I used to be a writer. It’s a vague, kind of nebulous thing – to talk about writing, to talk about being a writer. Is there a word count for this club? A quota? A certain number of essays published, in a certain number of reputable journals? I don’t know about all that. When I talk of it, when I use that word, writer – it is a self-identification – a feeling, a yearning. I majored in English. I took courses in creative writing. I had stacks of notebooks and journals and I wrote short stories and essays and blog posts. In the most simple terms, I was a writer because I wrote.
I wrote a lot.
But then, awhile ago, I stopped.
For a bunch of reasons, really. I had to fix the dishwasher. I had to mow the lawn. I had to get a job. I had to be a step-dad. I had to wash my car. There is a list of reasons as long as my arm. And in that time, when I would sparingly pick up a pen with literary intent – maybe once every 6 months or so – I still fancied myself a writer – just a writer in waiting. I was waiting for some deus ex machina that would start the process for me. I pretended that I was seeing the world – that I was in a contemplative phase – that I was marinating in the juices of life, soaking up stories, so that I could be a better, more polished writer on the other side. I pretended that therapy would break open some dam of words that I had corked up inside, and, that, in time, at some unspecified future date, I would break open like an over-ripe fruit – and in the mean time, why bother?
All of these things are lies. All of these things are awful self-deception.
The internet tells me that Michael Kanin once said, “I don’t like to write, but I love to have written.” The internet also tells me that Michael Kanin was a playwright and screenwriter, but I confess, I did not know this – I did not know him. I just like the quote. I feel the hard edge of its truth.
I made excuses for why I did not write, but here is the truth – the only real truth – I stopped because I don’t like to write, either, Michael. I feel you.
For me, the act of writing is a commitment to painstaking work. In my youth I entertained this romantic notion of Jack Kerouac, sitting down with a long roll of parchment and pounding out On the Road in one long, manic session; the book spilling from his head, fully formed and perfect. This is a dangerous notion. This is a notion that should be locked up. We should throw away the key on this fantasy. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve plunked down with pen and paper and had the words just gush out of me in perfect rhythm. No. I write slowly. Laboriously. At a plodding, constant, forward pace. Writing is like working with hammer and chisel.
For me, the act of writing is to be laid low. The next time you go to Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com, look around you. Take in the thousands of books. The thousands of stories. The thousands of talented writers and editors and contributors. To put words down on paper and proffer them up for other people to read, even in the context of some backwater blog, is to dip a toe into this pantheon of talent, and feel you are left wanting. The world is full of amazing, talented, incredible wordsmiths, and I am not one, cannot be one. The act of writing makes me feel like I am no good, that I should give up, that I should go fly a kite, that I should run, run screaming, from the weight of expectation and validation.
For me, the act of writing is hard, it is uncomfortable. Think Gandalf and the Dwarves of Moria. He said that they had “delved too greedily and too deep” – and writing, often, is like that. It involves plumbing the depths, it involves critical introspection, it involves self-evaluation, it involves paths not taken. For those of us who live imperfect lives, lives with foundations that shift and creak, this is trying work.
All in all, it’s a shitty deal. So, no, I don’t like to write. It is hard, and I do not like it. I don’t like having a root canal. I don’t like having my fingernails pulled out with rusty pliers. And if that were it, if that were all – I could shrug my shoulders and go to work every day and get on with my life.
But it’s not – because I love to have written.
One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. If you’ve never seen it, first of all, totally shame on you, but secondly and perhaps more importantly this will not make a huge amount of sense, I fear. I’m sorry about that. Roll with it.
Toby Zeigler and Sam Seaborn are like Batman and Robin – they’re President Bartlett’s speech-writing duo, and they own it. These guys, these speech writers, they’re like language-samurai. They stand in the tall grass and balance a drop of rain on the edge of a katana sword or whatever the fuck, except with words. They are revered. They craft sentences that move mountains.
But Sam Seaborn is moving on, mostly because Rob Lowe wanted to go do something else with his career like guest star on Parks and Recreation or be on Dr. Vegas or whatever – and he’s replaced by Joshua Malina playing a guy by the name of Will Bailey. He’s the new speechwriter. And there’s this great scene where Will Bailey introduces himself to Toby, and hands him a note from Sam, and the note says, simply, “Toby – He’s one of us.” At least, I think that’s what it says. I tried to look it up on YouTube just now, but it is categorically impossible to go on YouTube and look up a scene from The West Wing. If you try, you will instead spend (at very minimum) an hour watching random clips from The West Wing on YouTube. It will be an entertaining hour, but still.
Toby – He’s one of us.
I love that scene. That scene gives me goosebumps, every single time I watch it.
And if you’re wondering what I’m on about, it’s just this – I love to have written. When I write, back when I would write – I would step back and read the thing that I had worked out, I be filled with a kind of awe. Not because it was incredible, not even because it was good – but because I had done it. I had created something. I had given birth to my voice, and something felt innately right about that.
The product justifies the process. The product incites me to start all over again. The product makes me feel, deep down in my bones, that this is my calling, that this is my vocation.
The product makes me want to say:
I can do this, and I am one of you!
I am one of you.
Every day, you make a choice. You either do something hard or you do something easy. I am tired of doing the easy thing. I have had enough of it. I have had enough minding my excuses, feeling jealousy and bitterness as writers, people I know, people who have come up with me through those same college classes and awkward first attempts at craft, those people do good – really good, really great things with their words.
It is time for a new paradigm. I am one of you. I am one of you, and the easy path no more.
It starts like this:
1 hour. 60 minutes. Every day. In the morning. At night. At my desk. On the couch. On my laptop. In a notebook. With a pen. With a pad. For 60 minutes every day, I will write. I will not check Twitter. I will not check Twitter. I will not check Twitter.
I tell myself that these minutes are immutable, but we are but men, right? Sometimes, often, I don’t want to do it. I thrash and wail and buck in my harness. If it’s too early, or of it’s too late, or if I’m sleepy, or of I’m over-stimulated, or if there’s a basketball game on, or if I have to do the dishes, or if I’ve had a beer. Sometimes, I fall down and I check Twitter. Sometimes, instead of an hour, I manage 45 minutes. Sometimes, once in awhile, I give myself a pass to watch TV or play a videogame or read a book.
On these occasions, when I fall short, the next day I start again.
You walk around, thinking your thoughts, and sometimes something will come to you, and you will reflect, and you will say to yourself, “Yeah, I could write something about that.” For years and years, I have had this thought, and I have squirreled away those ideas like precious treasure, and thought, “Some day, some day.”
In 60 minutes, I have started putting those little zygotes of idea to work. And it goes fast and it goes slow – mostly slow, but it goes. And it is hard and it is easy – mostly hard, but it goes. And that is the entire difference between being a writer and not being a writer. That is the entire difference between bitterness and exultation. The entire difference between thinking, “Hey, I should write about that,” and staring down at a finished piece of craft.
There is no special incantation. There is no trick. There is no end-around the tough stuff. Everyone else – they don’t know about some secret Dumbo’s feather.
They are just travelers on the hard path.
From here on out, I am going to join them.
I am going to write.