What you have to give up to write

Apparently an “aspiring novelist’s letter” inspired a post over at Whatever yesterday- whoever that was, I bet they were -awesome-.

That aside, the post is an excellent comment on what is actually a significant problem: the prevalent idea that you must be willing to sacrifice everything in order to be a professional writer.

There are people who write sheerly for the enjoyment of it, but far and away the majority of people write to one day see themselves in print, and many dream of giving up their day job and being a full time writer themselves.

To these people the words of those who have “Made It”, the John Scalzi’s and Lawrence Block’s, mean a great deal – and there are a lot of writers out there who are writing books, blogs and articles aimed at these aspiring novelists.

A lot of these books are full of stories about the pain that it can take to become a writer. I think some people probably think they are doing a kindness by preparing others for the pain that there dreams may lead them through: but some of the stories are horrific. They tend to go something like this:

A friend of mine quit his job to become a writer. His first book sucked but he kept trying. He ran out of money but he got a subsistence job to live on and kept trying. His wife left him and took the kids, and his dog died and he was living under a bridge but he kept trying and then his twentieth book took off and now he’s living the dream!

Sure, this is an extreme example (but not -that- extreme, compared to some of the similar stories out there), but there are a lot of them. It has bled into sort of a global belief that in order to be a writer you have to be willing to sacrifice everything – kids, wife, house, your entire life. Only then are you dedicated enough to being a writer, to your dreams and your art, that you can fight your way through the struggle.

At an intellectual level, I don’t believe that. I believe that with hard consistent work and a supportive family you can one day live the dream without having to sacrifice all else that you love. But it is this sort of irrational belief that curls up in your stomach like one of Conan’s serpents and squeezes the confidence out of you, the courage from your heart, until at midnight you are sweating in your bed and staring at the ceiling and you realise that you really -don’t- want it enough to give up your family.

I had that moment. I’ll say it without reservation, there is -nothing- in this world that I want enough to give up my family. I get up in the morning, go to work and slog through anything they throw at my purely so I can go home and see my daughter’s smile and talk with my wife.

So a big thank you to Scalzi for saying what we already knew, but needed to hear someone else say.

I am reminded of an anecdote I read once, went something like this:

A man with a burning desire to play violin met a traveling violin master and begged the master to listen to him play.

“If you tell me I have potential”, he said, “I will devote my life to the violin, but I would never want to do that if I had no chance of success.”

He played and the Master sat, and afterwards said. “I am sorry, you do not have the fire.”

The man went away bitterly dejected.

Years later their paths crossed again and the man shook the Master’s hand and said, “Thankyou, I have become a successful businessman and am glad I didn’t waste my life. I am glad you were able to recognise that I had no talent.”

And the Master said, “I didn’t listen to you play.”

The man was shocked, “Why?” He asked, “Why would you have done that? I could have been great! I could have been a master myself by now!”

“Because,” said the Master, “I tell everyone they lack the fire. If you had the fire, what I said should have made no difference.”

I guess we need to remember that in the end, no matter what anyone else says, it’s down to us.

Go read Scalzi:


2 thoughts on “What you have to give up to write

  1. Encore! Encore! Though I like to think what I’m giving up (like sanity)if I DON’T write, I couldn’t agree with you more that giving up everything TO write is, or should not be a motivation to do so with some idea of being in print, fame, fortune, etc. I hope to be in print one day the same as others out there. If it means somewhere in the great deck out there I have to discard my spouse of 18 years–the one person that is my breath, my miracle, and my hero, and/or all other things sappy by the opinions of some, then writing is not in my future. But I will continue to work hard at writing my stories, learn the craft better, without forgetting what truly is important.

    • Exactly. It’s interesting to note that the stories you often hear of the hardship only ever talk about the writing, and then the misfortune, as a causal link.

      It would be interesting to know more about the situation in each case. Was it really the person’s need to write that cause the loss of spouse? Or was it a failure in communication and understanding on one or both sides? Was it a rocky relationship anyway?

      Everything needs maintenance, particularly an important relationship as a marriage. I can easily see how getting caught up in something you have a passion for could cause neglect in other parts of your life, but surely it doens’t -have- to be that way.

      That’s what I’m telling myself anyway. Being unwilling to give up my family doesn’t mean I love my writing any less, just that I love my family more; and lets face it – we should.

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