In the pages that follow I hope to provide some useful information and resources to the serious student of the craft. Writing is craft and craft can be studied, but writing is also more than craft. It is a way of thinking, of looking, of staring, of considering. It is a set of habits. The title of this section is a nod to one of my favorite books about writing, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. She doesn’t pretend to teach anyone how to write. She nibbles around the edges, talks about skywriting, chopping wood. She suggests a necessary frame of mind. The title to Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters, A Habit of Being, carries much the same spirit. In her essay in The Eleventh Draft, Deborah Eisenberg speaks of the writer’s essential habit of resistance–resistance to the obvious word, the obvious action, the obvious way of looking at a story. The writer’s habit of being, she says, is often marked by “confusion, incomprehension, anxiety, inefficiency, and the inappropriate response.” So yes, writing takes talent, craft, perserverance–but also this other odd set of tendencies that in many other fields might not serve a person so well.
More than anything, writing is the habit of staying in the room. There’s a terrific essay by Michael Ventura called “The Talent of the Room” that discusses this. Here’s a taste:
The thing about the room is this: it’s likely you’ll have to remain there for years before you even know whether or not you’re any good — and it may be years more before anyone else knows. Because you can have the talent of the room and can spend years there but still not be much of a writer. Or twenty years can go by and you are good, but you don’t get published; or you get published, but nobody notices; or they notice, but they hate it; or you’re a lousy writer, but they love it and you get rich. Whatever. The only thing you know you’ll have twenty years down the line is the experience of the room — how you behaved, what you felt, what you thought, what you dared, what you fled, how you lived life, how life lived you, alone, in that room.
It’s sobering stuff and the essay hits like a splash of cold water. But it’s exhilarating too because it’s an acid test and you know after reading it whether or not you’re a person who can stay in the room and if you’ve said yes that’s a pretty damn cool thing to know in your bones.
Ron Carlson says much the same thing in his book Ron Carlson Writes a Story when he talks about resisting the temptation to get up after a decent 20, 40, even 60 minutes of writing.
The writer is the person who stays in the room. The writer wants to read what she is in the process of creating with such passion and devotion that she will not leave the room. The writer understands that to stand up from the desk is to fail, and to leave the room is so radical and thorough a failure as to not be reversible. Who is not in the room writing? Everybody.
We discussed this in my writing group and some saw his use of the word failure as harsh. Failure is not a word to shun. It’s a part of life, often a daily part in my case. A pop singer says your mistakes are the only things you can truly call your own and there’s something to that. As fiction writers we choose to occupy the lives of our characters at their most difficult and vulnerable moments: often, when they let themselves and their loved ones down; we follow them through these moments of flaw and failure in a way that is both tough-minded and compassionate. So make friends with the word failure, I say.
But more to the point realize what Carlson is and isn’t saying here. I’m not of the belief you need to log in an eight- or three- or even two-hour workday every day, without fail. Life intervenes. And some days, some weeks, you just don’t have it. At the other end are the days when the fire is lit and you don’t have to work to stay in the chair and the time flies by. Those days are few, but we need them.
Carlson is talking about the other days. Most days. Days when you have a reasonable chance of getting some reasonably good work done. He offers advice for how to wring more than a token amount of writing from those days. He tells us his best writing almost always follows that first urge to get up and call it a day. If you do get up and call it a day does that make you a failure? Of course not. But you have missed out on something you might never get back.
The getting up and walking away adds up, over time, to something we might as well call failure, depending on how serious you are about the calling. This is what Ventura means when he talks about writers of great promise who have every talent but the one they need most. If over time you get up from the chair more often than you stay, you have indeed walked away from something essential and irretrievable. A certain habit of being that is the writing life.
Some final thoughts from UCLA instructor Lou Mathews:
From ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande, published in 1934: The most important thing for a writer is not talent. It’s morale. That’s probably more true today, because there are many more reasons not to write. The longer you hang out in this non-business, the more you appreciate the quality of lasting. After you’ve written the obligatory stories (first love, first death, parent problems, child problems) then you have to move on, or not. The morale Mrs Brande refers to, unfortunately for most of us, depends on publication. And that’s the worst place in the world to look for validation. It if happens, it’s often a fluke, and you’ll still feel bad afterward, no matter how well you’re treated, because it has little to do with reasons to write. Editors, agents, magazines, writer’s conferences, literary gossip are great fun but essentially distractions. What should move you – the source of good morale – is what moved you in the first place: the pleasure of the well-wrought word. The essential pleasure is in the work.