Is there a secret to good writing? If so, I haven’t found it. Like most writers, I’ve read widely across genres, studied craft, taken classes, and have bought a few books from the scores of How-To guides in order to become a better writer. I’ve sought advice from editors, and feedback from beta-readers. I’ve eavesdropped on strangers at diners and airports to learn their speech patterns, and I’ve opened myself up to new experiences. I’m always looking to grow.
Ask successful writers what their best advice is and it ranges from “cut to the chase,” “study the masters,” and “give yourself freedom to write a crappy draft,” but the best advice I ever got about writing was the exact opposite.
That’s right. Drop the pen. Kick the keyboard. Dead stop.
I’ll refrain from naming names, but when I asked a teacher and successful writer (both financially and in accolades) what she thought I should do, instead of Nike’s Just Do It, she told me to Just Give Up.
It was crushing and confusing, and I was certain she was calling me an awful writer. Maybe she was.
Stubbornly, I ignored her advice, and continued to write, re-write, throw-out and sometimes throw-up. There were lean years, years of feeling like a fraud, and I could barely sputter the words “I’m a writer” when I was asked what I did for a living.
I wanted to quit. I would’ve given anything to quit – to try my hand at another more stable vocation, especially as I watched my peers follow career paths that led to buying homes and beginning their American Dreams. But the words kept haunting me.
So I wrote.
Some people have spirit animals that are majestic – whales, lions or eagles. Mine wasn’t even an animal, but a weed, because that’s what I felt like: the world was concrete, but I’d find that crack, working my way towards sunlight, until sooner or later, the universe would spray weed killer at me, and I’d retreat, only to emerge once again.
I never listened to that writer’s advice. Not once, not ever. And I took my successes, however small at times, where I could. One day, I was even paid for my words. My story. If I was hooked before, I was utterly addicted now.
I ended up having the up-and-down career of most writers; sometimes working, sometimes not; sometimes making money, oftentimes not. But I always kept writing.
As I’ve journeyed through life as a TV-and-screenwriter, and most recently a novelist, I now understand what she meant. Writing is not a choice at all, but something (divine or a disease, I haven’t quite decided) that chooses you. Writing is also a business that is 99% rejection. Think of all the writers in the world right now, silently pecking away at their keyboards. How many are there? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Yet, is anyone waiting for their stories?
Put simply: the world doesn’t care.
Most people don’t care.
Akin to a philosophical thought experiment, if a writer writes a beautiful sentence and no one reads it, does it matter?
My teacher’s advice makes a lot more sense now. Quit, because this path is painful. Quit, because this path is fraught with disappointment. Quit, because you will most likely be broke. And quit, most importantly, because if you can, you were never really a writer in the first place.