Helga’s Post # 86: Did Henry Miller get it right?
A great many thoughtful comments followed Silk’s post about the all-important question “What am I willing to sacrifice for my writing?”
It’s a question that every writer has to answer sooner or later. We might try to push it aside, but like a nasty persistent skin rash, it keeps coming back to bug us.
So what’s the answer?
I read Silk’s post to my husband, just to get a non-writer’s perspective (though he hastened to add he writes ‘lots’, but it’s all technical specification stuff, so doesn’t quite apply here). He had an interesting perspective that I hadn’t thought of before. ‘Serious writers are not that different from tennis pros or pros in other sports.’
Well, for pros, the sport always comes first. Their daily training routines, their workouts to get and remain fit, both physically and mentally, and even their diet – especially their diet. Their grueling daily schedule, regardless of whether they feel up to it or not, putting all else in second place. They do this because it’s the only way to move up in the rankings, to compete and get noticed, and eventually win out over their competitors. They don’t have the luxury of choice to opt out of their regimen, to forego their strict schedule or diet (ice-cream anyone? you must be kidding).
Of course they do all this under the direction and control of a skilled coach who won’t let their charge stray from that strict regimen.
We writers don’t have the luxury of a professional coach. Nobody tells us what time to start writing in the morning, how many pages to write, how to stay physically and mentally – especially mentally – fit, and to fend off any and all interferences to our writing. We don’t have anyone but ourselves to prioritize our commitments and duties, to decide what to ‘sacrifice’ to write that next chapter or scene.
One of my biggest challenges is to decide how much time I can reasonably devote to nurturing and growing my friendships. Friends are so incredibly important and such a rewarding part of our lives. But, let’s face it: friends do take up a lot of time. If they happen to be writers, they understand; they live with the same constraints. But others may not be quite so forgiving. Try and explain to a friend why your ‘hobby’ (their definition) is more important than a daily phone call or a two hour coffee chat. Try to point out that you are using all your mental resources to juggle everything else in your life, and to keep a semblance of balance to what you will never give up: your spouse, family, and yes, a modicum of chats with friends, time permitting. Try explain that the amount of time you spend with them is not that relevant, because true friendships will last through distances and even stretches of time where we don’t seem them.
Don’t expect understanding or empathy. How could they know? This is where we writers have to take a step back and appreciate that others (members of the non-writer species) just don’t share that space with us. We can’t expect them to. So if you get a blank stare when you try to make them understand your constraint, put yourself in their (non-writer) shoes.
So that’s the predicament. Surviving as a writers with friendships intact, to take care of your loved ones, and above all, enjoying the ride. And to keep enough energy in the tank to say, hey, life is good. I can have it all. If I’m not too greedy.
One of the comments on Silk’s post (Judy’s) talked about putting writing on the top of the list before all else (barring emergencies). I hear you. I want to believe you! Can it be done? Sure. But it needs a steely discipline. Especially because we don’t have the luxury of a coach to keep us on the straight and narrow. We have to do that all ourselves. And that’s what makes it so indescribably challenging. To keep that discipline without anyone to reign us in if we stray from it. Nobody to tell us, don’t open the fridge for that leftover piece of pie, don’t binge on Netflix to watch three series of Mad Men in one sitting, and for heaven sakes, stay away from the blowout sale of the season at your favorite boutique.
Then there is the question of motive, or objective, for writing. One, much bantered about, is that a writer simply has to tell a story. A particular story. An honorable cause to be sure. How many writers can truly admit that this is their driving force? I’m conflicted, not sure where I stand on this one. Again, the tennis pro comparison comes to mind. He (Novak or Roger) or she (Maria or Eugenie) keep their eye on the prize. Sure, they love the game, but without that overriding drive to win they surely wouldn’t put up with all that sacrifice.
We want to be published. That’s the prize. Yes, we love to write and we write even in the face of discouraging statistics about getting published. Of course we can leave all our unpublished manuscripts as legacy to future generations of family members or whoever, but is that enough incentive to keep on plugging away on the keyboard day in and day out, for decades of our lives?
That’s a question I would love to get answers to. Why do we write? Honestly?
As for myself, I am still searching. At different points in my life I wrote because I simply found it an enjoyable pastime. An artistic expression, like a painter adding color to a blank canvas. At other times I felt compelled to write, as if I had no choice. Perhaps a bit presumptuous about my talents, but those were my most productive writing times. So, yes, believing that we can write a great story, worthy of the ‘prize’, may just be the most important ingredient.
None of this is new, or particularly clever. The debate has gone on forever. It’s at the heart of every writer. Take these two divergent views:
‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’ – George Orwell
‘Forget all the rules. Forget about being published. Write for yourself and celebrate writing.’ – Melinda Haynes