The Admonition Of Ass-In-Chair, Or, “How Writing Is Actually Work”

Writer and writing teacher J. Robert Lennon wrote a post recently, “The Ass-In-Chair Canard,” which takes aim at that oft-uttered snidbit of writing advice, a piece of advice seemingly universal across all those writers who dare to give advice on the subject of writing:

Put your ass in the chair and write.

Regarding that piece of advice, Lennon says at the fore of the post:

It goes without saying this is an incredibly vapid cliché, and one that should never be repeated, if only for fear of boring one’s listeners to death. “How to write: write.” Uh huh. But its implications run deeper than that: the phrase is in fact an insult to almost everyone who has ever struggled with the creative process, and as a teaching tool is liable to do more harm than good. It embraces several dangerous lies: that writer’s block is the result, first and foremost, of laziness; that writing (indeed, any creative pursuit) is like any other form of labor; and that how hard you work on something is directly correlated with how good it is.

He is both very right and terribly wrong all at the same time.

How is that possible? Is he like the Schroedinger’s Cat of writing teachers? Trapped in the infinite uncertainty of his classroom, caught between both being totally right and terribly wrong all in the flux of the same quantum moment? Sadly, it’s less exciting than all that.

He’s right in that this is not a particularly stunning piece of writing advice in the sense that it fails to teach you how to write. It offers us nothing about craft or technique, nothing about theme or motif. It doesn’t help us conjure a character or set a scene or deal with unruly exposition. It gives us a big empty bag of fuck-all regarding adverb use or first-person-narrative or dialogue attributions. It is, in fact, saying that to write, you must write.

And yet, while it’s not a particularly nuanced piece of advice, that’s still true, isn’t it? To write, you must write? And here he (and perhaps you) say, “Well, that’s obvious, though. Nobody’s particularly confused about that point, are they?”

To which I’d say: aren’t they?

I’m not suggesting laziness. I’m not suggesting indolence or stupidity or any of that. What I’m saying is, the creative process is alarmingly internal. A great deal of it goes on up in our — *taps forehead* — brain-gourds, stirring around in a great bubbly froth. It’s imaginary. It’s intellectual. It’s ephemeral, if we let it be. It’s fairy dross and pegasus dreams, man. The only way to take what is imaginary and make it a reality is to put your ass in the chair and write.

And this isn’t just a piece of advice for newbie writers. It may seem to be — and certainly when I was a young wide-eyed writer fresh around the gills I spent more time thinking and talking about being a writer than actually, urp, being a writer. Hearing writers like Joe Lansdale say I had to actually sit the fuck down and shove a bunch of words out of my head and onto the page was honestly helpful. But this is advice for the seasoned writer, too — because we live in an age of great distractions, from Twitter to Facebook to Netflix to deviant Tumblr pornography to bath salts. We live in an age where it feels productive to write blog posts (like this one) or to tweet about writing or to read writing advice. It seems like we’re doing something when at the end of the day we’re just spinning our creative tires in invisible mud.

It’s work. It’s not always pleasant work. Sometimes it invokes a deep, almost psychic pain — an anxiety that blooms into an acid-spitting flower corrosive to confidence and craft. And yet, the words are the words. They only matter when they manifest. And you’re the magician that summons them into existence — their manifestation is on you and you alone. Nobody said it would be easy. Nobody’s saying you have to write thousands of words per day. You write what you can write. But that verb is still in place: write. Whether you write ten words or ten-thousand, they still involve you taking off your pants, setting your coffee onto its coaster, petting your spirit animal, then sitting your ass into the chair and squeezing words from your fingertips until you collapse, unable to do any more. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. Not now.

It only matters that it’s done.

Put your ass in the chair.

No, that doesn’t tell you how to write.

But it does tell you where it begins and where it ends: with you. You are a character with agency. You are a god in this world. Creativity is a worthless state of being without the verb that triggers it: to create. Creativity is the match. You still need to strike it and light the fire.

You can’t just always bully your way through a story, true. A great deal of writing remains in the head. And it comes with patience. And craft. And with your burgeoning intuition. Just the same, the end result of writing is the written word.

And the words only get written when you fucking write them.

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