This Is What It’s Like to Be a Writer

By Rachel Toor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/2/15

Get used to the feeling of stuckness. Do the work even when it feels stupid and meaningless. Just do it.

Asked if he thought he had evolved as a writer, Patrick Modiano, the most recent Nobel laureate in literature said, “No, not really. The feeling of dissatisfaction with every book remains just as alive”….

Hemingway was, as usual, more blunt: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Poor Joan Didion: “There is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.”

And who…could argue with Dorothy Parker: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

More recently Amy Poehler, actor, comedian, and now a published author, has written, “The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. … [It’s like] hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”…

Not long ago a friend called with a long lament about how he was afraid he wasn’t a writer anymore. He had, he said, spent seven hours on one paragraph and it still wasn’t good enough. He thought he was going to have to become a bus driver or a janitor. (Those are your choices? I asked)….

I thought, Shut the hell up…. This friend has had a long career as a writer, and his latest recently published book had been a commercial and critical success. He had, really, no freaking right to complain…. Finally I’d had it, mostly because in that moment he reminded me so much of myself. When I realized he’d become a magnifying mirror of my own bad habits and irritating tics, I said to him: “Stop having so many feelings and just do the f-ing work.”

Then we both laughed really hard.

My friend told me my outburst helped him. He realized he needed to stop wasting time and emotional energy and live the old Nike slogan: Just do it. Our exchange made me wish at times my tactful friends had told me to stuff it when I went on and on…about how hard my life was because I had to spend mornings working on a book….

If you want to craft something that people will want to read, you’re going to have to work hard, and in ways that put callouses on your brain. You have to get used to the feeling of stuckness. You have to show up and do the work even when it feels stupid and meaningless. Sometimes it will take a whole day to write one paragraph. You must learn to sit quietly and listen to criticism, if you’re lucky enough to find someone willing to give it you. It’s excruciating to reread pages you’ve sweated over and realize you can’t use any of them….

When my students start to experience the inevitable thesis meltdown two months before the final result is due, when they think they won’t be able to do it, to produce anything worthwhile, that it’s too hard to finish, I tell them: This is what it’s like to be a writer.

Then I turn to my own work and find it lacking…. When things get really bad I’ll…explain to [my editor] how much the book he’s been working with me on sucks…. Because he’s an experienced editor, he’ll fire back a simple response: “Your demons are right on schedule.” I’ll think, Right. Stop having so many feelings and just do the f-ing work.

Yet I continue to collect quotes and quips from good and famous writers to remind myself my demons have a great pedigree….

Rachel Toor is associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her first novel, On the Road to Find Out, was published in 2014.

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