Raymond Chandler said, “Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.” That’s why I believe that it’s not just clarity and grammar that make a piece excellent: it’s where you write from. Good writing comes from a place of excitement, freedom, play, creativity, imagination, abandon, even love. Sadly, the pervasive belief out there is that writing is tortuous, arduous, like trying to bring water from stone.
The truth? Hemingway didn’t mean that writing is hard when he wrote about sitting at the typewriter and bleeding. He meant it’s about going deep, getting to the heart of matters, of what it means to be human.
Writing itself isn’t hard. We make it hard. We fear revealing too much about ourselves. We fear going deep, to places that emotionally frighten us. We fear being criticized. We fear failure or success. We fear we’re not good enough or as good as someone else. We’re scared about not knowing what we’re doing, about starting from scratch every day, about not having anything to write, or thinking no one will want to read it. We get in our own way in countless ways. But the experience of writing doesn’t have to be this fraught. No one on this earth wants things to be difficult, yet we make things hard for ourselves.
When we change our frame of mind, the act of writing is fun. Then we stick with it, we want to do it, we allow ourselves to write bravely, deeply, without censorship. This feels euphoric, cathartic—just plain GOOD. So we do it more. The easiest way to form a habit is to enjoy what you’re doing or change your thinking about it so that it becomes enjoyable, or at least feels beneficial.
And all this fun doesn’t mean writing only shiny, happy people or stories. You can write the most revolting character out there who does the most heinous things. Look at the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy or Daniel Woodrell.
The key to success as a writer is truly understanding where good writing comes from.
How many of you have ever asked yourself if you should be writing? I mean in the sense that you’re not sure whether this is something you should even pursue.
I have, so many times, and mainly when I’m not writing. Maybe I’m looking to be let off the hook: God, no, you really shouldn’t be. Just decide not to, and feel better.
Sometimes I ask myself this question when I am writing and it’s feeling like crap: Ugh. Is this worth it? I suck too much.
After I observe the fact, or state guiltily to my writing group, that I’m not writing, the inevitable thoughts follow: If I’m not writing, and if it seems so hard to just sit down and do it even though I don’t feel scared of it, maybe I’m not supposed to be writing. Maybe I don’t really want it. Maybe I’m kind of forcing myself to write because I like the idea of it. Kind of like how before I was vegan I hated fish but loved the idea of it, fresh and healthy, cooked in garlic and butter and dill and lemon, and I could be sometimes tempted to cook it well and eat it. Or like how people run when they don’t really love it, just because it’s good for them and running’s kind of “in.” Maybe I’m trying to write because I admire good writing and I’m jealous of people getting published and I hate people being better than I am at literary things. Maybe I’m needlessly tormenting myself with guilt and I should just stop trying.
A while ago, I was plaguing myself with the question of whether or not I should write when I was about a year and a half to two years into a short story. I sent a draft of “Everything Good” to someone who’d been crucial and very supportive during my baby steps of serious creative writing. When I asked if he thought I should keep writing, when I said, why aren’t I writing more, what I really wanted him to say was that the draft was very good and, yes, of course I should keep writing. Maybe I wasn’t writing because I was afraid it wasn’t good. But I could put those silly doubts away. The writer never knows.
What he said instead was, I can tell you’re not sure where this story is going. I can’t tell you if you should keep writing or why you don’t write. Maybe you write because you admire others’ writing and want a piece of that.
I didn’t put pen to paper for at least three months after that. I was mortified, disappointed, discouraged, and bitter. Which should have told me right then the answer of whether or not I should write. But it was Sarah Selecky who gave me a virtual slap, talked sense into me about letting others stop me, and told me I was a good writer and that of course I should write. I finally finished the damn story, three years after starting it.
On my walk with Lucy (our 12-year-old boxer) today, it occurred to me that while I’ve believed for a while that creativity is our birthright, it hadn’t yet clicked in that I should write because it made me miserable if I didn’t. Today I went from “If I’m not writing I must not want to badly enough” to “Then why does it bother me so much when I don’t? That means something! If it didn’t bother me, then fine. I’d find something else creative to do. But not writing, it bugs me.”
This is how I came to think of being creative, and for us in particular, being writers, as something as much a part of our makeup as our bodily functions. I need to eat. I need to go to the bathroom. And when I don’t do those things, for whatever reason, I get very crabby. I get impatient with anything that prevents me from doing them, even if it’s me. It’s the same when I don’t create, which for me is in the form of writing. Hence, I should write. It’s for my health and sanity. If I hold off on any of the three things because I’m impatient with their process, I cause pain.
Should you write?
Do you feel like shit if you don’t? Do you get crabby and depressed and bored and feel unfulfilled when you don’t write? Do you feel defensive or bitter when someone suggests that maybe if you’re not doing it, you’re not meant to, or that maybe you should “keep your day job”? (You probably still should, but you know what I mean.) Do you care about writing the way you care about your senior dog who sometimes smells funky and some others think is a pit bull but whom you actually love, even though you don’t always show it, and could never dump and who gives back to you unconditionally?
If you said yes to any of these, you should write. Also because you’re reading this: you care enough to question whether or not to keep writing, instead of just stopping. And you’re probably asking if you should write because you think you suck or you have no right, or it’s not worth the effort and time because everyone is publishing, or whatever.
But quality and quantity don’t get to come into the question or answer here. Quality is what you address once you’ve finished the draft(s). This, right now, whether or not you “should” write, is about doing the creative thing because you’re not healthy and happy if you don’t—and because only you can write it the way you’re going to. Be a gift to the world. Get out of your own way and be all the more happy for it.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned—in fact, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned—from other writers is that good writers are willing to be split open, able to go to places they can’t speak about, dare to write about what they fear. This can mean writing about true happiness as well as it can mean creating a rape scene.
When I copy edit or critique a story, I often find myself writing comments in the margin like, “Go deep here. Don’t be afraid to explore this more. Resist summary and exposition. Who is this person, really? What is his/her motivation for acting this way? This is a good diving off point. Reside in this scene longer and get to the heart of what is happening…” These are the comments I received on my stories when I was being coached.
What exactly do they mean? Honestly, I had no idea at first—all I saw was more work, and the pages piling up when submission limits are low, and I was frustrated. But the more and harder I tried (literally scrunching up my eyes and holding my hand over my heart) to write well, and the more I read the superb work of others, the better I understood what Sarah Selecky and others were telling me: “Write it from the inside out.”
This doesn’t mean write every detail. It means slow the fuck down. Make every word, every person, every scene real.
How does one do that? This morning I saw this video on Facebook, an illustrated snippet of a talk by one of my heroes, Brené Brown. Watch it. It’s short. Can you see what I’m driving at here?
Yes! This isn’t just about how we navigate the real world! The difference between empathy and sympathy is exactly the difference between excellent and ineffective storytelling. In order to capture our readers (and by that I mean in order to cause them to engage with our stories), we need to have empathy. We need to go deep when writing characters, to take on their perspectives, to feel what they’re feeling. It doesn’t have to come from the exact same experience: we don’t have to have lived through a miscarriage to understand profound loss—or even (and we can’t be afraid to go here) shaky relief. Across the amazing scope of experiences are universal emotions.
As writers, we need to understand how our people feel, not just observe how they feel. We need to connect with something in ourselves, as Brené said, in relation to others—or our writing will be shallow and our readers will have the experience of either not being able to relate or thinking, meh. Who cares? Jung also hinted at this connection when he wrote, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Empathy is useful because it helps us create people rather than characters, just as Papa Hemingway entreated us to. It helps us reach and portray the complexity of those men and women and children who might otherwise seem only vicious or happy-go-lucky or arrogant or flaky.
A cruel person who is violent or seems merciless is just that without our empathy. With our empathy, we add another dimension: we come to understand that constant betrayal or wrong assumptions or abuse has caused her to feel anger, or, worse, to have flipped the switch on mental stability. We come to catch glimpses of hope in her, instead of focusing on the bad. We see that a lack of connection growing up has caused him to be distrustful. We see that a tendency to seek revenge is born out of being treated only with violence in the past. We understand that vulnerability is not necessarily manifested as meekness but can instead also be behind aggression.
Behind our (characters’) actions and words are our (characters’) beliefs, thoughts, and past. It’s our duty to know what all these things are in the people who populate our stories. This is how we create empathy in our readers.
Even more than this, going deep in the way I’ve described above is what helps us create realistic, engaging, and compelling scenes with our three-dimensional people. When we know our people well, we are led by them; the story “writes itself.”
Often, we hear readers say they didn’t like a story or novel because they couldn’t relate to any of the characters or they didn’t care about them, or they thought the story unlikely. This is not because we’ve never done or seen or said the things our characters did; it’s not because we’re not writing from experience. Regardless of who the characters are and how unlike us they are and no matter what the story is, we should be able to connect in some way. Instead, this is about a shallow writing, and the missed opportunity the writer had to tell the truth.
If you’re revising a draft now, read through and try to see where you might have avoided writing out a scene you’re afraid of for whatever reason, or where you stopped yourself from deeply exploring a person’s emotions, or where you find yourself stuck—perhaps because you are resisting what happens next or have no idea where the story is going.
It’s okay. You can still proceed. Writing stories is as much about probing for truth as creating fictions.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my writerly pursuits, it’s that all writers, even bestselling ones, have times when they think their writing sucks. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “When I was writing Eat, Pray, Love, I had just as strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything.” And then look what happened. I, along with a gazillion others, adored it. Others didn’t, but that is actually beside the point.
Last weekend, it was my turn to give up a short story for my writing group to workshop. I’ve been working on it for a while, but very piecemeal. I haven’t been writing every day; I wrote chunks of it while working on something else. A few days before, panicking, I thought, I’ve got to get this shit together at least in the same POV and tone. So I did that. Now and then I added new things. Finally, I had to email it off. I told the girls, “It’s not done yet. It’s really disjointed. It’s not consistent. Basically, it sucks…I’m sorry.”
But then all four women, with the most enthusiasm I’ve ever seen for any of my work, praised it. One of them used the word “love”five times in three comments. They used words like “brilliant” and “brave” and “such strong, specific images.” Hearing them, one after another, tell me how much they loved it, what they loved, and what little work it needed, brought me to tears. It was that unexpected and touching. And I trust this group with my life, let alone my stories. After two years together, we’ve got honesty down.
Afterward, I picked up my jaw and said, “I had no idea. NONE whatsoever. I’m flabbergasted. It really just goes to show how unreliable we are when it comes to our own writing.”
I had what I call story dysmorphia. We who judge our own writing have no real concept of what its like, and often then spend an inordinate amount of time trying to correct flaws that aren’t even there. I am totally convinced that I would have ruined the whole thing had it not been for the feedback I received from my group. In trying to make it not suck, I would have overworked it, listening to my critic rather than my instincts.
This experience with my writing group, more than any other because of the extreme contrast between what I thought and what they unanimously said, drove home the point I’m making: We have no idea whether or not our writing or our story is any good, no matter what draft. Thus, we have no business asking ourselves whether or not it’s good. Not only will we not give a reliable answer, but we are presuming to decide for others.
While trolling Pinterest one day for inspirational quotes on writing, I found this:
It’s true that we’ve been right about our writing, too. Usually, that niggling feeling that it needs more, or that twinge that says, oh shit, that has to go, even though we love it, is correct. But those things come from being in tune creatively—they come not from judging our writing but from our storytelling instinct. That’s all we need to listen to when we ask anything of ourselves while we write.
Think about how free you are now that you’re relieved of your need to decide between good or bad. Like a child, you can be unfettered by self-doubt. You get to put all your energy into creating, into writing what you really want. Be brave. “Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest” (Elizabeth Gilbert).
Big Magic is Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, coming in September from Penguin (Riverhead). I’m excited about it because I wholeheartedly believe everything Gilbert says about creativity. These beliefs, mainly that we are meant to create and that we become miserable when we don’t, are what drive me to write, to allow myself to create, to honour myself by letting myself write whatever I want, and to encourage others to foster that part of them too.
Write what you want. Don’t worry. Your only job is to make the thing.