The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Eighteen: Writing

Over the course of this Thanksgiving Advent adventure, I’ve talked about a number of things associated with writing, and how they’ve affected my life. I haven’t talked about writing itself, however. So I’d like to focus on that for today, independent of all the trappings, benefits and side effects. Because the fact of the matter is that even if I never became a professional writer, or became a financially successful writer, or even had more people than my immediate circle of friends ever read anything I wrote, I would still write. I would still be a writer.

I would still be a writer for the simple reason that I find the act of writing extremely pleasurable. There is something lovely about sitting down to a blank screen (or blank page, if you want to get old school) and filling it with words. There is likewise a fantastic feeling that comes from taking what are unformed and chaotic thoughts in one’s head and giving them form and structure with words. People often note that ideas and thoughts which seem deep and meaningful inside their head seem banal or pointless when they’re written out, but allow me to suggest the problem is not that that these ideas were reduced when they were translated into words; instead, they were revealed. Your brain lies to you about the awesomeness of your thoughts. Words are the friend that says “Dude. Stop hitting the bong.” On the other hand, if you have a fantastic idea in your head, and it’s still fantastic when you put it into words, you know what? It may in fact be fantastic.

This organizing and structuring that comes through writing comes in handy for me, because it means that I have an outlet to express thoughts I have that run deeper than “I have to take out the trash.” My wife understands this perfectly well; on more than one occasion, after I’ve completely fumbled expressing something to her, she’s said to me “you need to go write that out.” And I do and then I actually have a way to express that idea, so that the next time I try to verbalize it, I have a framework and a method that doesn’t involve increasingly wild hand gestures and the use of the phrase “you know?” every five or six words. Writing makes me a better verbal communicator, funny as that sounds. For which I suspect my wife, who has to live with me, is grateful.

Another reason writing is pleasurable is that I am good at it, and it feels good to do things you are good at. When I was young, I was a good writer — “good” being highly conditional on context, mind you, and I could have benefited from my own list of tips for teenage writers — and especially when you’re young, doing something you know you can do well (and possibly better than almost anyone else you know) means a lot to you and your concept of yourself as a person. You may be goofy or short or socially awkward or pocked with strategically embarrassing zits or whatever — but you can make words do things, things other people can’t, and that’s a hell of a thing when you’re fourteen and you’re trying to find a place in the world and to have it all make some sort of sense.

As I got older another aspect of the joy of writing came to the fore: the enjoyment of the craftsmanship of it, of the appreciation of a turn of phrase, or the right word, or the presentation of a concept just so, that could make an idea pop or turn a sentence from a merely functional string of words conveying meaning into something that stuck into a reader’s brain like a piton driven into a cliff wall. It’s the meta-awareness of a thing you’re doing and how you’re doing it and how it’s working, and the realization of your own competence with it, brought on by a combination of talent, practice and the occasional out of the blue taser jolt of inspiration.

And through all of this is the pleasure of the flow of words that comes when you are caught up in the act of writing, when everything you know about writing and everything you think about it and everything it might have earned you (or that you want it to earn for you) slip off to the side and it’s just you laying out the words, one after the other, into an inevitable sequence. It’s the same thing a musician gets in the middle of an epic jam session, or a painter when the image emerges out of the paint or the actor who has subsumed himself in the moment, no longer thinking about his character because the character is there.

This state of being has been described from a psychological point of view, but conceptualizing it and feeling it are of course two entirely different things. It feels like a gift from the universe to you. And maybe it is. I’m not of the opinion that you have to be good at what you’re doing in order to experience this sort of flow, although it may help. What’s important is that you’re so far into the thing you’re doing that in that moment, everything else doesn’t matter. I’ve gotten this feeling from other things, but where I get it the most is when I’m writing.

It’s a relationship with words, essentially. I have one and it manifests itself through my fingers, usually onto a computer screen but occasionally with pen and paper. It’s a relationship in which I feel defined, in no small part because in the act of writing I have been able to define myself, to myself and to others.

Independent of anything else writing has done for me — and it’s done a lot — this aspect of it has been extraordinarily important to me, and I’m thankful for it, and the pleasure it’s given me. And ultimately it’s why I write, why I keep writing, and why, if everything else that writing ever did for me went away (and it might), I would still do it.

27 Comments on “The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Eighteen: Writing”

  1. Writing is easy, you just stare at the paper until little drops of blood appear on your forehead. — Ring Lardner, Jr.

    I share Mr. Scalzi’s sense of actually enjoying the writing process. But I don’t think that we were merely lucky to be born with a Fun-Writing gene. I’m reasonably sure, in my own case, that it has a genetic component, hard to measure. After all, my mother and father both had degrees in Enlish Literature, and were New York City book editors when I was growing up. And I’m related by DNA to Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856), who was one of the most significant German poets of the 19th century, to Lorenz “Larry” Milton Hart (2 May 1895 – 22 November 1943), who was the lyricist half of the famed Broadway songwriting team Rodgers and Hart, and through a longer chain of cousins to Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960), born in Moscow, as the son of talented artists: his father a painter and illustrator of Tolstoy’s works, his mother a well-known concert pianist.

    Since my wife is a blood relative of Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832), Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet, a purely genetic mechanism would predispose our son to win a Nobel prize in Literature.

    But I don’t think it works that way. genetics, epigenetics (good diet helps; few crack babies and starving Somalians are likely to win Nobel prizes, though it’s not flat out impossible).

    But more than that: education, the life-style choices one makes, the 10,000 hours of practice, having good teachers and mentors, and being linked into the social network of, for example, SFWA, may be the bigger factors.

    Or so it seems to me. Since 6 July 2010, when I doubled my daily fiction writing quota to 2,000 words, I’ve completed 985,050 words, including this morning’s chapter 6: “HEDM and Heyday” of a new story “Lutetia.” It was me that did the writing, not my ATCG. At least, that’s how it feels.
    A = Adenine
    T = Thymine
    C = Cytosine
    G = Guanine

  2. Hi John.

    Question: What program are you using that centers the text in all white screen? I have a MacBook, and I have yet to find anything that looks that crisp and nice.


  3. To John & Jon,

    Both of you mentioned it, but I would like to stress how valuable the teachers & mentors (from Jon) and an environment where a 14 years olds writing (John)was appreciated and encouraged had to do with where you both are and why you do what you do so well. How much better our world would be if all our children received such a bounty.

  4. I haven’t written more than 250 words at a time in years. Reading this is like a flash of ghost pain from a lost limb. I have been wondering when I would have to write again, when it would bubble up out of me and I would no longer have a choice. Damn you, Scalzi! That day is now much closer. I’m sure my job, my husband, my child, and my home will understand. Of course they will. Sadly, I still write like a teenager, not surprising since it’s been about that long. So undignified. Thanks, as always, for the words.

  5. Beautifully said. I’ll add a few things based on my experience as an English teacher and writer:

    It’s impossible to be more than just a competent writer unless you are also a voracious reader.

    “Writing is rejecting.” To produce your best stuff, you must learn to be your own worst critic.

    “Right Words, Right Places” by Scott Rice is the most useful general text on writing I’ve ever read. The title alone is worth the price of the book.

    You always, always need someone else to read over your stuff. Once, I passed out to my class a list of rules, e, g., vary sentence beginnings, use transitions, etc. Last item: “Finally, don’t forget to poofread.” A student pointed out the error. Dancing as fast as I could, I said, “Good! I wanted to see who would be the first to catch that.” We all had a nice laugh, but I believe a few kids suspected the truth. I learned my lesson.

  6. Drats. I thought you had something that looked clean and crisp. Oh well. Thank for the reply, and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

  7. I tell people I write because that is who I am. It’s in my fiber. It’s my hobby and a (tiny) part of my income stream. I used to think I was a freak of nature whose hobby is writing. Then I met Brandon Sanderson and he too has writing for a hobby. I don’t play an instrument to relax, collect coins or paint. I write. When people ask me if I collect anything, I tell them “Stories to write down”.

  8. Possible (ironic) typo: “When I was young, I was good writer” – I think you’re either missing an “a” or you meant to proper-noun yourself (i.e., “Good Writer”).

  9. Jeff V. @1:30pm: Try Byword or WriteRoom from the App Store. That’s pretty much what they look like by default. Ten bucks. Also, writing environments like Scrivener have customizable full-screen modes (i.e., you pick what you want. Black on white, amber on black, pink on purple … whatever).

  10. Jeff Hentosz: Thanks. I’ll have to look into those apps. I just wish Word or Pages would have a feature like that, you know?

  11. “People often note that ideas and thoughts which seem deep and meaningful inside their head seem banal or pointless when they’re written out…instead, they were revealed”

    I don’t think it’s because the ideas were pointless. I think a lot of the time people just can’t express themselves in writing properly.

    Just like you needing to “to go write that out”. You (it sounds like) may write better than you speak sometimes. Others may speak better than they write. Others may have great thoughts but aren’t able to speak or write well. And, don’t get me wrong, they should work on that. But that does not necessarily mean their ideas were pointless.

  12. Please note that the following sentence is SCARY.

    “Independent of anything else writing has done for me — and it’s done a lot — this aspect of it has been extraordinarily important to me, and thankful for it, and the pleasure it’s given me.”

    Which aspect of writing is thankful for itself?

  13. I wish that your rules for teen writers had been available to me when *I* was a teenager, particularly point 2. I knew my writing sucked, and suspected it was because I just didn’t know anything, among other reasons.

  14. ebenezer, you will be visited by three spirits.* Obviously there’s a missing word there.

    *Gin, whiskey, and vodka. But they’ll all say “no, you can’t drink any, you sarcastic bastard.”

  15. Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Xopher?

    (I note that the sentence has been fixed, although I never heralded the arrival of my visitors, whose coming was foretold to me. They must have visited — and all in one night, as they can do anything they like — for without their visits, I could not hope to shun the path *you* evidently tread.)

    (And no, I couldn’t drink any, and for other reasons than my sarcasm. I remain thankful that there is no Minimum Legal Drinking Age for coffee.)

  16. Wonderful post, Scalzi. Like many of the previous commenters, I too write quite a bit — mostly for myself these days, although in an earlier life, when I was still doing a lot of federal trial work, it was my profession.

    One thing I’d like to add to everyone else’s fine, fine comments is the need to keep writing. I always had been good at using words to string together ideas, but when I went into my semi-retirement I stopped writing on a regular basis. About 3 or 4 years went by before I started trying to write again — just small essays for myself, usually involving me working through some ideas about politics or the economy (I am a news junkie) — and I was shocked to discover how difficult it seemed to make my thoughts flow smoothly. I always had trusted my ability to write, I thought it always would be there for me to summon, but it isn’t like that at all. If one really enjoys the flow of thought into structured form, it is important to keep that flow coming.

  17. Y’know, I read this, and I was driven to write a response. …and now that I’ve finished the response and gone back and re-read it, I think I lost the plot somewhere. Or maybe I’m just drunk. It’s hard to tell. Perhaps I will come back tomorrow and re-examine this question in the harsh light of sobriety- assuming I get to it before the wine-tasting I have reservations at, anyway.

    But here’s your response:

  18. Dear Mr Scalzi,
    I read you daily and for many years and through my three different email addresses you were always my first subscription. I rarely respond to your posts, not because what you write doesn’t generate a response, but because under the “banal becomes obvious when written” I try to stay silent when I have nothing to say. I really don’t have anything important to say today either, except that I too place writing on my gratitude list, your writing and mine.
    Written words are my best friends, therapists and the world I live in when something needs solving or avoiding. Your writing, from your early online presence to your first novel on my PalmPilot, to my most recent paper and ink purchase at Changing Hands are safe places to adventure. So thank-you for writing and creating a haven of suspense, laughter and things that make me think. I look forward to reading your thoughts tomorrow, and to your next book, and maybe someday actually having my work schedule allow me to meet you and shake your hand in gratitude.
    I have recently returned to professional writing after a 15 year hiatus during which I never stopped writing just chose not to get paid or noticed. I remain working in the career that was my life long dream (nursing), but am thankful to return to making words work as a second career. The first time just happened because I was so in love with words and their power at such a young age it was noticeable to others so wasn’t as fun as choosing it for myself.
    Anyway, I love this Gratitude Advent, you are sometimes as awesome as your books. ;)
    JM de Biasi

  19. On the subject of Macs, I thought that our inestimable host had sworn off them for life. What gives? I can see a Coke Zero can right there, so there’s an even chance that this is in fact a picture of Scalzi’s desk :-)

  20. Well put John. I too experience that feeling of which you write. Not as a writer so much, although a little bit, but as a seminar instructor. I teach seminars (Individual Retirement Accounts – yes, a very dry subject) all over the country to financial professionals. I always have a good time and enjoy the teaching, but there are times when it all just comes together with the attendees, almost like a concert, where the air seems alive with simultaneous communication. They get it, and they are into it, and it feels great! I just go with the flow and it ends up being a magical day, where the pleasure of the teaching and communicating comes through. I have felt this electricity in the air at events such as concerts (ain’t nothin’ for the head like the good old Grateful Dead) and sporting events (playoff games especially). Athletes call it being “in the zone”, which I also experienced playing basketball. It is a great feeling, and as you said, “a gift from the universe”. Certainly something for which I am indeed thankful.

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