When I coach people, there is an ugly truth about writing that I often hold back from them. It’s something you can only learn through gut-wrenching, razor’s edge, shard of broken glass experience.
There is no magic to writing, none at all. It’s nothing but grueling work.
No magic, no easy formula, no genius algorithm. There is no “secret” that is going to make everybody love your work, buy all your books, tell their friends about you, and get stars in their eyes when they hear your name.
It is simply monotonous, repetitive work.
I recently finished the manuscript for my first novel. For eight years I struggled to finish it. And do you know what finally helped me finish it?
Monotonous, repetitive work.
I did it by sitting down (almost) every day and writing a minimum of 500 words.
Some of those days were pretty good days. I would say that the ideas were flowing and the story was coming out. But there were days when it wasn’t so easy, when I had to get up earlier than I wanted to, when I struggled to move on to the next paragraph, when I realized my ideas were wandering, days when I was busy and writing seemed like a frivolous pursuit.
There were days when I was inspired and felt like I was walking on clouds, I was so amazed at what I had written. But there were also days when I didn’t know what the hell was coming next, and the only way I was going to get past it was grinding, grueling work.
If you want easy, you have no business being a writer. Seriously, get out of here and go do something else. If you love writing even when it gets hard and you want to know how to deal with that, then keep reading.
When I attended WDS last summer, Scott Berkun, author of six books and all around prolific writer, had some things to say about work and creativity. He showed a clip from a documentary, Le Mystere Picasso, that followed Picasso while he worked, and Scott had this to say:
“If you watch the film, it is actually an astonishingly boring film. But if you want to learn about how to create stuff, it is incredibly valuable, because you realize again even if you’re Picasso and you’re a genius, everyone wanted to see him, like epihany! and cubism! And everything happening like a Michael Bay film, exciting, popping drama. It’s really just a guy sitting and working. And what do you think it’s like to watch me or any famous writer write a book? It’s someone sitting and working, typing, thinking, typing, maybe shot of vodka, typing, thinking. It’s not that exciting. The idea part is certainly interesting and there are moments that are fun and enjoyable, but the process looks like work, and it looks like uncertainty.”
This is exactly what it’s like to write a book. It’s work. Thinking, typing, thinking, typing, staring into space, typing. Someone watching you won’t sparks or light bulbs or fantastic “Aha!” moments. I could be doing data entry, and you wouldn’t know it.
I hesitate to tell other people about the monotonous, repetitive work, because I don’t want them to get discouraged. Whether your goal is to write a book, find your authentic voice, or post consistently on your blog, it can feel overwhelming. You think about the long road ahead of you and you wonder how in the hell you’re going to get there. It feels damn near impossible.
But rather than let this get you down, let it be something that empowers you.
If you’ve been feeling the monotonous, repetitive work as you write, then this is exciting news. Yes, this is something to be very proud of. If you’ve managed to make it this far and you’re not turned off by the work, then you are just like every ass-kicking writer, published and unpublished, known and unknown. It means you are doing exactly what you’re supposed to do.
There’s freedom in that. The tool of writing every day is simple when you think about it. Anyone, anyone can use that tool no matter what their experience, their intelligence, or their ability. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on that tool. You don’t have to be in the Secret Mason Society of Writers (oops, I’m not supposed to talk about that) to have that tool. You don’t have to pay me a lot of money, now that I’ve given you this tool. I’ve just given it to you. There, you have it.
“But Jane, what about willpower?” Here’s some willpower for you. Do you want to live a life of regret? Do you want to be on your death bed, look back on your life, and think, “Wow, sure did miss the luxury liner boat on that writing thing”?
When I need willpower, I think about all the opportunities I’ve let pass me by (and there have been many), opportunities to experiment and fail, to talk to people in the industry, and to make the most of precious, precious writing time.
I spent a year of my life not too long ago so depressed that there was not one single time that I picked up a pen to jot down a note or write a journal entry or anything. My laptop was for watching soothing, mind-numbing television and reading articles on running.
That year and all those missed opportunities, I’ll never get those back.
If you feel at times that you are performing monotonous, repetitive work, it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you. It doesn’t mean that you’re not talented or that you don’t know what you’re doing. And it definitely does not mean you should quit. It means you are right where you need to be.
To view Scott Berkun’s WDS speech, click here.