Writing is not as hard as it so often seems.
Calm down, calm down. I’m talking about a very specific kind of writing here. The physical element of it. The part of writing that involves you pounding your fingers into a keyboard and watching words come out. The part that requires you to take a story you’re in the process of making up and actually work your way up to telling it from beginning to end.
Compared to the rest of it, this part’s easy.
Don’t get me wrong: Writing is hard. Taking a story that’s trapped in your head and figuring out how to get it out and put it onto paper in strands of sentences that make sense outside your brain is a huge challenge. It takes a lot of practice and many years to learn how to write a good story. We all struggle with different parts of it in our own way. Yes — we ALL struggle.
Some people struggle so much that they end up quitting before they have the chance to learn what they need to know in order to accomplish their biggest writing goals.
The truth, however, is that writing itself — putting words onto a page — isn’t the most challenging part of being a writer, nor is it the biggest reason aspiring writers quit.
All writers write. But BEING a writer — that is the biggest obstacle of all. Here’s why.
Our world isn’t structured with the writer’s mind in mind. My ideal daily schedule would be: Wake up, write for three hours, read for an hour, write for four more hours, work out and eat at some point, read more, write more, hang out with friends, snuggle with my dog, fall asleep, wake up the next morning without an alarm, repeat.
But that’s not how life works. Most of us have to work day jobs to pay the bills, and have families to take care of and errands to run and things to study for and other Real Adult Responsibilities.
Plus, in case you haven’t noticed … writers’ brains are WEIRD, man. Like, “wake up in the middle of the night with the entire plot of a mediocre space opera satire in your head” weird.
Not that this has ever happened to me or anything. It’s just an example.
You typically can’t just leave in the middle of a work meeting or a conversation, or show up to things late or skip them altogether because you happen to feel motivated to write or because inspiration has finally hit you. Most of the time, you don’t get to write exactly when you want to write. And it always seems to be the moments you are ready to go, the moments you have the time and space for writing, when things come up or you’re suddenly just so tired you can’t think.
We are never encouraged to “go write a story.” When I was growing up, and I told my parents I was bored (oh, to be bored like that again …), they would always immediately list off suggestions. Go ride your bike. Call a friend. Clean your room. Help in the garden. Never once did I hear: “Go write a short story!” Isn’t that weird?
Of all the expectations that are still held over our heads as adults, writing is still almost never included in the mix of possibilities. We’re supposed to have stable, financially rewarding jobs. We’re supposed to have families, or at the very least, significant others who could eventually grant us the opportunity to have one. We’re supposed to be “involved in our communities.” We’re supposed to take care of ourselves — exercise, eat healthy, know everything that’s going on in the world at all times.
When you even so much as mention you don’t have room in your life for one or more of these things at the moment because you’re “writing a book,” people look at you like you have six heads.
Oh, they’ll praise you eventually. When your book is published and on a bestseller list and you’ve managed to write and promote it while having expertly achieved all the other things every “normal” person apparently can. If you can write a book and keep your day job and be involved in all your kids’ extracurricular activities AND keep in touch with all your friends every week, THEN you’re So Cool Everyone Wants to Be You.
Writing takes a stupid long time. Yeah, I said it. Not just writing itself but editing, rewriting, revising, rereading, everything that comes between starting a first draft and turning in a publishable piece of writing. You can’t just sit down to write a book on Monday and have something decent to turn in by Friday. It doesn’t work like that. People want it to work like that, but it doesn’t, and never will.
We live on the internet! We want things NOW! We don’t want to wait! Even more frustrating, though, are others’ assumptions that, for example, writing a book couldn’t possibly take that long! A book is, what, three hundred pages? How long does it really take to write three hundred pages?
A LONG TIME, JANET. GOD. HOW ABOUT YOU TRY IT SOMETIME.
Even if you wrote a thousand words a day — which is a lot for most writers, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way — it would still take you, at minimum, three months to write that much. And that’s if you wrote every single day, which, again, is just not feasible or even desirable for most people.
Sticking with something for that long is not an easy thing to do. That’s why so many writers can’t do it. It requires showing up day after day for weeks, months, sometimes even years at a time.
I don’t know of a writer out there who would say this isn’t a tough business to be in for this reason alone.
Sometimes you get nothing in return. I have been publishing my words online for 11 years. They haven’t always been good words. I haven’t always given it my full attention, and only for a short time when you add it all together has doing this whole writing thing actually been the thing other people paid me to do.
But even with a few breaks here and there, I’ve been doing it. I’ve been working hard to put my words in front of as many curious eyes as possible. And even after all that, there are still plenty of days I find myself wondering what all of it has been for.
We all have ideas in our heads of what writing success is going to look like for us. Maybe you envision yourself sitting at a table signing a bunch of your own books. Maybe you’re in front of a group of aspiring writers answering questions or in a lecture hall teaching a writing class. Maybe you picture yourself interviewing the very people who inspired you to pursue a career in journalism. There are so many possible scenarios, and everyone’s is different.
What we imagine our writing lives looking like, though, is almost never what they actually look like. At least, not the hustling part. We don’t think about what that’s going to look like. It’s our reality. All of it. The rejection emails. The lack of emails whatsoever. The mean comments, the early mornings chugging coffee just so you can get the words out. The late Friday nights crying because you don’t want to write a blog post about writing, you want to curl up in a ball and turn on Mean Girls and forget the world for two hours.
That was oddly specific. You get the point.
So much of being a writer — especially in the early days — is spent working hard without reward. No recognition, no praise, no books to sign or people to encourage or lessons to teach. It’s just you and your laptop on the floor in the dark and you don’t know if what you’re writing at this very moment will ever mean anything, but you have to write it anyway, and so you do. Or you try your best to.
Writing without knowing what the outcome will be is the hardest hurdle to clear. Even those who have been writing for a long time still so often wonder if they’re just wasting precious time writing a story people might not ever see.
This is a long game. If you aren’t prepared to play, you won’t make it to the final round.
We must first acknowledge that this life we have chosen will not always be kind to us.
We must accept that being a writer will pay off one day, but that day may not come for a very long time.
That’s the only way to get through our hardest days. Remembering that we are writers because our words have the power to make a difference, and if we give our craft the attention it deserves — if we work for what we want — some of what’s hard will become less hard. And some really amazing things will happen.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.