The Real Writing Life

In response to Mr. Pond, Huckleberries and Haggis

At last I’ve returned from my latest “happily hobbitish adventure” (à la Mr. Pond). Road tripping, despite the perils of traveling at seventy-five miles per hour in a machine, is tolerably safe and unchallenging.

Writing my novel, however, is “plumbing the depths of the human soul” (ibid)—this human soul, at least. I have a fair share of natural determination and perseverance, but Full Revision Number Three is challenging it. I adore my characters, but at times I’m exhausted merely by the thought of getting into their heads and hearts. After months of daily immersions in their story, I’ve felt more than ready to spend some time relaxing in my own.

Mr. Pond and I have spent our last couple of blogalectic posts talking about how our writing matters, how we matter:
What we do—what each of us does—matters, because we each see different things and tell different travelers’ tales. Our writing matters—simply and utterly—because we matter.

This is harder to accept than it might seem at first. We’re not often comfortable with being ourselves, having our own struggles and doubts and questions, rejecting the hurt and evil we find in ourselves and reaching relentlessly towards the healing, the good. I’ll be the first to admit that not everyone has stopped to think about writing this way, not everyone writes like this.

But anyone can.
Whether owing to my current creative dryness or to natural perversity, when I began to think about responding, my immediate ideas centered around the antidote to the heady rush of realizing that our writing matters. That is: this work will school us in humility, like it or not. Outright humiliation is even a possibility. Sometimes, the whole thing just doesn’t seem to matter that much.

Which leaves me, now and again, feeling like the hours I put into this every day are a waste of time. Maybe I ought to stop. I could stop writing that book—or this blog, if I took the fancy.

Like most determined writers, though, I don't feel I could stop without becoming someone else entirely. And one of the reasons for that is that I write to think through things. Journaling, blogging, commenting on blogs, telling stories, and songwriting all provide opportunities for wrestling with what I believe, what I could or should believe, what I think I know and may or may not be right about, and for learning how to express ideas with kindness and truth.

But oh, I wish I could do it perfectly.

In the internet age, every stray word feels like it’s preserved for posterity, ready to condemn its author at a moment’s notice from here to eternity. Once it’s down, anyone can critique or argue with it, and I already have a number of things on the world wide web that I would love to edit or remove. Authors who have a book published come up against even wilder realities, such as: The book may not sell, leaving the publisher with a lot of dead copies and a permanent lack of appreciation for the author. Or: People may very publicly express their hatred of the book. Or both. (Most published authors, if not all, get at least one of the two in some degree.)

As Rachelle Gardner put it:
It's important to remember that anyone in the "public eye"—and if you have any online presence, that means you—is a target for criticism. People can and will say anything they want. They will misinterpret what you've written, they will assign motives, and they'll even make judgments about you as a human being (not just as a writer, or in my case, an agent).
I've experienced this firsthand, and in all honesty, it sucks. I hate it. You probably don't call it one of your greatest joys either. So does our writing really matter enough to keep trying?

Getting published is practically an Olympic sport nowadays. I’m not the first nor the only person to make that comparison, though I’ve long been repeating it to enthusiastic and encouraging friends and family as they ask how soon they can buy my book in bookstores. Can our words and stories do enough good, provide return enough to be worth this immense risky investment of time and emotion? Will your book or mine matter even if both critical and public response is harsh or indifferent?

Perhaps such questions are too intimate even for a small-time blogger who is two years to never from seeing her books on the great shelves of Barnes and Noble. After all, for answer we can only tell ourselves to give it a shot. I can't speak for you, but I feel arrogant for even dreaming that I might have a chance in such extreme competition.

Perhaps “Just give it a try” is not answer enough for someone who wants to survive the process and remain human. Maybe we need something more like “Make an honest effort. Keep polishing, keep a healthy respect for the opinions of others, keep hold of your vision for the work, search for truth and kindness in your words, hang onto a sense of humor and a life outside writing, and remember that success is ultimately beyond the control of any one person. Also, you'll need all the courage and humility you can muster, so work on those.”

That’s kind of long and awkward, hardly a memorable aphorism. But there has never been a simple formula for success in writing (and if that fact doesn’t keep us well grounded, I don’t know what will.) It is true, anyway, for all of us.


  1. I would say writers also need a strong streak of masochism. :)

    Glad you made it back safely!

  2. Haha, George. You may be right. :)

    Thanks! It was a fun trip. I'll post some pictures later in the week.

  3. Have you read Jerry Jenkins's Writing for the Soul? He does a very good job balancing the spiritual transcendence of writing with the brute hard grunt-work, able to be a harsh realist and enthusiastic encourager at the same time. It would be worth your reading.

    You sound like you need to stick your novel on the shelf for a month or two and write short stories. Perfect time for a gamma read, eh? :)

  4. Though I haven't read that book--I'm very bad about reading books on writing--I like the sound of that title.

    It might not hurt me to put the novel away for a couple of months, but I took a break from it on vacation. More of a break than I intended to. And I came back with some ideas, so I'm giving it another go. I can't send it for gamma reading now, because I'd have to send you a mix of old and new manuscript and that would just be confusing. :) But I do hope to have something more complete in a reasonable time. Thanks for wanting to read this--it really encourages me!


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