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6 Misconceptions About Writing


Misconception # 1. Writing gets done without writing.

    I usually don’t answer the phone during my writing hours, but when I do, it’s often a friend or family member calling, and the conversation goes something like this.
    “Hi. What are you doing?”
    “Writing,” I answer.
    “Really?” she says, as if this were news, as if it weren’t the same answer I’ve been giving for years now. We talk a while, she tells me about her day, I complain about the essay that’s tying me in knots or I exalt in the final revision of a poem that’s been eluding me all summer. We say goodbye and hang up.
    A week or two later she calls again.
    “Hi. What are you doing?”
    “Writing.”
    Again she seems surprised. We talk a while, say goodbye, and after a few minutes of sharpening pencils (I don’t even use pencils) or fantasizing about a six-figure advance on some book I’ll never begin, or staring out the window where people with real jobs and leather briefcases are hurrying to meetings, I get back to work. Later in the week while I’m getting a haircut, my stylist asks if I’m still writing, as if it were a bad habit, like smoking, that I surely must have kicked by now. It occurs to me to ask him if he’s still cutting hair, but I decide it would be mean-spirited. Besides, it takes energy to talk, and I need all my energy for the chapter revision that’s backing up in my head. So I just look in the mirror and nod politely.
    Occasionally even writer friends seem surprised to find me writing, just as I’m sometimes amazed to catch them in the act. I realize this makes no sense. How else do I suppose their poems, stories, essays, songs, lectures and journal entries get written? Yet the fantasy that writing gets done without writing is so appealing, it’s a hard one to release—like the notion of babies being delivered pain free, via stork or cabbage leaf. Watching the freshly polished baby asleep in a blanket beside his exhausted mother, it’s easy to forget that just hours ago he was a squirming sack of blood and skin and primal scream. And reading someone else’s published novel—or a finished poem, short story or essay—it’s hard to imagine the often tedious, painful, messy, sometimes joyous, always life-changing process by which it was delivered, kicking and screaming, into the light.
    Like sex or childbirth, writing is almost always a private act. Others don’t see us doing it, and the popular media do little to dispel the notion that writing gets done without writing. In movies about writers, the writers do everything but write. They sit in dark cafes, dance on tables, smoke one thin black cigarette after another, slap their lovers, drive too fast or drink too much. In the few scenes where they’re actually writing, the camera doesn’t linger. Who would pay seven dollars to watch someone sit at a desk and write? So the camera seeks out something more interesting—the bottle of Scotch, the unmade bed, the cocktail dress dropped on the floor—and moves on. One quick shot of the writer’s hand on the keyboard (typing, what else,“The End”) and he’s heading for the door, grabbing the finished manuscript and cigarettes on his way out.
    No wonder we imagine writing gets done without writing. And no wonder we believe anyone can write a book. The truth is, anyone can’t write a book. Only the person who writes the book can write the book.

Misconception #2: Writers have time to write.

    For many people on this planet, writing is not an option. Those who are locked in the jaws of war, illness, poverty, violence, illiteracy, starvation, natural or unnatural disasters don’t have the luxury of writing. Getting from one day to the next is all they can manage.
On the other end of the scale are those for whom life affords every luxury. Blessed with health, talent, opportunities and material resources, their only responsibility is to the blank page or canvas. Some are born into wealth and privilege; their days are and will always be truly theirs, to use as they will. Others, through cosmic collisions of luck and fate, are granted uninterrupted time and space in which to work. If they chose to write their hearts out, nothing can stop them—or so it appears. (We’ll talk more about this assumption later.)
    The rest of us fall somewhere between these extremes. And though we cite plenty of reasons for not writing, lack of time seems to be the biggest factor. Listen in on any group of writers long enough, and chances are the subject of time will come up. “If I just had more time,” someone sighs aloud, and everyone around the table nods agreement: the poet/single mother of three, the essayist/computer programmer, the novelist/college student, the mystery writer/nurse, the memoirist/carpenter.
    The challenge of making time to write is not new nor is it trivial. For centuries, writers have felt time’s weight pressing down upon them, and many have collapsed beneath it. Books, journals, diaries and interviews are filled with their struggles. In Tillie Olsen’s meticulously detailed Silences, which ironically marked the end of Olsen’s own twenty-year literary silence, she tells of famous and unknown writers alike whose work was interrupted, postponed, abandoned, or, in some cases, barely begun. As Olsen explains, time wasn’t the only pressure bearing down on these writers, but it was one of the heaviest. Heavy enough to silence Melville’s prose for thirty years while he wore himself out at the customs dock trying to make ends meet. Heavy enough to force Katherine Anne Porter to spend twenty constantly-interrupted years writing Ship of Fools rather than the two years she estimated it would have taken had she been able to write full time.
Any piece of writing requires time, and a sustained, artistic, well-crafted creation requires not only actual writing time but time for imagining, thinking, feeling, dreaming, revising, reconsidering, and beginning again. The circumstances of our lives eat up that time; that’s why we call them “time-consuming.” Some time-consuming circumstances are welcome: playing with our children, making dinner for friends, planting a flower garden, taking a trip to the mountains. Other circumstances, if not always welcome, are nevertheless necessary: going to work, filling out tax forms, changing the oil filter, making out the grocery list. But whether welcome or unwelcome, pleasant or unpleasant, necessary to our physical survival or to our emotional well-being, these circumstances use up time, time that is not being used for writing.
    When day-to-day circumstances absorb the time that could/should/might be used for writing, you may get a little edgy. You might even get angry or envious, imagining living the life of a Real Writer, someone who doesn’t have to work at another job, or two or three, to make ends meet, who doesn’t have to mow the lawn, call the plumber, take out the garbage, clean the chimney, make breakfast, grade papers, feed the kids and the cat. I’ve wasted whole afternoons doing that old two-step, The Sulk & Carry. (The steps are simple: You just sulk a while, then carry it with you all day.) It’s just not fair, I tell myself. In addition to everything else they have, Real Writers have time to write.
    Or so it appears on the surface.
    In actuality, no person, however rich or free of outside constraints, has time to write. True, some people have more money, energy, opportunity, or freedom from day-to-day duties than the rest of us. But nature abhors a vacuum, and each life, however privileged, must fill with something. And fill it does. All the time in the world, by itself, will not make writing happen. Or, as we’ve said before, writing only happens by writing, and only the person who writes the book can write the book.
    Okay, so maybe it won’t be a whole book. Not this year, anyway. Maybe what you’ll manage is a poem a year, one long letter on each grandchild’s birthday, a handful of travel essays or short stories, a stack of editorials written to your local newspaper, song lyrics for your daughter’s wedding, one wild and crazy screenplay, or a locked diary filled with your secret fears and wishes. Whether you end up publishing a body of work that makes Joyce Carol Oates’ output look paltry, or whether you write one story that no one but yourself ever sees, is beside the point. The point is, you’re writing.
    As the Rolling Stones song says, “You can’t always get what you want...but if you try sometime, you just might find you’ll get what you need.” If you can make time to read this book, you can make time to write. If you can make time to watch the evening news or your favorite sit-com, you can make time to write. True, you may not be able to make the time you want, but you can make the time you need. You may even find that time limits actually feed the writing process. (We’ll discuss this in the next chapter.)
    Most of us already have everything we need to do the kind of writing we need to do. And if we don’t yet have what we need, there are ways to go about getting it. We can change the external circumstances of our life to allow more time for writing, we can wait for our circumstances to change, or we can learn to work within the restraints imposed upon us. But one thing is certain: If we spend time complaining that we have no time, we’ll have even less time to write.

Misconception #3: Writers know in advance exactly where they’re going, and they get there.

    Some writers claim to carry whole books in their heads the way Mozart carried whole sonatas, releasing the finished composition in one swift, turbulent flourish. Some say they know, even before the first word is written, exactly how the story will open, the plot thicken, the theme develop, and all the loose ends tie together on the last page.
    As for me, and for dozens of writers I know personally and hundreds whose journals, letters, interviews and memoirs I’ve studied, writing appears to be an ongoing act of discovery, or, as John Updike says, “a constant search for what one is saying.” Some writers begin in the dark, with only a word, a phrase, a cloudy image or emotion to guide them; they feel their way to the light. Some, like Katherine Anne Porter, who said she always knew where she was going and how her stories would end, write the ending first and then, in Porter’s words, “go back and work towards it,” thus making a kind of backwards discovery. Still others map out a plan but quickly discard it when the road unexpectedly veers off in a more intriguing direction.
    The idea that writers always know in advance exactly where they’re going is linked to the first idea we discussed—that writing gets done without writing. Since most writers publish only their final, edited version of a piece of writing, if indeed they publish it at all, readers are rarely able to glimpse a writer’s path towards a completed draft. We can’t see the crumpled pages, the cross-outs and deletions, the discarded chapters that were fed to the fire or used for lining the parakeet’s cage. Because we see only the finished product of a writer’s labor, it’s easy to assume that everything happened according to plan. Thus, the myth is perpetuated: Writers know exactly where they’re going, and they get there.