Who is a Writer?
Today I woke up the way I normally do: too late in the afternoon and too tired for anything but a good cup of coffee. I stumbled my way into my living room, slumped down by the window, and stared at my computer with the kind of hatred usually reserved for mass murderers or bad rainstorms on the highway.
I’ve been trying to write something creative every day for the last five years.
It’s not going so well.
For the last five years of my life, every day starts with a big list of all the reasons that I really shouldn’t be writing. My slacks from work need to be washed, my new kitten needs her medicine to help get over some random fungus, the floor’s dirty, articles really need reading for school, my girlfriend’s getting over a root canal and needs me to make another smoothie so she can have breakfast, I need to check my facebook feed, I need to check the news.
Of course writing is hard. Of course writing is exhausting. But this morning, I started thinking: what is it, exactly, that’s burrowing into my brain whenever I reach for a pen and a keyboard?
The more I thought about it, the more complicated it became. For example: what do I really mean when I say that writing is hard? I write probably three e-mails every morning, and none of those bother me. I text my friends. I comment on some blog posts. None of that writing makes me grind my teeth the way my daily creative exercises do. I don’t try to do the laundry just to have an excuse to avoid updating my status on facebook. I don’t sweep the floor to avoid e-mailing my friends. Is it the kind of writing I’m doing that’s so hard? What makes writing a story harder than responding to a blog post? When you’re writing a story, you can write anything you want. You can make whatever kind of sense you want, too. It’s the kind of freedom that should make you feel inspired and happy, but I still feel trapped as ever.
I think, ultimately, some of the most damaging baggage we have to shoulder whenever we try to write is really baggage about writers.
Think about it: we’re taught that “real writers” are sad, solitary, lonely creatures. “Real writers” are geniuses. Real writers are tortured. Real writers are quirky and original. Real writers drink whiskey every morning. Maybe the worst thing we’re taught about “real writers” is the way that they can just dash out an absolutely perfect first draft. I never heard about Hemingway slaving away over a single paragraph for five hours while his laundry got dirtier and dirtier. I never heard about Oscar Wilde having to practice whenever he wanted to write a new, brilliant play. They just did it, those guys, their talent was innate and spooky and hard to understand; they had a mysterious, weird, natural link to whatever “good art” was, and it just poured out of them whenever they needed it.
I write my first draft and it is crap. I write my second draft and it is also crap. I pour another cup of coffee. I write a third draft. Still crap. I sweep the floor. I talk to my girlfriend. I go to a movie. I am still working on a poem I wrote when I was sixteen years old. That poem? Crap!
And every time I do this, I make a list of why writing is stupid, and I am stupid, and I can never, never ever be a real writer. Every day, this list gets longer and longer. That list is what’s pressing into me whenever I stop and grab a few extra minutes and pick up a pen and try, try, try to write something. Anything.
But you know what? Just because no one ever bothered to tell me Hemingway went through fifty versions of “Hills Like White Elephants” doesn’t mean that he never practiced all the ways to make a tight, crystalline, tiny image in his text. Hemingway practiced. Oscar Wilde practiced. Every piece of creative work you read is just the latest draft in a huge army of incredibly crappy drafts, and maybe, if we saw some of those drafts, we wouldn’t feel so bad when our first version doesn’t measure up. Maybe studying those drafts would tell us more about writing than reading everything when it’s all perfect and polished and beautiful.
But even if you don’t believe all that, I’d like you to try to believe this, okay?
A writer is a person who writes. That’s what writer means. That’s all writer means.
The only way you’ll never ever be a real writer is if you let all those “real writers” keep you from writing.
And I have a poem to write.