"Well, at least I watched a lot of TV."

>> Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Over at his Whatever blog, sci-fi author John Scalzi gives straightforward and honest answers to two questions aspiring writers often ask him: how does he keep inspired to write, and how can they find the time to write when the rest of their lives are so draining?
The answer to the first of these is simple and unsatisfying: I keep inspired to write because if I don’t then the mortgage company will be inspired to foreclose on my house.
I'm asked this question at almost every school visit I do. "What inspires you to write?" or "What makes you keep writing?" My answer is always the same: "I keep writing to pay the bills!" I say this with a laugh meant to soften it, but it never goes over well. Like Scalzi, I think most people expect some kind of emotional, sentimental answer. "I write to bring peace and understanding to the world!" or "I write because my favorite aunt, fading fast on her death bed, made me swear to never give up, to never quit!"

Yes, I started writing novels in my twenties because it's pretty much the one persistent and compelling dream I've had since I was a kid, and yes, I worked hard to get published because I don't care about writing if the only person who reads my books is my wife. I want an audience. But the reason I keep writing now that I've written and published a book? Because I can make a living at this, kids. I am now a professional writer, which means I punch a clock. This is not my hobby. I cannot afford to wait for the muse to speak to me: it's my job to get her on the phone every day for a conference call and get things done. Or, as Scalzi puts it:

This answer is simple because it’s true — hey, this is my job, I don’t have another — and it’s unsatisfying because writers, and I suppose particularly authors of fiction, are assumed to have some other, more esoteric inspiration. And, you know. Maybe other authors do. But to the extent that I have to be inspired to write at all on a day-to-day basis...the desire to make money for myself and my family works well enough. Another day, another dollar, etc.
I recently excerpted an interview Cynthia Leitich Smith did with Sara Pennypacker, the author of the Clementine series, who says that recently she's begun to think about her writing as a way to tell the stories of children for them--that is, that children have stories but have few ways to express them, and she has begun to think of it as her job to do that expressing for them, in print. I think that's awesome, and I'm in awe of that responsibility. THAT'S the kind of answer people are usually looking for, and I believe her when she says it. My motivation is, like Scalzi's, just a bit more on the practical side of things.

The second of the questions is even tougher to answer without rubbing people the wrong way. "How do I find the time to write when all I want to do when I get home from work is plop down in front of the TV or hang out with my family?" All I can say is, when I decided I wanted to sell a book--I mean, really decided to DO IT and stop just talking about it, I MADE the time. I wrote in the evenings. I wrote on the weekends. I FOUND the time. Was it easier to find the time before I had a child? Yes--but I still found that time after Jo was born, in nap times (hers) and after bed times (hers and Wendi's). I finished one novel (the unpublished Inventing Julia) and started and finished another (Samurai Shortstop) during Jo's first year of life, when I was both a stay at home dad and an aspiring novelist--AND a freelance writer for A&E's City Confidential. I found the time because I wanted it, and I was determined to make it happen.

Scalzi is a little more direct about it:

As to the second of these, my basic response here is, Well, look. Either you want to write or you don’t, and thinking that you want to write really doesn’t mean anything. There are lots of things I think I’d like to do, and yet if I don’t actually make the time and effort to do them, they don’t get done. This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them. So I guess in really fundamental way I don’t want them, otherwise I’d make the time. C’est la vie.
That's pretty much it. You either are a writer, or you aren't, just as I can either be the guy who wants to learn how to fix his own car, or I can remain the guy who can't fix his own car. The list of things I'd like to do is impossibly long. The list of things I can do is defined by those things I've actually taken the time to learn and do. I always loved it when George Costanza on Seinfeld would say, "I wish I was a Civil War buff. It would be so cool to be a Civil War buff." The joke was that George loved the idea of being a Civil War buff, but we--and he--knew he didn't want it badly enough to actually become a Civil War buff.

When we bought the board game Ticket to Ride recently, I said, "We should totally make a Japan map for ourselves!" I often say such crazy things, and they usually don't get done. This time, however, I really wanted to make that map with Jo. So the very next day Jo and I printed out a huge outline of Japan, pulled out all our atlases, pulled out the Ticket to Ride game, and got to work. It took us a week of working on it for an hour here or there, but we now have a pretty kick-ass--and totally playable!--Japan map for Ticket to Ride.

I wanted it badly enough, so I did it.

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.
Harsh, perhaps, but true. It's a lesson I've had to learn in other parts of my life. "I really wish I could speak a second language" has been spoken by me many, many times in my life, but recently I began to understand that this just isn't going to happen, because I will never make it enough of a priority to do it. It's an unhappy realization, but I have to counter it by weighing it against the desires I do fill. I just have to realize I cannot do it all, prioritize, and then be happy with what I am doing.

Scalzi's quick to point out that it's cool if you don't become a writer like you thought you wanted.

There’s nothing wrong with deciding that when it really comes down to it, you want to do things other than writing. It’s even okay to start writing, work at it a while, and decide it’s not for you. Being a writer isn’t some grand, mystical state of being, it just means you put words together to amuse people, most of all yourself.

If it turns out you don't want to be a writer badly enough? Stop beating yourself up about it and revel in the things you are doing. Do you want it badly enough to put your butt in the chair and fill a few hundred pages with story? Then do it. Finally, says Scalzi:

[I]f you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.”

If I ever get our mortgage paid off, that'll certainly be enough to keep me writing.




John Scalzi - Writing: Find the Time or Don't

2 comments:

Gretchen October 5, 2010 at 8:53 AM  

Awesome post! I love that "yes, but" is just using six letters and two words to say "no." So true.

Britt Kaufmann October 5, 2010 at 12:00 PM  

What really made an impression on me was when (about a year ago), instead of visiting other authors' sessions at the literary festival, you ducked into the library to write between sessions you were presenting.

Writers write.

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