Before You Sign Up to Be a Writer

The art life isn't for the weak. You'll probably stay poor and be thought a fool by almost everyone. Sometimes even you will be certain that you are a fool. Either that, or the most spectacular undiscovered genius on the continent. The trick is to dismiss the former thought and hold onto the other one, and convince yourself that what you're doing is the most important thing there is.

Of course we're never free from other people. But it helps to be clear on what constitutes true need. A friend in a train wreck is an obligation. A friend throwing a party is not. Get used to it. No law says you have to go out on Saturday night. The father of Alexander the Great once criticized another king, wondering how, if he was busy being a responsible monarch, he could also find time to write poetry and stage plays. But the other king's son said, "He does it in the time that you and I spend drinking and wenching." Time is a writer's greatest asset, so guard it well. Even the ethereal Anais Nin was characterized by her friends as an astute manager of time.

If things get legitimately, urgently busy for a while, and not much writing gets done, it's no good to indulge in guilt. A time might come when, for whatever reason, there's nothing else to do but write. So even when events seize the upper hand, it's possible to enjoy these chances to let our creativity show up in the physical world.

Experts say that a person who wants to make art had better have a very high tolerance for uncertainty. But that's true of everybody, not only artists. The more adaptable a person is to changes of circumstance, the better opportunity she has to accomplish an objective. Besides, it's equally true that a person who wants to make art needs a very high tolerance for boredom. Because woodshedding is work. The amount of practice required to achieve and maintain a level of competence is any art is daunting. These are useful things to keep in mind.

Early on, an artist learns that most of her effort will be for naught. No matter how great the artist, most of the product will be practice, and part of any artist's greatness is to understand that and accept it. Even when the work is professionally adequate, even when it is superlative; even if it's well-paid and well-praised, most of what an artist does will not reflect the vision the artist was reaching for. But all the rest of it has to be done, for the benefit of the small percent that comes nearest to being fully realized.

Writing a book is like having a baby. If you wait until you can afford it, you'll never do it. Just like being pregnant, writing a book takes precedence over everything else. You want to have the right diet and good sleep, and the right mindset and a good mentor. The chief qualifying factor is the willingness to stay with it. Alexander Woollcott had a great line about aspiring writers: "If anything can stop them it is probably no great loss."

Ideas are more numerous than plankton. Any writer worth the name has more ideas than she could use in a hundred years. The object is to make something worthy from one of them. Throughout life, there will be no shortage of fodder for the imagination. There is no need to exert oneself to experience challenges and crises, or to stir up trouble just for the sake of the art. Trouble will find you, never fear. Enjoy peace while you can.

Everyone has heard the Serenity Prayer, but not everyone realizes it has a special addendum for those who choose the art life:

"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference - but no matter what, it's all great material!"


Anonymous said…
Pat is quite right about time being a writer's greatest asset, but I would add that it depends on what you get done with the time you have. Whenever I have had a fulltime job, my personal writing hours were focused and productive. I have been lucky enough in the last several months to have nothing to do but write. Unfortunately I seem to get about as much written as I do when I was fully employed. I want to write more, but my writing time seems less focused and productive. Maybe I only have a set amount of daily writing energy or insight. I don't know, but it's a little frustrating sometimes.