“You become a writer by writing. There is no other way. So do it. Do it more. Do it again. Do it better. Fail. Fail better. I think it’s a good idea, especially when you’re younger, you keep your hand in by writing something everyday. So I recommend it, but it’s another one of those recommendations that I myself have been unable to follow.”Margaret Atwood
“To write a genuine familiar or truly English style is to write as anyone would speak in common conversation, who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes.”William Hazlitt
He’s regarded by many as one of the finest composers alive today but Philip Glass didn’t catch his big break until he turned 41. Before then he worked odd jobs as a plumber, furniture mover and a taxi driver in New York where he once picked up a group of men fleeing a store they just robbed. In-between shifts and taking his children to school he wrote music and later toured with an ensemble for weeks before returning to work. Glass said he expected to work a day job for the rest of his life.
His life story soothes my anxiety about success because, unknown to myself, I’ve carried the belief that success only comes at a certain age or it doesn’t come at all. Nice to know that isn’t the case.
“The greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble…. They can never be solved, but only outgrown…. This ‘outgrowing’, as I formerly called it, on further experience was seen to consist in a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest arose on the person’s horizon, and through this widening of view, the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms, but faded out when confronted with a new and stronger life-tendency.”Carl Jung
Last week I browsed Brevity, a website dedicated to the brief essay form, and I chanced upon a blog post by Kate Walter called ‘Rotating the Writing Crops‘. After working long and hard during the pandemic to publish her memoir Kate, naturally, ran dry. Some time afterwards an editor commissioned her for an assignment and while writing it a metaphor occurred to her: farming and rotating crops.
“The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.”
A few months ago I was working hard on an essay of my own, but after three months work something gave out. I couldn’t continue with it. Diminishing returns. I took a while for me to recognise what happened but I took it as my body’s way of saying enough. Yes, work ethic goes a long long way in sustaining creative output, more so than inspiration, but sooner or later something will give. So, for now, I’m working on lighter (but no less loved) forms like haiku and haibun while my own essay crop lies fallow.
A few quotes on, as Robert D. Richardson put it, “the daily struggle for adequate expression”.
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”William Goldman
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”William Zinsser
“The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Love hits people over the head when they are not looking for it, and the same can be said for epiphanies and enlightenments. We fall into them. An opening appears in regular life, and what follows doesn’t necessarily fit in regular life. That opening changes your frame of reference and then, well, anything might happen … You might assume that the implication is that you have to marry and have children and stay together for the rest of your life. That might be so, but it might not; love isn’t dependent on outcomes. You might notice that love is what really counts in life and that could mean you get a different job, spend more time with friends, forget about being famous, come out as gay, or shave your head and go into a long retreat. Both love and enlightenment are in favor of whatever welcomes more life.”John Tarrant Roshi, Let Me Count The Ways
In his latest newsletter James Clear included a quote from the physician Chris Ballas I felt was brilliant and true enough to requote here:
“The goal of adulthood is to let go of the other possible existences and to make the best of the one. A successful adult is one who understands that it doesn’t matter which life you ultimately pick, only that you live it well. The same potential for, say, happiness exists whether you are a construction worker, porn actor, or wealthy industrialist.”A Surprising Number Of Teens Think They’ll Die Young, Or Live Forever, Whichever Comes First
“When I started both of my books, at first I fell into the same mindset trap of thinking too far ahead — “OMG, 100,000 words to go, why did I get myself into this?!?” Now I keep the phrase “cutting stone” on a little white board on my desk, a reminder just to take each single, barely perceptible axe-chop at the stone at a time, and eventually it will be ground to dust.”Dave Epstein, ‘Start Where You Are‘
“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific’…God, it doesn’t feel like it—nothing like it. But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”John McPhee quoted in Cal Newport’s ‘Slow Productivity‘ post.
“What I wish I could have told myself when I was hopeless about my writing prospects is that I should have defined artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, success is getting a handful of words you don’t totally hate on the page. Sometimes success is working a full-time job to support your family and raising your kids and finding a way, over several years, to write and finish a novel. Sometimes it’s selling a book to a small press for 25 copies of your book and a vague promise of royalties you may never see. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, artistic success is marked by the glittery things so many of us yearn for — the big money deals, the critical accolades, the multicity book tours, the movie options.
Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work. […] All the other writers in the world are not having more fun than you, no matter what it might seem like on social media, where everyone is showing you only what they want you to see.
Write as well as you can, with as much heart as you can, whenever you can.”Roxane Gay, ‘Ask Roxane: Is It Too Late to Follow My Dreams?‘