Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Is Writing a Joy, or Is It Work? Yes.

Over the months, I’ve signed up for a few “writer’s pages” at Facebook, primarily because I enjoy the inspirational quotes, occasional writing prompts, and the spirit of camaraderie fostered by hearing other writers talk about writing. Today one of those pages posted this quote by Agatha Christie, which has garnered a number of comments, some in agreement and some not:

“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t particularly writing well.”

This is provocative. One responder claimed this was the reason she’d never be a professional writer. Another one said she wants to be a professional but will only ever write what she wants and as long as she loves it. (To which I say, “heh.”)

The problem (if it is a problem) is that, in good Anglican fashion, I both agree and disagree with Christie’s words, which means I both agree and disagree with the responders.

There is a very real sense in which being a professional – at anything, writing included – means showing up day and after day and doing the job. That includes days you don’t feel like doing it. And if you’re going to do something as mundane as, say, earn an income from writing, then you will likely be tackling some writing assignments that you would never touch unless someone said to you “we need this by Friday…can you do it?”

It’s what Jane Yolen helpful refers to as the B.I.C. approach to writing: “butt in chair.” There are days, quite frankly, when I would like to be elsewhere, doing something else, but I stick to the chair as though duct taped there because the work needs to be done.

Of course – and here’s the flip-side, folks – why would I be doing that if I didn’t want to write in the first place? There are a lot of other things I could be doing, but I choose to do *this,* even on the days when it’s hard or boring or lonely or not going well, because quite frankly I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even when I am not in the chair, I am thinking like a writer, processing like a writer, responding to life like a writer, working on projects in my head (whether that’s mentally mapping out a lead for a book review in the shower, planning a blog post while I cook, or having an inner conversation with one of my fictional characters while I fold laundry).

Not coincidentally, the Jane Yolen “B.I.C.” approach is one that she expounds in her lovely book titled Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft. Clearly Yolen, a highly prolific writer, sees no contradiction between saying that she loves writing and writes for the joy of it and that she needs a pragmatic/dutiful/persevering approach to writing sometimes. In fact, one might say that it’s the joy of the thing – the sheer enjoyment of finding the right word, of putting words together into phrases and sentences and paragraphs and stories – that keeps you in the chair (and keeps you from pulling out your hair) on certain days.

Even on the writing projects you really love, that you do not because they’re assigned or because anyone has promised you any recompense, you’re going to have times when you despair that the writing will ever be what you want it to be. Do you quit then? Well, sometimes. But if you’re a professional, you don’t quit for long stretches. You quit to go walk the dog or check the casserole in the oven or answer an email or read a book to your child or watch an episode of Sherlock or eat some ice cream. But you don’t quit forever. You go back to the page that day or that night or the next day, because you’re a writer…and writing is what you love to do.

Loving to write, however, doesn’t always mean that it’s going to be easy. I think this is where our culture tends to trip up with the whole idea of love and work or duty – seeing them as diametrically opposed when they’re really not. We say “I’m only going to do something if I really love doing it!” when what we really mean is “I’m only going to do it as long as it’s fun and feels easy and doesn’t take too much time or inconvenience my schedule.” It’s only when you really love to do something that you make room for it in your life even when it’s not easy, when you commit to doing it even when it’s difficult or when you aren’t doing it as well as you’d like to but still feel called to keep at it.

So the answer to “is writing hard work?” is a resounding yes, but that yes will feel much easier and more life-giving if your answer to “is writing a joy?” is a yes that reverberates even more loudly.


Erin said...

A wonderful and encouraging blog post in a week when writing is feeling more like a burden. I'm grateful that I finally have a regular direct order client, but I'm finding it a tad hard to keep up with, and staying motivated has been a challenge the last couple days when there's so much I want to do on the house too. But boy, is it nice to be at the point now where I really can say that writing is what I do for a living. Definitely where I want to be!

Beth said...

I'm glad the post encouraged you, Erin! I know this must feel like a crazy-busy time as you settle into your new place and try to stay on top of writing assignments too. A challenging time to make that connection with a direct order client :) but how awesome that that's happened for you. Having regular writing work is a blessed thing. I'm not there yet...even combining my writing and teaching work, I can't say I'm making a living...but I am at least making more regularly and contributing economically to our household, and that's a good thing.

Let's keep on keeping on!