On Writing & Failed Oysters
“Good craftsmen are not expressing themselves. They’re expressing something outside themselves. In that sense, craft is not about selfhood. When somebody declares to you, ‘I feel I have a novel in me, but of course at the moment I’m working in advertising’, you know that person is never going to be an artist. ‘I have this novel hidden inside myself, I’m an artist without an art’. I don’t believe that sort of thing. And I don’t believe in the ethos of personal creativity. You either do it or you don’t. …”
Strangers often say to me, “I have a book inside me,” or something like that. I understand the feeling — I spent my twenties thinking that — but in almost every case, they are doomed to suffer what Truman Capote called the condition of a failed oyster: “irritation with no resulting pearl.”
Sennett is correct: if you had a book inside of you, you would have been working to get it out. Usually the people who say things like this to me have not written a thing — and they are not young, either. The thing is, writing is very hard work. I remember in my mid-twenties, in the winter I spent by myself living in a country house, waking up in the morning, staring at the blank screen of my PowerBook, wondering how I was going to fill it. I didn’t write a single word that winter. I had nothing to say, and equally important, had not yet developed a craftsman’s skills. Those would come only through years of writing, especially writing on deadline for newspapers.
My sister thought I was getting away with murder when I had a job as a professional film critic. Paid to sit on your butt watching movies, and all you have to do is write down your opinion about it? That’s the life! The thing is, she couldn’t have pulled it off if she had had a gun to her head. It’s not that I was a particularly good film critic; it’s that I was a craftsman. Every newspaper journalist has to do some version of what I did as a critic: take chaos and make meaning out of it, on deadline. It’s great training.
What it does is allow the writer to hone her expressive abilities. What it cannot do is either give the writer something worth expressing, or give the writer the inner drive necessary to get her through the years of dull practice that will prepare her to be a writer of accomplishment. In my case, writing my first book, Crunchy Cons, took so much out of me that I thought I would never be able to write another book. That book came out 10 years ago this month (February 21, 2006), and I laugh now at the memory of laying in bed the night before publication, too nervous to sleep, imagining all the riches that were about to come my way. I genuinely could not comprehend that something I had worked so hard on, and agonized so intensely over, could fail to be anything but a massive success.
Well, I learned my lesson, and a hard lesson it was. All writers have to learn it. I was so disappointed that I thought for sure I would never write another book. I couldn’t go through that ordeal again, only to see it fizzle out in the marketplace.
A decade later, I’m working on my fourth book. I’m still hoping for the big commercial breakthrough, but I know now that the odds remain very much against me (and against all writers). Why do I do it? Because I have to. Fish gotta swim, and I gotta write. I’m almost 50 years old, and have been a professional writer for nearly 30 years. What I know now that I didn’t know when I was starting out is how much sheer artistic drive matters.
I began as a writer because I enjoyed journalism very much. I loved to read, to see how the pros could conjure images, draw forth emotions, and even change minds by the power of words. I had a knack for writing, and I found it … fun. A flimsy word, but a far more truthful one to my own experience than any kind of hallowing language. I made a lot of mistakes in my early career, and made them in public, on the pages of the newspaper. But I kept going because I really had no choice. That was my job. Having to pay bills with my words forced me to get over my embarrassment at the roughness of my writing. I couldn’t afford to be too self-conscious. I just had to live with the shame of mediocrity, learn from my superiors, and try to get better.
Over time, I did get better, and I came to love writing as much as life itself, though I didn’t know what was happening to me until after it had happened. At some point, I can’t say exactly when, writing ceased to be what I did, and became who I was. When journalism students ask me today for career advice, it’s hard to know what to tell them, because I swear I can’t come up with a formula, and anyway, the market is vastly different today than it was when I entered newspapering in 1989. If I had never become a newspaper writer, I probably would never have become a writer, period. My anxiety, my self-doubt, and my lack of a craftsman’s discipline would have stymied the artist in me. Newspapering compelled me to become a craftsman, and made it possible, therefore, to try to become something more than a craftsman (I’m still trying). That path is now much narrower, owing to the turmoil in the media industry, and that is something greatly to be regretted.
The only real piece of advice I have to offer is the same advice Rilke gave to Kappus, the young poet who wrote the older poet asking for direction in his career. Rilke wrote:
There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity.
And if not, find something else to do with your life. You will never be a writer, and you will put yourself through misery on the way to a dead end. The long hours, the low pay, the lack of job security in the journalism industry — it’s not worth it unless you know in your heart of hearts that this is what you were born to do. You have to ask yourself if it’s worth putting your spouse and family through the misery of being part of the life of a journalist. For most of my children’s childhood, we were never able to eat dinner together as a family on weeknights, because I came home at a different hour each night, usually after dinnertime. Even today, it is no fun having a writer as a husband and father.
What’s more, if you manage to produce a book, you must be able to bear the near-certainty that your work will never find a publisher, and if it does, the odds are overwhelmingly against it being a big commercial success. You have to have it within you to pick up and carry on, and return to writing. The only way to do that, the only way you, Sisyphus, can push that damn rock up the mountain one more time, the only way you can keep going after having to stand before your audience and beg them, “Please clap,” is if the deep answer within you to Rilke’s question is: Yes, I must write; it’s who I am.
As Sennett said, you either write or you don’t write. If you aren’t writing now, even non-professionally, chances are you never will. If you don’t start now, forget it. Nobody likes to hear that. It’s a hard truth, but a useful one to learn.