Confession: last night I was up until 3:30 a.m. working on a novel. Was that good for me? Well no, probably not. But it was good for the novel, because I wrote a scene that I really like. Today I’m tired, but I have that scene on my typing stand. Tonight I’ll revise and add to it, although I can’t stay up that late again because tomorrow I have to teach. Why do I push myself in this way? Because writing is part of my job. I have deadlines to meet, novels to write and get out there into the world. I’m a writer . . . so I write.
Recently, there was an article published, somewhere or other, making the argument that writing is not a job. Well, I guess that depends on how you define a job. I mean, if you define it as something that provides you with steady income, health benefits, and a retirement plan, then no, writing isn’t a job. But then, a lot of other freelance work doesn’t qualify either.
I like the idea of writing as a job, because that’s what it feels like when I’m actually doing it. When I started thinking about this subject, I remembered two quotations that have always bothered me. Here’s the first one:
“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” –Ernest Hemingway
I don’t know if Hemingway actually said this — it’s simply one of the things attributed to him on the internet. And it sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s pithy, and truthy . . . it feels true. We often think of writing as self-expression, so it feels true to say that writing is like bleeding. Why don’t I like the quotation? Because I’ve written before, and I’ve bled before, and bleeding is a lot easier. More painful, but easier in that you’re not sitting there bleeding for hours at a time, mentally engaged in bleeding, trying to bleed well, bleed so the reader can follow along, so she doesn’t put the book down and say, “What boring blood. I think I’ll go see what’s on Netflix.”
Of course the quotation isn’t talking about actually bleeding, but what it implies is that writing involves sitting down at your typewriter/keyboard and letting your emotions pour forth, as though you were bleeding. That attitude is expressed in the second quotation I dislike:
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” — Robert Frost
Maybe Frost really did say that? What I dislike about it is that it assumes the writer is a sort of emotional conduit. He or she must feel something, so the reader can later feel it. If you want your reader to cry, you must first cry . . . But that’s not true. Writing is an art, but it’s also a craft, and I can make a reader cry without, while I am writing, feeling anything in particular myself. All I have to do is describe something likely to make a reader cry, and then hopefully the reader will respond. But the reading experience exists independently of the writing experience. The reader and writer are not in a symbiotic relationship. The reader may well decide that the scene I wrote so emotionally myself is really quite funny. If I’m a good writer, I should be able to make most readers cry, depending on my knowledge of what makes most people cry. Hemingway supposedly wrote a devastating six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I read that, and it makes me tear up. He supposedly wrote it on a restaurant napkin in response to a bet. I don’t think he was tearing up as he wrote it. If he did write it, I think he did so feeling rather smug that he could pull it off.
My point here is that writing takes craft and skill, and the writer is like any other artist: a painter, a composer. A Monet may well make you cry, but I don’t think Monet was crying as he painted it — he was painting. Yes, he may well have drawn on moments he had cried in the past, and writers do that — sometimes, when I’m stuck on an emotional scene, I’ll think about how I felt at an analogous moment and remember that. I’ll try to reproduce the emotion inside myself, based on memories. But it’s in the service of description, and I know that if I don’t describe whatever it is I’m describing well, it’s not going to raise any sort of emotional response in the reader. That depends on my craft and skill.
Writing is a job, and it feels like a job — there are deadlines, there is work to be done. Sometimes I love doing it, sometimes I don’t, but I do it anyway because it’s my job to finish that particular story, that novel. And honestly, I find the idea of writing as a job reassuring. If I woke up in the morning thinking, “I need to be an artist today,” I would probably go hide under the covers again. But if I think, “I need to get out of bed and write a chapter,” I will go do my job, using everything I have learned, all my intellect, whatever techniques I have. Because that’s how it’s done.
(I don’t know where this image is from, but I love that it’s of a girl writing.)