Tuesday, September 21, 2010


As Kelly has mentioned, John Scalzi has a long post on writing on his blog. Here is part of it.

If you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake. It’s not that hard, and it doesn’t require that much effort on a day to day basis. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.

I mentioned this to my friend Ruth Berman, and she said, "This isn't true. There are times when I am simply not able to write."

Ruth is a fine poet, prolific compared to me, and also a fine writer of short fiction, though she has written more poetry than fiction in recent years. She mostly publishes in literary magazines, though she has also published poetry and fiction in Asimov's, among other SF places.

I would call Scalzi a production writer, producing novels the way a production weaver produces scarves and a production potter produces pots and mugs. Like such artists, he has a workmanlike and practical attitude toward what he does.

I would say that Ruth and Scalzi are two different kinds of writers, and that what's true for one may not be true for the other.

I am on the Ruth end of the writing spectrum. Scalzi is able to make a living from writing. I cannot, and I have always been the main support of my own personal household. I think there's no question that working a day job has cut into my writing time and energy. Often, I have been able to write in spite of the day job. But as I aged and as my jobs became more interesting and demanding, I wrote less and less. Now that I am unemployed or retired, take your pick, I am writing more.

Like Ruth, I have often had the experience of not being able to write. Wherever the writing comes from is empty. I have to wait till it refills. Could I force the writing to come? I'm not sure. I know there are times when the words come with difficulty, and they are dead on the page.

Over the past 40 years, I have averaged something like 28,000 words a year. This is one novella or several short stories a year. After three or four years of work, I have a novel. My longest novel, A Woman of the Iron People, took 13 years instead of 7, because I took a long break in the middle and wrote another novel. I did this because I simply did not know where Woman was going.

Could I have written more if I'd been more disciplined? Maybe, and maybe I would have produced pages full of dead words, and stories that were not -- ultimately -- about anything.

What I'm trying to do when I write is create a work of art that is distinctive and personal, that says something I've never said before, that pulls as deeply as possible from whoever I am. I want the words to be alive. I want the story to have ideas that are seriously considered. I want it to be my best effort at describing what it's like to be human and live in this universe. Yes, I want my writing to be entertaining. But I also want it to be serious art that tries to meet the standards of the very best art.

When I write something that doesn't feel alive, that doesn't feel like my best effort, I trash it or put it away till I feel I can finish it.

Am I saying Scalzi doesn't do this? I have no idea, since I have read very little of his work.

I think he's wrong when he says writing isn't hard. I've done it a long time, and I find it quite difficult.


Jon said...

Hmmmm... I think you are somewhat misinterpreting what he is saying. He doesn’t say anywhere in that post that the output had to be “good” by any standards, he’s saying: even bad writing is better than no writing. I also don’t think he’s really speaking to actual writers per se, he seems to be speaking to people who claim they want to be writers and then provide a litany of excuses as to why they never actually get around to doing any actual writing. I think his post is more about the fact that there is no magic trick to writing other than just doing the work. At least, that was what I took away from it.

Tyler Tork said...

There probably are people who just can't write sometimes. I think there are many more people who say that they don't have the time, energy or whatever, who fail to self-observe and strategize to arrange for the time, energy or whatever to be available when they need it. Maybe that means setting the alarm for 4 AM so that you can get your best work in before your job leaves you drained, for instance.
Mind you, I'm guilty of this myself.
Writing might turn out to be less important to you than whatever you would have to give up to be able to write more. But I think it's a good idea to know what that is and have it be a conscious choice.