Why do we do it? Is it because, as the saying goes, everyone has a book in them? While that may be true, getting that book to come out is really where all the trouble starts. Writing is an absolute slog. Apparently, only 3% of those who set out to write a novel actually succeed (I don’t know how they come up with these statistics, but if it makes me look good, I’m including it). Essayist and short story writer Joseph Epstein encapsulates the process perfectly:
“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.”
As a writer, you work alone, with only your inner critic and self-doubt for company. Just 5,000 words into your manuscript, that best-selling idea which started off so well, falls flat on its face; like an Olympic runner suddenly discovering that she’s wearing clown shoes. But somehow, you have to find the belief and ingenuity to pick your idea up and make it work again. Equally, you have to know when to cut ideas loose and leave them to wash up on someone else’s shore.
Unless you are the next Emma Cline, sparking a bidding war between 12 publishers and winning an advance of $2 million, the chances are that you won’t make much fame or fortune out of writing. I’ve heard quite a few male authors remark on how they only started writing to get laid, but I can honestly say that the words ‘I’m an author’ have never prompted a member of the opposite sex to hop into bed with me, so maybe it’s one-way-traffic in that particular department. So once again, if not for love or money, why do we do it?
IDEAS. You can be sitting on the couch, eating biscuits and minding your own business when (what appears to be) an innocent little idea comes along and you think, “Ooh, that’s good. That would make a good story.” And that’s it. That idea will plague you morning, noon and night until you do something about it. So you write a few notes – nothing serious, just a couple of lines, and stick it in a drawer. But like Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tell-Tale Heart’, the story’s heartbeat keeps you awake at night. You try to ignore it, because you know that once you’ve decided to write this brilliant idea, you’re going to have to destroy it. Author Ann Patchett describes this murderous process beautifully, by comparing our ideas to pretty butterflies that, in order for us to capture their allure on the page, must be sacrificed.
“The journey from the head to hand is perilous and lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write — and many of the people who do write — get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.”
I think we all like the idea of being a writer, but the reality involves staring down your inadequacies (or at least pretending not to see them) and never giving in. With each book, you strive to get closer to the idea, to reassemble it as faithfully as you can and capture the beauty of the butterfly. That’s the process and that’s what keeps me coming back for more (rather masochistically). That’s why I keep reading authors who are much closer to the goal than I am – to learn how they did it. The goal is simple, as opposed to being easy. And the feeling you get when you have captured an idea, however imperfectly, on the page, is indescribable. To have created something that didn’t exist before you dreamed it up and wrote it down is an addictive process. Which leads me to believe that us writers are all slightly drunk on our ideas and despite the hangover that actually writing a book can bring, we just can’t resist the temptation of a shiny new idea, just waiting to be transformed.
Here’s a song for all the writers out there 🙂