An article about internet addicted authors has been doing the rounds of the internet, where it is mainly read by authors who are addicted to articles that make them feel guilty for not writing ALL THE TIME. These kind of articles tend to use phrases like intense focus a lot. Apparently a writing desk is some kind of sensory deprivation tank we’re supposed to climb into every day; as if writing is a thing that happens in complete isolation from the world and bears no relation to your relationships with other people.
When I say what I do, people often say, ‘You must be very disciplined,’ I think in large part because they have read somewhere that writing novels is like an extreme endurance sport. Like running a marathon, or wintering in Antarctica, writing is a physically difficult feat that can only be accomplished with serious willpower.
Murakami’s actually written a book about this (I haven’t read it). Here he says ‘writing a long novel is like survival training.’ To which I say, it’s lucky I wrote those novels, because I can now be airlifted into the middle of the Simpson desert along with a plastic bag, a piece of string and a can of Solo, and wander out of there with a contract for a memoir stuffed into the pocket of my rugged khaki pants. Because I’m so rugged.
Or there’s Hemingway, who reportedly said short stories were like training for the big fight of novels (what’s the class division? Paperweight?) There’s the cliché that short fiction is a sprint and novels a marathon. Cue the training montage.*
It would be quite nice to be able to accept ‘very disciplined,’ but I usually say a variation of the following: Actually, I just like what I do. I go to work because I like writing and I’m pretty good at it. Yeah, I know I’m lucky. There’s not a lot of money in it but at least I get to do what I love.
It’s a job. It’s not a very glamorous job, or a very well-paid one, but it’s a very pleasant one. I sit at a desk all day and think about words and feelings. I daydream. This is useful and valuable. Reading and being a part of online communities has made me more engaged. I get work out of it all the time, but more importantly, I get to not go crazy in monastic isolation.
I didn’t become a writer to overwork. We’re supposed to aspire to more money for less pleasure, and to see ‘success’ as getting enmeshed in a destructive work ethic that’s about some boss’s needs for profits, and some bank’s need for your debt. The Gina Rineharts of the world want us to produce more, not for ourselves, but to line their own pockets. Conservative media blasts days lost to strikes. But striking is work! It’s working to make the world better. (Teachers do a lot of that). Parenting is work, too. So is supporting your friends. The best work-life balance is when work and life are the same thing.
It does take a lot of endurance and stamina to get past all the clichés that are buried like land mines between normal people and authors. Part of it is gatekeeping – making it look significantly harder than it is is will hopefully discourage younger, more brilliant people from trying to depose you. The ‘novel as physical feat’ argument – the croc-wrestling model – is also pretty gendered. Female writers are casually made aware that we’re supposed to express our tough-crazy traits with suicide. There’s obvious benefits to accepting all the butch posturing instead. But I only have to recall a single night shift in a women’s refuge to remember just what it means to actually survive.
The croc-wrestling model doesn’t help creatively, either. If there’s one mantra I’ve picked up this year it’s ‘trust your process.’ Forcing a book can be deadly to the book and the author. Productivity – that obsession with word counts and pushing out content – can smother the work. You do have to push through the challenges, but you don’t have to make yourself ill doing it. I’ve been learning with my fourth book that its natural pace is significantly slower than the other three. In part because I’m stretching myself, in part because I’m thinking deeply about difficult things, and in part because I’m also trying to be a decent human being in my daily life, without sacrificing everything to the work. Because there is no point in being brilliant if you can’t live with it. Besides, it is not like I am getting paid enough to work myself to the bone.
So I am very suspicious of this cliché of novelist as mad self-sacrificing workaholic. Especially in an industry where exploitation is the norm and where so many people want you to work for free. It sustains a culture where artists don’t really need money because they are crazy-tough and (you guessed it) creative work isn’t real work. Creativity and capitalism are never going to be a great fit. But within that conflict we need to push for our right to be lazy and sane.
I have worked in a croc-wrestling way in the past, perhaps out of an obsessive need to prove something to myself, perhaps out of subscribing to the myth that that’s how you’re supposed to work, but mostly because I needed to keep doing those night shifts to pay my rent. Sleep lost. I acquired injuries. As I get older, writing becomes less like a disease I have and more like a craft I want to keep getting better at. It isn’t separate from living, it’s part of it – a big part of my relationship with other people. And I’m better at knowing my rights and paying my bills.
The genius myth is an unhealthy sham. It’s not a fight, or a race. It’s culture. Nobody wins unless everybody does. Writing’s hard – sometimes it feels impossible – and it asks for diligence, stamina and patience, but there’s nothing superhuman about creativity. Just human.
*As my twitter followers know I do spend a significant part of my day in pursuit of chickens, just like Rocky. It’s pretty intense.