Writing in Perspective
I often say, “If I had a nickel for every person who told me they wanted to write a book, I could retire.” It’s true. Whether I’m at work, a mixer, a book launch, or a zoom meeting as of late, when people find out I write and publish books, they want to discuss their dream of writing a book. After which, they tell me all the reasons they haven’t gotten around to it.
I don’t waste time lead chasing when someone goes down the “Oh wow, I’ve been planning to write a book” path. I give the aspiring writer some homework and schedule a time for them to call me to discuss. People may do the first homework assignment because I make it easy. But generally, they give up after assignment two, which focuses on their subject matter. I’ve only had two people make it past assignment three, and only one person has followed through to complete their book.
Most people never make it from the dream of writing a book to the act of writing a book. Allow me to tell you why. Dreaming about writing a book is enticing. It’s writing a book that’s excruciating. In 2002, Joseph Epstein wrote an article titled Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again, in which he discourages would-be writers. Epstein writes:
According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them -- and that they should write it. As the author of 14 books, with a 15th to be published next spring, I’d like to use this space to do what I can to discourage them.
Before I had first done so, writing a book seemed a fine, even grand thing. And so it still seems -- except, truth to tell, it is a lot better to have written a book than to actually be writing one. Without attempting to overdo the drama of the difficulty of writing, to be in the middle of composing a book is almost always to feel oneself in a state of confusion, doubt and mental imprisonment, with an accompanying intense wish that one worked instead at bricklaying.
Writing, or committing to my writing, is one of the most difficult things I’ve done. Despite my love affair with words, I have not been a faithful lover. I have allowed any and everything to come between me and my love. So when I talk about all the folks who have yet to write their books, I am not pointing fingers. As I pen these words, I am excited, full of adrenaline, eagerly anticipating the finished product, lovingly massaging the text to communicate eloquently and effectively. At this moment, I am experiencing a joy I have only known when I am still enough to allow the words to pour out of me onto the page. And yet, despite the euphoria that it gives me, sometimes I procrastinate, refusing to engage with the words.
Opposite the excitement of writing, and just as profound, is the anguish that comes from it. So if I’m not ignoring or avoiding my writing, I am ruminating over it like a school-aged child stuck on a problem when the simplicity is only 1 +1 = 2. I write and rewrite and rewrite and discard and start over and painstakingly finish and edit, reedit and have it edited until I have whack-a-moled my neuroses enough to press the publish button. Seldom is it good enough, and there are always a bunch of things I wish I had said, or didn’t say.
A good friend who lovingly teases me about my penchant for editing incessantly, told me procrastination and perfection are my enemies. For me, this has been true since I wrote my first piece in elementary school. The questions of being good enough are ever-present. I’ll read Maya Angelou, Zora Neal Hurston, or Octavia Butler and lament that I may never cause my readers to experience what these writers have made me feel. I will look at something I had written years ago and wonder how I ever thought I could be a writer after churning out such garbage.
I seek criticism like a sadist, fully knowing how much introspection and reflection it will take for me to pull myself back together after someone tells me my writing needs work, but cautiously thankful that I can use the critiques to become a better storyteller.
Now and then I write something so profound to me that changing it would be criminal. So far, it hasn’t been an entire book, but maybe a phrase or even a paragraph that so accurately conveys what I’ve spent pages trying to say. Something I’ll look back at years later and say to myself, “I could not have said it any better.” Those occurrences are so few and far between (like really, two times in my entire life, okay, maybe once), but with every word I write, I am chasing those moments of literary exultation. The intoxication of a well-crafted sentence, phrase, idea, article, blog, book is what constrains me to keep at it.
When conjured, the words come from some deep faraway place inside of me. A place I only glimpse when I am not trying so hard. When the current of the love for what I am doing overtakes me, carrying me where it wills. I am powerless to fight against it, and why would I? Right in this place, I am overwhelmed with so much emotion that sometimes tears and laughter flow together. When I am here, I write for no other reason than the absolute joy of it. I have no plans to get rich or famous. I need no accolades. Perfection can’t breathe at this altitude. I see my own words on the page and simply marvel at how bare I am, excited to climb and unafraid to fall. Here, I write because I can . . . I can.
I challenge you to discern your why for writing. What brings you here to make a deposit in the literary caverns of millennia? What right do you have to add your words with those of the ages? What do you hope to accomplish? Extrapolate the material and home in on the eternal. Why are you a writer?