My first rule of writing is to never beat myself up about the work, and I don’t. I don’t beat myself up if I sit down and write something lurid, crappy, sentimental, or incomprehensible. I don’t beat myself up if weeks go by without finding time to write, and I don’t beat myself up if I write something great and no one wants to publish it. Writing is the great passion of my life, and because of that, I protect it, even from myself.
The world can be a sour, judgmental, stress-filled place. It seems to be forever shouting at us to be productive, as if productivity (whatever that means) were everything. If we don’t have something to sell, then where’s the value in what we’re doing? We’re supposed to get up before dawn every single day, and labor over the conveyor belt of writing, constantly “upping” the word count on the ever-increasing leviathans of our books. If we don’t, if we pause to think or read or grieve or, God forbid, enjoy the lengthy process of choosing the right word, we’re supposed to feel like failures.
I count almost everything as writing. The unsuccessful stories and books stuffed into drawers? Yup, that’s writing. Staring at the ceiling is also writing, as is revising, as is research, as is just plain old living. I didn’t have much to say until I was in my forties, by which time I’d been beaten-up by life a bit, and had formed some opinions. It was in my forties that I found myself wanting to show complete strangers what the world looked like to me. I was a writer before that, but living is what gave me material.
This push for measurable productivity threatened to ruin writing for me. A few years ago, I was trying to write a scene wherein my protagonist was at the beach on Coney Island. I spent hours on it, trying to make it work, and it just kept coming out false and flat and lifeless. Finally, I sat back and thought about what I was trying to do. I realized the scene was not working because this character was inherently shy and would never go to the beach or take his shirt off in front of anyone. I cut the scene.
If I used word count as the only metric to measure whether the time spent on that scene was successful, I would have to have called it a failure. But that dead-end, and many similar ones that I faced as a memoirist later, was one of the best things that could have happened. Because I tried a scene and failed, I learned something critical about my character—that he was shy. The discovery told me to write the character’s story rather than impose a story on him. It was the moment in which I finally understood what it meant for a story to be character-driven. Cranking out a couple thousand words and then deleting them was, it turned out, very fruitful indeed, even though I ended that day with fewer pages than when I’d begun it.
This doesn’t mean that I’m a lazy writer, either, or that I’m easy on myself. I work hard, and am open to feedback. I quite often revise a piece more than fifty times before I’ll let anyone see it. Dissatisfaction with the work is allowable. The kind of despair that leads to quitting is not.
We have all racked up our share of rejections and negative reviews. The public can be cruel, unforgiving, and judgmental, and it is a given that we will never be enough to appease a sullen world.
So I don’t try. I commit to art, and because of that commitment, anyone or anything that makes me want to quit is banished. The world might pile on, but I refuse to. It feels like the least I can do.
This article originally appeared on the Brevity blog.