Susan Orlean, journalist and author of The Orchid Thief, once tweeted, “Writing is hard. Writing is hard. Writing is hard.”
I retweeted her. I felt a surge of empathy. Though I’m nowhere near the talent or accomplishment of Susan Orlean — she’s a goddess of great feature writing — as a writer I understood exactly what she felt.
Reading that tweet was also quietly reassuring: someone of her talent experienced difficulties with her writing. Probably at the time I saw the tweet, I was having difficulties with my own writing. Maybe I was trying to put together a marketing document, and trying to make sense of business jargon. Or maybe I was slamming a news story together on deadline. Or maybe I was trying to get imaginary people to come alive on the page in an imaginary world my brain had concocted. Or maybe I was just trying to compose a blog post, like I am now.
Whatever the circumstance — the writing situation, I suppose it’s called — I’m sure I got up from my chair (as I just did) at least 20 times after maybe, maybe writing a sentence. I might have paced halfway across my bedroom with a cup of lukewarm coffee in hand to gather my thoughts and come back to my chair and pecked out a few more words or even a phrase — possibly a complete sentence.
I know for sure that as I was composing this post, I topped off said coffee at least three times. That was much easier than keeping butt to chair and typing. I also consulted my AP Stylebook to see whether or not to capitalize “tweet” when referring to that thing you do on Twitter. You don’t, by the way, capitalize “tweet,” according to the AP Stylebook.
Why have I procrastinated like this? Because, well, writing is hard.
Or is it?
Within 30-45 minutes or so, I’ve written six short paragraphs. I didn’t suffer, I didn’t bleed. About the worst thing that happened was developing coffee breath, and since it’s just me and the cat at home, there’s nobody to offend with it.
But, there is a mythology that surrounds writing — that it takes blood, sweat and possibly tears with an unleashing of fears to do it. And, if you’re not suffering, you’re somehow doing it wrong. And, people, including professional writers, believe the myth.
In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark notes how common and pervasive the mythology has become.
“Americans do not write for many reasons,” he writes. “One big reason is the writer’s struggle. Too many writers talk and act as if writing were slow torture, a form of procreation without arousal and romance — all dilation and contraction, grunting and pushing.”
Building up that myth are writers themselves, as Clark notes, citing an oft-misattributed — usually to Hemingway (talk about the notion of suffering) — quote from New York sports writer Red Smith, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”
The struggle, Clark says “is overrated, a con game, a cognitive distortion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the best excuse for not writing.”
In my marginal notes next to this sentence, I wrote, “I need to remember this. I think it’s all a matter of confidence.”
And, I think that’s what the real struggle is, it’s with fear, as Richard Rhodes says in his book How to Write, “Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do?”
Fear is the real struggle. It’s what holds me back. Those questions above nag me when I write, no matter the size of the project — a blog post, a feature article, a novel draft. Fear says, “No one is interested.” Fear says, “Have another cup of coffee. Eat a bowl of ice cream.” Fear says, “Why bother to write tonight? You’re tired from your day job. You need to rest. That next episode of ‘Bosch’ looks pretty good. Nobody will care. You won’t make a living at this.”
Fear talks me out of writing. Some days I’d rather do algebra, writing seems so hard. I’ll bet fear talks you out of it, too. I would bet Susan Orlean had some sort of nagging fear when she tweeted “Writing is hard”.
So, no, writing isn’t hard, though it does require hard work and perseverance to master the craft. Fear makes it hard. Fear is a variable in an equation that makes anything a zero sum game.
But, you have a right to write, as do I, Rhodes notes. Why?
“You’re a human being,” he writes, “with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.”