

Harry Potter book cover

Rowling has said that Harry Potter “simply fell into [her] head” and “all of the details bubbled up in [her] brain.” She “[had] never felt such a huge rush of excitement and [she] knew immediately that it was going to be such fun to write.”

Sounds like a fairy tale beginning to a fairy tale ending, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s all ordinary readers need to know about Rowling’s path to literary fame, but us writers need more.

We need to know the not-so-glamorous version of what it was like to write Harry Potter. We need to appreciate how disciplined Rowling had to be to develop her idea into seven hefty books. We have to know that she wasn’t lazily sipping mochas for two decades while jotting down a continuous stream of words like a literary Fountain of Youth.

All too often we convince ourselves that we would write more if only we were well-known, or had more money, or could find more time. But none of that is what makes a writer a writer. It’s simply that a writer writes. – The Friendly Editor

writing quote by Ray Bradbury with author pic

That’s why I write. What about you? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

10 thoughts on “The Writing Life

  1. Some inspiring words of wisdom, thanks. My Dillard moment was reading Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the novel”. The common thread is the hardest one to follow – write, write, write consistently. I currently write part time as I teach full time or as it often feels, teach between writing. When I write I have a sense of accomplishment that is deeply fulfilling. I feel that I have stretched myself somewhat, contributed something of value in some small way. JM Coetzee said he writes to find out what he has to say and I feel the same. It is a process of self discovery.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on why you write. wonderful to see you have that deeply fulfilling sense of accomplishment when you write. hard to beat. creating something from nothing. as you say, writing is a process of self discovery. good luck on your writing journey. not easy to balance full time work and writing time. i think having a daily writing habit is the hardest and most important part of the process – doesn’t need to be for long periods of time. i’ll have a look at The Art of the Novel. don’t think i’ve read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I write because, all things considered, I enjoy writing. Yes, there are times when I feel like giving up, when what I have written strikes me as disappointingly inept and spending more time on it would therefore be pointless. But then there are those moments when something exquisite happens and I look at the words that have suddenly appeared on the page and cannot believe that they came from inside me.

    So far, I have not submitted any of my work to a publisher because I don’t believe I have created anything worthy of publication. The good bits are just too few and far between; rare oases in a desert of dreariness. Do I think I would be happier if I were published? Certainly not until I write something I’d be happy for others to read. And even then, I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t enjoy writing any more than I currently do because for me writing and publishing are two separate processes and I can’t imagine that any pleasure I might derive from publishing would contribute to the joy of writing. And if publishing created commitments that eroded the time I have for writing, the net effect might in fact be a reduction in overall satisfaction. I don’t know. So the only way I can imagine enjoying writing more is to become a better writer. But then, without the agony of self-doubt, would those unexpected moments of bliss be so powerfully uplifting?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. interesting to read the reasons you write. for the enjoyment sounds good to me. why ruin that enjoyment with the messy business of publication? great to hear you experience some exquisite moments too. yes, for all of us, to be a better writer is the best way to enjoy the process of writing even more. here’s to the uplifting power of those unexpected moments of bliss.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Now that’s a question…why do I write? I write because I have these strange voices in my head that won’t shut up until I put finger to keyboard. I write because my brain is constantly asking ‘what if?’ about any given situation. I write because I would not be me if I didn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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