Dear Writers: None Of Us Know What The Fuck We’re Doing
I received a very nice email from a very nice reader that said (and here I’m paraphrasing) that her problem isn’t writer’s block, but something bigger and yet, at the same time, less tangible. She said she’s a young writer, and then she went to say:
The cement wall in the subject line could be named lack of confidence, or even lack of vision if you like. Being where I am in life makes it hard to picture myself as the respected, published author I’d like to be one day. In theory, I know what it takes.But is it really as simple as, “just do the work and you’ll get there?” Or is there something I’m missing? Because there’s a part of me that feels like I might not have what it takes even if I work hard, my ideas are good, and trusted friends tell me I’ve got a gift.
I’ve been searching the net, but it doesn’t feel like a lot of people get the sentiment. So, I figured that the perspective a more experienced person could help me out. What were the biggest concerns/issues/toxic leeches attached to your back you had when you started out? Were they in any way similar to mine? How did you get around them?
My initial response on this was just going to be, “I’ll send her my advice on caring less, as maybe that’s the problem.” Everybody — not just writers — is afforded a Basket of Only So Many Fucks at the start of each day. And we spend those Fucks on whatever we can or must. It’s comforting and occasionally badassedly energizing to say, I’m all out of fucks to give, but for writers, that’s not really an option. You gotta give a fuck about this whole thing. You can’t just hit the bottom of the basket. But at the same time, some writers give too many fucks. They blow them all like a cokehead gambler at the Vegas roulette table: “PUT IT ALL ON RED 42,” and the lady is like, “The table only goes up to 38,” and the gambler’s like “SHUT UP AND TAKE ALL OF MY FUCKS.” A writer who spends it all like that puts too much pressure on herself, makes it too important, too heavy a burden, and then the risk can be paralyzing.
And then my next response is basically:
“Well, yeah, writers write, so go write.”
Then I drop the mic. But remain on stage to eat a pie rather noisily.
But I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here.
Here’s what I remember about being a young, untested writer:
I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.
Like, I understood the principle. You sit down, you tippy-tappy out the word jabber on your typey machine, you arrange all the word jabber into the approximate shape of a “story,” and then ???? and then step three: cry under your desk. And maybe at some point in the future, Big Publishing knocks on your door, chomping a cigar made of old parchment and he’s all like, “HERE’S YOUR TICKET, KID, YOUR TICKET TO THE BIG TIME. YOU’RE A BESTSELLER NOW, PAL — A BONA FIDE AUTHOR-TYPE! HERE’S YOUR KEYS TO NEW YORK CITY AND NEIL GAIMAN’S PHONE NUMBER. NOW GET ON THE UNICORN AND LET’S RIDE, CHAMP.”
But really, what it feels like is that you’re the guest at a party. And you don’t know anybody. You don’t know the rules — are you allowed to double-dip a chip? Where is the guest bathroom and are you allowed to use the hand towels? Is that an orgy upstairs? What’s the orgy etiquette, exactly? Was I supposed to bring my own lube? Silicone or water-based?
Worse, it’s like everyone at this party is speaking a sorta different language. It’s still English, but there exists a lingo, a jargon, a sense that you stepped into a subculture that isn’t your own. Everybody and everything feels and sounds off-kilter, like you’re listening to a bunch of software programmers or Wall Street execs make up buzzwords while really, really high.
It’s not just about the writing — writing is, itself, not a difficult task. Like I said: tippy-tappy typey-typey and ta-da, you wrote something. But the problem lies in the hurricane winds of bewilderment that roar and whirl around that central act. What’s good writing? What are the rules? What is your voice? What’s everyone else doing? Will you get published? Agent? Editor? Self-published? What’s good storytelling? What the hell is a genre and why does it matter? Whoza? Wuzza? Why am I doing this? Why does my soul feel this way? Do I want to cry? Am I crying? I’m crying. I’m eating Cheezits at 3AM and I don’t have a shirt on and I wrote another short story and it’s probably not any good or maybe it’s really good I don’t know AHHHH I don’t have any context at all for anything that I’m doing.
And that’s the trick. We lack context. We lack experience and awareness and instinct.
So, we seek that out.
We look to other writers — and to the industry at large — for context.
We get advice. We load ourselves up with information. We crave context and so we gobble it down like that box of 3AM Cheezits and soon our fingers are dusted with Cheezit pollen and shame but we feel emboldened with new information.
And often, it’s shitty information.
It’s shitty because everyone is faking confidence.
They’re creating context by mostly making it up.
I do it, too. We all do. We all have our little rules of writing, our ways that things are done, and they’re nearly all smeared with at least a little bit — a dollop! a thumbprint! — of horseshit. “Don’t use adverbs,” someone says, except whoa, hey, lots of words are adverbs: then, still, never, anywhere, downstairs, seldom, soon, after, since, and the list goes on and on. “Never use a verb other than ‘said’,” except then you see how nearly every book uses dialogue tags other than said. He shouted! She asked! He growled. “Never open a book with” and here the list goes on and on — weather, a character regarding themselves, a line of dialogue, a prologue, a penguin on a jet ski, two vampires blowing each other, a math problem, a heretical screed, a Roomba endlessly tracking cat shit around a living room while pondering its own existential dread. And then, ta-da, you read like, ten books that break these rules. And sometimes the books that break these rules are bestsellers. Or are literary books that are well-regarded critically. Or is just a book that made it to someone’s book shelf at all. “But they did it!” you stammer frustratedly as the Roomba bumps fruitlessly into your boot, getting poop on your foot.
It only gets worse when you start taking publishing advice. I hear bad publishing advice all the goddamn time. “Nobody gets an agent from the query process,” I heard recently. Yeah, except me. And a whole dumpster full of writers I know that got agents from the query process. “Nobody survives the slush pile.” Totally true, except when it’s often not. “Urban fantasy isn’t selling,” and then you read about two more urban fantasy series coming to print, and you look at the bestseller lists and it features Butcher, Hearne, McGuire, Harris (and then you realize what they really mean is, “Nobody’s buying shitty urban fantasy right now”). Hell, even publishers don’t know things. You want them to. You think they should. But when a hot new trend kicks off through book culture like some kind of super-crazy-contagious syphilis, the best they can do is capitalize on the trend they failed to predict.
What I’m trying to say is:
None of us know what the fuck we’re doing.
I know we don’t because the deeper we go down this career, the less we seem to know. Oh, we have ideas. We’ll literally explode your ears with our self-important author talk, but at the end of the day, all the shit we say can probably be disproven by talking to five other writers, and mostly that look in the black of our eyes is one of utter bewilderment. Our greatest and most honest answer to you regarding all the questions you want to ask us would be a vigorous, exasperated shrug.
That’s not to say we’re entirely clueless, mind you. It’s like this — you’re at the bottom of the mountain looking up. We’re on the side of the mountain or even at its peak looking down. You have the climb ahead of you. We have the climb — or some of it, at least — behind us. We have a view of the valley. You have a view of only the mountain. We know a little bit about climbing. We know some of the gear. We have our limited perspective on getting up to where we are, at present. We can only tell you what we know and what we did — and that’s not entirely helpful.
See, up at the peak, we’ve just achieved a new level of cluelessness.
“What’s that body of water over there?”
“Fuck if I know.”
“How’d we survive crossing that SNOWY CREVASSE where the ICE WEASELS were nesting?”
“Luck, I guess.”
“How do we get back down?”
“I think we die up here.”
There exists no well-marked, well-lit path up the mountain. You will find no handy map. No crafty app for your smartphone. The terrain shifts after everyone walks upon it. New chasms. Different caves. The ice weasels become hell-bears. The sacred texts we find in the grottos along our journey are sacred to us but heresy to someone else.
The person who wrote me the email, she’s probably saying:
“None of this is helpful.”
Which is likely true.
Though, hopefully, the lack of cluelessness that abounds through all the strata of This Thing We Do is comforting? It’s not like young writers are the only ones who don’t know what the fuck is going on or how things work. We’re all just making this shit up as we go. Some of us have a little more context for it — we’re the guests at the party, the ones babbling the jargon and the ones who know some of the orgy etiquette rules. But take heart: we’re just making the jargon up as we go. We’re inventing the orgy etiquette as the orgy unfolds because hey man, orgies aren’t math problems. ORGIES ARE ART. And writing is like that, too — it’s not a repeatable science experiment. It’s not, “Take this pill to relieve your headache.” It’s not X = Y. Instead it’s a lot of random: “Should I stick this in there?” “Yes?” “Bend over, I’m going to try this.” “I tried this in New Mexico and it didn’t work.” “Good to know.”
We share information, we do our best, and for the most part? We wing it.
I feel like I’m not helping.
So, let’s try this.
Out of all the bullshit about writing and publishing, I think you’ll find a series of constants.
These constants remain necessary to do the thing that you want to do.
And doing these things again and again will grant the confidence to continue. (And by the way? Don’t worry about whether or not you’re ‘good enough.’ Nobody even knows what ‘good enough’ means. That’s for someone else to worry about. You worry about whether or not you want to be a writer. And if you do, then be a writer and do your best to cleave to these constants.)
The Five Constants
1. Write A Lot (And To Completion)
2. Read A Lot (And Read Critically When You Do)
3. Think About Writing And Storytelling
4. Talk To Writers
5. Go Live A Life
I don’t even know if I need to explain those, really — they’re all pretty obvious, I like to hope. If you want to write, you need to write. No matter who you are or what problems you suffer: writers write. And writers write to the end. They finish their shit. And they read a lot, too. I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t read, same as you’ve probably never met a chef who doesn’t like food. You gotta give this thing we do time and thought and energy. And despite all of us not really knowing what the fuck is going on, it helps to talk to other writers. If only for solidarity. If only so we can all shrug together. If only so we can drive the car over the edge of the cliff as one, Thelma and Louise-style. And beyond that is life itself. A life that demands living. Life that will fuel the words, that will form the warts and blemishes and little bones of the stories you want to tell.
None of us know what the fribbly fuck we’re doing.
But to gain the confidence you need, you sometimes gotta pretend like you do.
* * *
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