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How to Tell If You Really Want to Be a Writer

Detail from inside Bukowski Tavern in Boston

Detail from inside Bukowski Tavern in Boston

Wondering if you’re a “real” writer? A few authors have thoughts on the subject.

Yesterday I came across the Salon article “Better yet, DON’T write that novel,” in which Laura Miller lamented the commerce surrounding the be-a-writer industry generally and NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, specifically. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a contest of sorts in which writers work to achieve the goal of writing 50,000 words or more during the month of November.

I was struck by a number of points the article brought up. Here’s one: “Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say.”

It’s not a new idea of course. That idea underpins so many notions about writers (especially the starving artist kind) and shows up in books about writing, such as the example set by Stephen King throughout On Writing. (I find it absolutely astonishing what he accomplished under the influence of alcohol and drugs but that’s a post for another day…). King encapsulates so much of his motivation when he writes, “I’ve written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”

In another part of the book he says, “For me, not writing is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.”

Those are powerful words. When writing, he feels most at home. Not to say there isn’t effort. But there is a sense of alignment.

Or to put it another way: If you have to try that hard, maybe writing is not for you.

I will leave the elaboration of that point to Mr. Bukowski, the patron saint of indefatigable writers (and other lost causes) everywhere.

so you want to be a writer

by Charles Bukowski

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

From Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems

Counterargument

Then there’s the opposite view, represented by this Steven Pressfield quote from The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles: “If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

What do you think?

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