August 22nd, 2013
I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing lately and it’s pretty good–folksy and a bit “well, it worked for me!” simplistic, but also funny and well-referenced and common-sense. It was clearly written with Stephen King fans in mind (some of the examples do not make sense unless you have read one or another of his novels) but another target audience is nervous novice writers. There’s a lot of gentle handholding about not caring if it’s brilliant, not torturing yourself over the exact wording of the first sentence when you could be writing the second one, not caring when people say you ought to get a real job (Note: King’s central delusion is that novice writers can and will write as a large share of their every day.)
It’s mainly good advice and certainly supportive, but geez, it made me feel bad for people who start writing as adults. So much pressure!
Not that I think you shouldn’t, mind you–anyone who wants to write ought to, immediately. It’s just that it’s so much easier to start in high school. Because I wrote my first creative pieces in grade 9, I always find the “why did you decide to start writing?” question that gets asked in so many interviews a bit baffling. Eh? Why *anything* I did when I was 14? Why the floral leggings, the swamp food, eating lunch on the shotput court, that crush on Bill S.? The short answer for almost everything that happened in high school is boredom. From bullying to band practice, teenagers choose their high-school activities basically just to fill time. The kids in band don’t expect an orchestra career anymore than the football team expects to eventually make it to the CFL. I played intramural *badminton* in high school, and believe me it was not a springboard to going pro (hands up if you’ve ever taken a birdie in the eye?)
I was a chubby smart kid, so sports and dance were largely out for me. I played in band, but drama club was a disorganized mess and honestly, even if it hadn’t been, I really wasn’t much of an actress. I needed another *thing*…and then there as the poster in the library about a literary conest–with prizes! I was bored, I spent a lot of time in the library, I got good grades in English, and my friends said I was funny–why *wouldn’t* I write a humourous essay about my school bus?
My point is slightly undermined by the fact that I did win the “junior humour” category of that literary contest, but I think out of a fairly narrow field. And it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I didn’t, just like it didn’t matter to me that I was a lousy pianist–I still played from ages 5 through 19. What else was I gonna do after school?
Grownups give themselves a much harder time, generally, especially if they have multiple other demands like work, spouse, kids, commute, etc. They feel some kind of pressure to have a “reason” to write, like people loving their work or making lots of money. But writing is hard, slow, and often unrewarding by the conventions of the “real” world. And even if you could write the best novel in the world, if you started tomorrow you wouldn’t be finished for at least a year, more likely a few–and a couple beyond that to see it in print.
Aspiring writers who haven’t yet started the actual process find me a bit baffling sometimes–I have some markers of success, like published books and some positive reviews, the occasional award nomination. But I am neither rich nor famous, and I am still work at something other than writing most days. Am I a big deal? A big failure? What’s going on here?
Grownups, used to doing things for a reason and seeing the results, find the lack of concrete “made it” moments in writing frustrating. Teenagers, who can’t even necessarily drive the car or buy the shirts they want, find random impotent work totally normal. If it’s fun, why not do it? It’s better than homework, and if your brother’s watching something stupid on tv…
This was actually a really wonderful attitude, and one I try to recapture when I feel like writing is pointless. Why does it need a point if I enjoy it? It’s cheaper than golf, and better for me than Facebook–and I like my stories. Game, set, match.
I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this before, but sometimes I can sell working on my book to myself more easily if I think of it as an occasionally lucrative hobby rather than a career. I get that writers need to take ourselves seriously in order to get the work done and done well, and if for you that means saying the word “career” than please do so. But I think I’ll probably write for the rest of my life no matter what I call it, and when I call it a hobby I feel less pressed, more like I’m supposed to have fun.
But mainly I don’t call it anything–I just keep writing, or try to. Because that really is the best part…