Last week I explored some of the quotes about writing that most impacted my career, among them the above line by William Faulkner, “Don’t be a writer, be writing.” While I explored a little of the advice in my own personal experiences, I think it’s important to take a step back at this quote and look at it from a professional and artistic perspective. It’s a short line, but it packs a powerful punch, one that I’ve been on the receiving end of far too many times in my writing experiences. Still, there’s a reason it’s so ubiquitous and still so true. It’s right.
Let’s start with the fundamental level of this quote. Being a writer is romantic. It’s dramatic. It’s a great conversation starter at parties. Being a writer carries an air of mystery that doesn’t reveal just how many light nights you spent crouched over your edits or pacing around your bedroom looking for names, conflicts, titles or anything that might help you crack through your writer’s block. On paper, if you’ll pardon the pun, being a writer seems like a pretty easy gig.
But if you’re just the writer from the movies, just the long tortured soul who never produced a second book after the monumental success of the first, just a kid dreaming of writing books, but never putting the pen to the page, then you’re not really a writer. The most base element of this whole thing is that writers write.
Now, I’m gonna give old Will the benefit of the doubt and believe that he includes necessary editing and rewriting in the process, but either way, a writer isn’t someone who talks about writing. They just sit their butt in the chair and do it. Sometimes, that’s the hardest part.
We will meet plenty of the other type of writer in our lives. Recently I had someone tell me that they’ve been working on a political thriller for twenty years and that they hope HBO will pick it up when the book is complete. I don’t say this to be mean or condescending. I say this because we will run into many stories like these.
Some people have a great idea, but it takes so much more than that, it takes the blood, sweat, and tears of sitting down in that chair every day and writing. It takes the extra fifteen minutes earlier you get up, just to jot down a few words before the kids have to get off to school. Being a writer takes prioritizing writing over everything else that doesn’t matter, over the laundry, over the dishes, over the dinner out with friends.
Is this a bit harsh and maybe even unsustainable, yes to both. We all have to find a way that works for us, whether it’s writing on our lunch breaks or taking a year to just write the novel we always want to write. The only wrong way to be a writer is to not write.
The thing with this quote, though, is that it’s recently taken on a bit of a double meaning for me. It’s not just about writing and talking about writing or playing the part of writer. More than that, I’ve taken it to mean that we can’t think or dream about what we want to do or be, but we have to jump into the fray and push and shove until we either fail or succeed. This whole author-as-a-career thing isn’t easy. I’d probably sleep a lot more peacefully at night if I just got a real job and put the rest aside. But that’s not going to happen.
Instead, when I get a little lost, or a little discouraged or a little frustrated, I remind myself that the most important thing I can possibly do is the work, is to jump right into the middle of everything and give it all I’ve got.
Sometimes, it’s not always possible. But we find a way, we push 500 words out in the morning or we type them on our phones during the boring part of a lecture. I edited my manuscript while on jury duty earlier this month.
Whether in writing or in life, the trick, the advice, is just to be there. Be in the eye of the storm. Make your own luck and your own way. All that being said, I should probably get back to writing. ♦