Friday, July 24, 2015

The Church of the Writer

Last Sunday I was drinking beers with some buddies and one of them asked if I had read the Ernest Hemingway book on writing. I said that I had, and we talked about the letters Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald shared about writing. Our conversation turned to discuss my writing process since I was the only one at the table who has been published. Another asked where my ideas came from. I'm afraid I disappointed my fellow beer drinkers when my answers turned flip. I don't like to talk about the writing process because it's easier to talk about writing than it is to write. When asked how do I write, meaning how do I approach the daunting task of writing, I replied that I sit at the keyboard and start writing. I don't regard where I write as a sacred space; I tend to think of it as a sausage machine. There's a lot of work to be done, and unless you turn the crank relentlessly, nothing comes out. I think people who don't write--or try to write--want me to say how the Muse kisses my forehead and the words magically flow. They don't feel the Muse's kiss and therefore, they don't write.

I get a similar impression at conferences when new writers crowd around us published authors like we're the chosen anointed, holders of the secret key that will unlock the hearts of agents and editors. The truth is that if I had such a key, I'd be at the top of all the bestseller lists, winner of every freakin' literary prize, and so rich I'd hire Stephen King and E L James to entertain me with pie fights. But there is no such key. And even more irksome, the path for every writer's success is different. After Hugh Howey, author of the mega-hit Wool, punched the sweet spot with a Reddit Q&A, untold other writers have since tried to leverage that venue for similar results...and zilch. Using a different tactic, one writer used Instagram to gather an army of followers. Others have Tweeted their way to stardom. Countless others have tried to follow their examples and their efforts became exercises in futility. So what works? Who the hell knows? You have to blaze your own trail.

On social media, it's an echo chamber of advice for writers. Lots of scribes post all kinds of aphorisms and you-gotta-dos. Most of them are trite or vague. Once in a while someone twists the obvious into something that sounds profound and other writers pile on with the Hallelujahs. It's like church, and we behave like backsliding, guilt-ridden Baptists turning to the Holy Scriptures for comfort. And like church, we seek the company of fellow believers, those with the precise kind of faith. Ever notice that shopping for a critique group is much like looking for a congregation? In either case, we want a close-knit community who understands us, who welcomes us, who shares our parochial view of the world. Within the sanctuary of that group we make ourselves vulnerable to criticism in the struggle to improve our souls.

But don't think that I'm cynical about the need to gird yourself. Writing is an intense, intellectual process. It's easy to quit out of frustration. It's easy to stare at the screen and feel like your head is an empty balloon. It's easy to pour yourself onto the page only to see your writing appear like a confused mess.

What's the best writing advice? First, gain command of writer craft and understand storytelling. Read. Read. Read. If you're serious about writing, then it's got to be a priority in your life. And lastly, because writing--as much as we say we love it--the act can be a pain in the ass. With that in mind I share these powerful, illuminating words from Steven Pressfield:

"Our enemy is not lack of preparation; it's not the difficulty of the project, or the state of the marketplace, or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is resistance. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why he can't/shouldn't/won't do what we need to do."


Bonnie said...

Amen, brother! Great essay.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Terrific, Mario. Steven King said every would be writer was searching for Dumbo's feather. There is a magic feather that will enable us to fly.

There's no magic.

Mario Acevedo said...

Thanks Bonnie and Charlotte.

Eileen Goudge said...

Mario, I agree with you 100%. Mastering one's craft comes first. Everything else is just noise. My favorite piece of advice about social media marketing came from a pro who said, "Build a time machine and go back 5 years in time." I used to feel like I missed the boat, whatever the boat might be. Until I went back to concentrating on the writing. That's what it's all about.