It’s a tough gig being a writer. Lots of isolation, lots of intense concentration, lots of rejection from publishers and agents.
Why do I write? It’s a good question to ask yourself.
- Because I’m a fool.
- Because I want to impress my old school friends.
- So people will like me.
- So my friends will hate me.
- I’m no good at speaking up.
- So I can invent a new way of looking at the world.
- In order to write the great Australian novel and become famous.
- Because I’m a nut case.
- Because I’m an undiscovered literary genius.
- Because I have something to tell.
- Because I have nothing to tell.
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.
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.
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.
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” —E. B. White