I know there are people who think writers don’t work. The task of putting words on a computer screen or a sheet of paper seems, to some, the essence of non-work. How many times have I heard people say, “I wish I could just stop working and write?” My first thought is, “Then do it.” My second thought is, “You’re just moving to a far more difficult job. Trust me.”
Writers do like to complain. They need their writing area just so. They would prefer absolute quiet. They would prefer classical music played low. They would prefer heavy metal blaring so loud the neighbor’s dog runs away. They need coffee. They need their heads clear of any substances. They need to look out a window. They need a blank wall at which to stare.
And of course the old standby: Writing itself is hard.
Consider J. D. Salinger. There he was, floating along on a wave of popularity in the 1950’s, telling an increasingly worried America they had reason to worry about their young people. Except Salinger seemed to make it clear it was the adults who were the cause of the angst among young people. Obviously, youth loved his stories. Holden Caulfield is nothing if not the quintessential juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold.
Then Salinger just stops. More, he disappears. There are a whole lot of theories about all this, none of which have a shred of evidence about them, concerning his anchorite lifestyle that accompanied his silence. My own theory is simple. One day, Salinger sat staring at that blank sheet of paper in his typewriter and nothing came to him. He probably sat there eight or nine hours, staring, waiting for just one word to burst through whatever was holding it back. He might have gone to bed that night thinking the next day things would be better. Of course, we know they weren’t. Who knows how many days, weeks, perhaps even months he sat there staring at the blank sheet of paper until he realized it would remain blank.
Hemingway is far more troubling. Of course, we know the man struggled with depression and alcohol abuse all his life. In many ways life Teddy Roosevelt, Hemingway tried to overcome the weaknesses he knew dogged him through overcompensation. He became a man’s man, a hunter, a model for noir characters as a journalist. He fought in Spain during the Civil War. His characters were all either tough guys, or future tough guys if boys. Women were all nags or whores or both (see The Sun Also Rises), because that was both how Hemingway saw women and how man’s men should understand women. He lived the lives he wrote, he wrote the lives he lived.
Particularly “The Short and Happy Life of Francis MacComber.” MacComber is a wealthy but otherwise nondescript man out on a Safari with his wife. His wife is sleeping with the safari guide, so the only hunter who’s bagged anything on this trip is the guide.
Then, one day, MacComber kills a lion. A big one. A dangerous one. The hunting party congratulate him. The guide congratulates him. Even his wife shows him affection. Then, MacComber walks into his tent and blows his brains out. Better to go out on a high note, am I right?
Hard-pressed by his demons, Hemingway could no longer do the one thing he loved more than drinking, more than women, probably more than breathing. He just couldn’t write anymore. So, knowing what he’d accomplished, he figured he’d go out on a high note. He shot himself in the head.
Those of you who believe writing isn’t all that hard, perhaps isn’t work at all should consider the following: Whether writing non-fiction or fiction, a writer does the most difficult thing any human being can do. A writer offers a piece of herself for all the world to see. I don’t care if you’re a scholar writing a scientific article for a journal, Stephen King publishing yet another novel, or a high school junior jotting poetry in your diary; what goes on that blank space is a piece of the best part of yourself. At least, the writer hopes it a good part.
Then, you fling it out for all the world to read and talk about. Writers take criticism hard not because they’re oversensitive artistes. They take criticism hard because when folks say something about a piece of one’s writing, they are commenting on the writer.
I say all this because lately I’ve been staring at the blank space on the WordPress website where I type. There are things I want to say. Sometimes there are things I feel like I should say. Then that paralyzing self doubt comes along: Someone’s already said that; Someone’s already said it better; No once cares about what you have to say; You’re only going to lose friends and alienate people. The YouTuber Jay Smooth calls that voice “The Little Hater”. That’s a good phrase. It’s that part of me that just doesn’t like me at all.
The thing about writers? Many of the better writers are introverts. We prefer our own company. Few things scare us more than parading ourselves around in public. Yet all writers also understand that is precisely what we do, what we must do. It’s more than hard. It can be psychologically costly.
I think that’s one reason a whole lot of writers – like me in this instance – write about how hard writing can be, about the psychological toll it can take; if we don’t vent it, put it out there, it will continue to eat away at our guts until there’s nothing left. Like lancing a boil, the toxins – that Little Hater who runs that paralyzing self-doubt – all spill out in order for healing to occur. So this is yet another in that long series of pieces about how hard writing can be; about how it can really take a nasty toll on one’s self-confidence; about the contradictions inherent in introverts stripping themselves naked in public for everyone to comment upon. I think this kind of venting is necessary in order to jump start the whole process, to nod in the general direction of the commentary from The Little Hater and continue on anyway. Because writing is kind of like anything else: If that’s what you’re supposed to do, if that Little Hater doesn’t win, you have to write.
And if you think writing is so easy . . . by all means, give it a shot. Lots of folks talk about wanting to write. Then write. I do believe, no matter what you did prior to that, you’ll soon realize that previous avocation was nothing compared to the torment of that blank screen and blinking cursor.