Words on Writing
“Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.”
Some times I teach Creative Writing. For some of my students, getting a short story on paper is like getting blood from a stone, but, as long as we’re talking about blood as the final product, I’m content. It’s when I read a story and discover there’s nothing there but water, or milk or some type of carbonated beverage, that I know the student and I are in deep trouble. She, after all, is going to receive a grade, and I, alas, have to read the story.
But every now and then I get a student who, to paraphrase a famous quotation on writing, sits down at her typewriter, opens her veins, and bleeds. She’s not writing to impress, or because she’s angry at her boyfriend for breaking up with her, or because she’s suffering from the angst of the young. She’s writing out her soul, and all souls are old, and wise, and in pain and can laugh at that pain. What is funny also hurts. What hurts is also funny. That’s the blood out of a stone. That’s the blood out of the forehead. That’s the writing that lives and throbs and moves.
“Art is a house that tries to be haunted.” Emily Dickinson
Writing is nothing without the ghost, and it’s no wonder we spend so long staring at blank pages. We’re trying to conjure.
What if we call up spectres only suddenly to think that our minds are modern A-frame houses that have no attic? In Shakespeare’s 1HenryIV, the Welshman Glendower claims “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur, the skeptic, answers “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?” Of course they will. Keep staring at the paper. Or the computer screen. Keep writing and, eventually, you will be doing all you can to lay the ghosts you have summoned. I’ve warned you.
“Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely necessary.” Jessamyn West.
I’ve been writing for a long time. Which is different from being published. Being published is fun: you find an agent, and then you’re walking on air; your agent sells your book, and then you’re walking on air; you do book readings, and then you’re walking on air. You spend little time on the ground what with the page proofs and advance reader’s copies (which you learn to call ARCs) and maybe even a positive pre-publication review.
Being published is great. It’s just a little less great when the moment comes that you realize that, while you’ve met your deadline, the book isn’t really finished. You’re never really done. The time has just come to hand it over.
And then the time comes to stare at blankness again. The publishing process is over. The page needs to be filled. This is when one must summon not ghosts, but guts. Writers write, except when they don’t, and then, well, they do anyway. They do it knowing that maybe a lot of the prose is going to have to go. An opening sentence limps along until it finally reaches the period. Five paragraphs describing the main character’s clothing clamor to be cut. The minor characters will not behave and keep threatening to wrest the plot from the protagonist. The writing is just plain bad.
Writers just keep going. Guts.
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” Isaac Asimov
Writers write for an audience. Writers write for themselves. Writers write because they can’t help it, even if everyone else wishes they could. Writers keep writing for as long as possible. We’re all going to die. So type a little faster.