What You Have to Give Up to Write
Got a letter today from an aspiring novelist who is wondering if wanting to write means that one has to be willing to sacrifice a great deal for one’s writing and craft. Because one hears of writers who have made great sacrifices in order to work on their writing, including giving up jobs, friends and spouses in order to put their words into being. Does one have to be willing to put that all on the line for one’s art?
Nah. What you really need to do is cut an hour of TV watching out of your day. Seriously, now: Keep your job, keep your marriage, keep your friends, keep the kids. Just drop an hour of TV.
Because, look: If you’ve got an hour a day to write uninterrupted, you can probably manage between 250 and 500 words a day. Do that five days a week, and in the course of a year that’s between 65,250 and 130,500 words; i.e., hey, you’ve gone and written a novel. All while keeping your day job and not turning into a hermit. This is not complicated.
I think the whole “you must be willing to suffer for your art” thing is overrated and is generally bruited about by people who want to make writing look like some amazing, holy process or whatever. My response to this is, sure, writing can be a wild, transcendent thing, but at the end of the day it’s also about putting your ass into a chair and typing. Writing is a process, and like most processes, if you do it on a regular basis, you generally increase your facility for it.
Now, that covers the process, but maybe the question is meant existentially and experientially, as in “no great writer leads a strife-free life.” But you know, my feeling about that is that life is going to smack you around anyway, so there’s no point in making more trouble for yourself than you have to. Certainly a writer should be open to experience and even seek it out, but going out of one’s way to make one’s life more difficult just seems more trouble than it’s worth, and of dubious utility in any event. Just as a matter of practicality it’s a problem; I mean, when my life’s turning to crap I certainly don’t feel in the mood to write scads of prose. Usually I just end up sitting in my office and glowering at the computer screen.
Yes, there are a lot of writers with tumultuous lives. But I submit to you that in many if not most cases, their lives would have been just as tumultuous had they been in some other line of work, because that was just who they were, independent of their writer brain. I have no doubt there are accountants and firefighters and dentists with equally tumultuous lives, we just don’t hear about them. And very few people suggest that one must be willing to accept strife if one is to file people’s taxes with the IRS or perform root canals.
So yeah, no: Don’t give up everything for your art. Just turn off the damn television for a bit (or put down that XBox controller, or stop staring unblinking at your RSS feed or whatever), and get yourself used to writing a bit every day. You’ll be surprised at how effective it turns out to be, and you’ll still have a job and loved ones at the end of it. Unless you screw up some other way, in which case you will suffer. But it won’t have been for your art. And I think that’s for the best.