What we tell ourselves, and other lies

There are thoughts I’m having today that need to be written down. My inner critic, of course, questions the very premise of necessity as it relates to writing. Gut check done, I remind myself that I’m speaking only for myself: that I write only for myself. I have heard many a writer claim that they write with an audience in mind, and I don’t doubt them. Some of these people, in fact, are very fine writers.

But I do wonder whether giving the reader what they want, or think they want, is going to get anyone anywhere. I mean, book sales, sure. Plenty of those to go around, although not nearly enough for some, I suppose. But it can’t be all about book sales, can it? If you’re living for now, sure. And, I guess, what else is there if not for money, which helps feed us and pay our bills because, well, what else is there?

More and more, we live in a capitalist society where money is all, and we all need to earn our right to a living—unless we earn X number of dollars per year, then we don’t actually have a right to live at all, do we? Likewise with writers, musicians, artists of all kinds — if you’re not earning a minimum amount in sales and royalties each year, you might as well not exist. Why write if you can’t write a bestseller? Your ideas should be palatable to the masses, or else you should be working a job. It’s one or the other. You might have a choice, but, if you’re really a writer, it’s no choice at all.

I admit, I get tired of the shitty writing. Not just my own. I mean, I’m a huge proponent of the necessity—even the desire—of writing a shitty first draft. Every great draft begins with the first draft, so whatever it takes. That first draft will necessarily be lesser than its future incarnations, but that’s not a viable reason for never writing it. It would be like saying if you can’t perform a perfect heart surgery, you have no right to study to be a doctor. Or if you can’t skate like Conor McDavid, you should abandon all hope of playing in the Pee Wee tournament when you’re young. Or you should not aspire to be a better person because you’re barely even a good person now.

Fact is, you’re a person right now, and that’s a start towards becoming a better person; it’s the only prerequisite, really. Many of us strive for improvement nearly every day. Same with writing: becoming a better writer starts with being a writer. Don’t commit suicide—that is, don’t stop writing—just because you’re not there yet.

And where exactly is “there”? I know writers who give up because all they had were book contracts but not much in sales, or ideas without finished manuscripts. Or they had written manuscripts and were continuing to write them, but with diminishing promise for a big break-out novel. So they quit.

Well, good. That clears the field of people who think writing is about fame and fortune, or even just a small amount of fame with a modicum of financial security. I mean, if that’s what it is for you, then I won’t argue with that. I just don’t want it for myself.

Shitty writing eventually grows into a giant, leafy tree, depending on where you bury it. In your upstairs bedroom closet, you’re guaranteed nothing will sprout. Nothing good can grow in the dark. But out in the yard exposed to the raw elements and the scattered bit of sunlight, and your shite might actually spring something good, if not useful. A good gardener can help you with that.

To be honest, I don’t care if art is useful; I only care that it makes me feel something and, if I’m lucky, it makes me think about something. If I’m really, really the luckiest man in the world at that moment, the art that I experience will blow the windows and doors of my mind wide open, maybe knock down a wall or a ceiling, make the floor wobble. I don’t expect a break-through, but one might come if the writer has done their job well.

And maybe I’m capable of writing that mind-shattering piece of prose or poetry myself. I think I am. I don’t think I’ve done it yet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try. I don’t try often enough though, these days. I mean, you need to sit your arse in the chair and actually write. That’s the only way.

But if you can’t be bothered to do that, then don’t kid yourself that you’re a writer. And don’t look at me as if I’ve just killed your dream. No, because you did that yourself. Every day when you didn’t get up and go to keyboard or grab a pen and some paper, and at least put in the time, even if nothing comes out, you’re killing your dream slowly but surely. And if you’re okay with that, there’s no one to blame. Maybe not even yourself, if that’s how you want it.

But I’ve had people look at me and say, “Don’t tell me I should be writing,” or “Don’t encourage me. That’s pressure.” Or: “I’m on this writing retreat to relax; don’t expect me to write.”

Fine. I get it. Relaxation is important for a healthy mind. So I’ve heard. I won’t even dispute that; it’s necessary, and that’s all.

But I am not your enemy because I insist on writing. Because I ask a first draft, no matter how shitty. Because I demand a better verb, one that tickles my brain, brings a smile to a face with its perfection, and brings a human moment to life in the form of a resurrection of a memory that would otherwise have died. In pace requiescat. Because I say to you that you are a good writer, or a very good writer, but that you should aspire to greatness because you’re likely to find more edible fruit on that path than if you stop at the good gate or the barely good window, looking in and wondering what might be possible if you went a bit further, maybe ventured into the farmer’s market instead of standing in the doorway. Maybe growing your own and fertilizing and tilling the soil, and praying for right conditions because you’ve done everything else you can, including picking it and bringing it the table, or to market, yourself.

I struggle to make a living, maybe because I think I already deserve to live. I struggle to make time to write, but I do, like right now, for instance, these past ten minutes. And every moment I manage to write something is sacred: I am fulfilling my destiny as a creative human being every single time I try to come up with a better word than “was”. And, in the end, I will take a bunch of those moments in flight towards the defiant sun any day over a bank vault full of dead RSPs and royalty cheques. Because, in that same end, the money is useless, but the good word will outlive you, if you’ve done your job well.

8 Replies to “What we tell ourselves, and other lies”

  1. Brilliant – but no surprise there, because that’s the kind of writer you are.

  2. THANK YOU, GERARD!!!! This is what I believe…why I keep going in spite of everything. In the end I know I had a good life…I did what I wanted to do, in spite of the negative comments…sometimes I stop and cry…but in the end, I keep going because I have too….when you turn your back on capitalism, it says a lot….that integrity and being true to yourself is the most important thing of all. I look forward to this summer….I hope I will be more open and ready to take more in. Thank you! You are an excellent mentor and writer! Lisa

    1. Your writing has integrity, and you’re a talented storyteller, Lisa. Rejection isn’t truth, and I’m glad you know that. But it does hurt deep down, no matter what. Looking forward to seeing you in Saint Andrews this summer. Thank you for the kind words. ~ Gerard

  3. This resonates: “And every moment I manage to write something is sacred: I am fulfilling my destiny as a creative human being every single time I try to come up with a better word than “was”. Every act of creation is sacred, writing no less than others.

    And perhaps even more so, this: “To be honest, I don’t care if art is useful; I only care that it makes me feel something and, if I’m lucky, it makes me think about something.” I don’t make art – it’s not my gift at all, sadly – yet, I am surrounded by it, because I collect it. And every piece, even as I look at what I see sitting at my computer – is something that has made me feel something. That still makes me feel something. Is it useful? I suppose you could argue that it is not, in that it doesn’t serve an actual function…. unless we forget that something that brings us joy definitely serves a vital function.

    1. Thank you, Bobbi. Your point about “use” is valid. I just meant that “What’s it good for?” or “What can it do for me?” are necessarily questions the artist needs to ask, and I’m not sure they’re even the primary questions an observer need ask, at least at first. I think art has its uses, and I do think the instilling of joy and the presentation of beauty are vital functions, as you say. But when I first behold any piece of art–whether literary, musical, visual, or whatever–I’m not even thinking about whether’s useful. I’m thinking, “Is it any good?” or “Do I like it?” I don’t even ask, “How does it make me feel?” I just feel what I feel, and let it be. Anyway, I’m not at all suggesting the question you ask is wrong in any way–it’s just a question that made me think. And I don’t even know how it made me feel. I like it, regardless.

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