Last week I had to write a forty-five minute speech. It took me days, and when it was all said and done, I realized that for every page that I had in hand, I had thrown at least one page out. I often find that I do oodles of pre-writing that really just serves to help me clarify my thoughts, or figure out what tone I want to achieve, what tense I want to use, and which word choices I want to make. Sometimes I’ll reorganize a piece a dozen times before I feel like it is flowing. Sometimes I’ll abort the whole thing and start fresh.
Writers and artists are in a strange position in our culture, because so much of the work that we do is unpaid and invisible. As a writer, some part of you is always working, but very often you don’t have anything concrete or socially recognized to show for all of your work. We live in a culture which is all about achieving, striving and tangibility. When results can’t be measured against money, celebrity or granite counter-tops people judge you. Writers who work long hours might get published, but very often they don’t. Or they get published but nobody will buy their book because it can’t be slotted into an existing genre, or it doesn’t have mass appeal, or it’s ahead of its time. When you choose to write, you have to choose it because you love it, first and foremost. Nothing else is ever guaranteed.
When you are a writer, sometimes it is hard for other people to perceive that you are actually working. Sometimes, you are staring into space, thinking. Often, actually, you are staring into space. And non-writers tend to view that as wasting time; particularly if you don’t have a best-seller behind you that you can use as credible evidence about why this “fermenting time” is justifiable. Very often your loved ones will suggest, in well-meaning voices, that maybe it’s time that you get back to your real job, because a job that doesn’t have a pay cheque or a business plan with respect to its marketability isn’t really worth the amount of time you seem to be dedicating to it.
Even very successful writers seem to struggle with this. Italo Calvino described this dilemma as follows:
Mr. Palomar is lucky in one respect: he spends his summer in a place where many birds sing. As he sits in a deck-chair and “works” (in fact, he is lucky also in another respect: he can say he is working in places and attitudes that would suggest complete repose; or rather, he suffers this handicap: he feels obliged never to stop working, even when lying under the trees on an August morning)…(20).
…Mr Palomar derives a general picture of tranquility, and he is grateful to his wife for it, because if she confirms the fact that for the moment there is nothing more serious for him to bother about, then he can remain absorbed in his work (or pseudowork or hyperwork). He allows a minute to pass, then he also tries to send a reassuring message, to inform his wife that his work (or infrawork or ultrawork) is proceeding as usual (23).
I think every writer has to struggle with this perception, and with the question of whether work you enjoy but that doesn’t have a foreseeable reward can truly be regarded as work. Very often I put off writing projects indefinitely because I feel that paying work has to take priority, and a lot of successful writers’ biographies seem to indicate that they were absolutely obtuse when it came to considering the needs or desires of their loved ones or families. Many great writers end up divorced, or destitute, or divorced AND destitute. Writers need to have unusual amounts of tenacity, or self-absorption, and the willingness to put up with the perception that they really don’t “work” at what they do. Finding a support group among other writers can make all of the difference. (WCYR has been a godsend to me). So here’s to “work,” pseudowork, hyperwork, infrawork and ultrawork. Here’s to dreaming the impossible dream. Here’s to writing just because you can!
Do you feel that you are perceived as “not working” when you are writing. Do you feel that your writing is valued? Does it feel like you can never stop writing, even when you’re lounging? We’d love to hear your comments.
Until next time,
Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, November 3rd. We hope you can join us.
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Quotes excerpted from:
Calvino, Italo. Mr Palomar. Toronto: Minerva. 1995.