Six impossible things

Playing the game

There’s a joke I heard once, about a man who prayed fervently for forty years that God would let him win the lottery. Finally one night as he was offering his prayer once again, a voice came out of the air above him and said, “Look, I know you want to win the lottery, but meet me half way – buy a ticket!”

In other words, you can’t win a game that you aren’t actually playing.

I meet would-be fiction writers all the time who aren’t playing the game. They talk about their great ideas; they tweet about their work space or the new computer they bought to write on; they journal and write morning pages and blog about the writing life. What they don’t do is actually write anything that remotely resembles a piece of fiction. Or even a series of bits that could possibly be assembled into a coherent piece of fiction eventually. Even the ones who spout universally-acknowledged basic advice like “Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard” never seem to put their butt in their chair, much less their own personal fingers on their keyboard.

These people usually fall into one of two categories: the ones who want to have written without actually ever doing the work of writing, and the ones who desperately want to write but who are afraid of the consequences of trying. In both cases, in order to get anywhere as a writer the people have to write something. The paths to doing so, however, tend to be rather different.

The first batch of folks tends to end up in one of three places: 1) They stop talking/blogging/tweeting about writing, either because they’ve discovered that even that much writing is too much work for them or because the audience of would-be readers they’ve attracted has gotten tired of waiting for the Super-Great-Best-Idea-Ever-Novel they’ve been talking about (and not writing) for the past five years, and is drifting away. 2) They develop an audience for their nonfiction writing (all those blogs, tweets, etc.) and find out that they are good at it and having fun, so they move into reviewing or journalism or editing or agenting – any part of the publishing business that doesn’t require writing fiction. Or 3) At some point, they quit faffing around and talking about it, and actually sit down and write something.

There is nothing wrong with any of these endpoints. Realizing that one was mistaken about just how much one wanted to do/be/have something is usually called Self-Awareness, and considered a good thing. Backing into a career doing something one didn’t initially anticipate, and discovering that one is really good at it and loves doing it, is something that happens to a lot of us, and is likewise a good thing. Sitting down and writing something…well, that’s what they’ve been saying they wanted all along.

Getting to that last, though, is harder than it looks. The want-to-have-written folks have to begin by accepting that writing does not just happen – the Good Words Fairy does not type a 5,000 word story into their computer overnight, nor does the Inspiration Fairy get them so excited that 50,000 words just pour out of their fingers without requiring any attention on their part (or any editing afterward). They have to accept that telling people their stories (with great emphasis and much handwaving) is a performance art, which is an admirable skill in its own right, but which is still not writing. They have to realize that ideas are not a story, and neither is that fat notebook of character sketches, background notes, and cool descriptions of candle flames and ocean waves that they’ve been stuffing bits into since third grade.

And they have to accept that sitting down and writing something (anything) means they are not doing something else. They get to pick the something else that they’re going to stop doing, but I know of no place where you can beg, borrow, buy, or steal a can of two-hours-of-writing-time so that you have two brand spanky new-and-unused hours that you can add to the 24 hours-per-day that the rest of us get. (If you have a supplier of cans of extra time, I’d like to order a couple of pallets. No, make that a warehouse full…)

The other set of folks – the ones who are afraid of the consequences – have an even tougher row to hoe. By and large, they already know writing is hard work…and it isn’t the work they’re afraid of. They’re afraid of other things: that if they try, they’ll discover that they are really horrible at this thing that means so very much to them; that they’ll have to write about XYZ traumatic thing that happened when they were five or ten years old and that they can’t bear to even think about; that they can’t be a good/real/serious writer if they write the type of fiction they want to write; that their family and friends will disown them if they write what they want.

Getting past fear is hard, and the only ones who can do that part of the work are the ones who are feeling the fear. It’s sort of like writing, except that when one finally gets over being scared of the very worst possible thing that might maybe possibly perhaps happen if one actually sat down and wrote something… one still has to sit down and write some pages.


  1. Then there are those of us who have written book after book, only to have nothing (published) to show for their work. Sigh. The fear is still there, it’s just different.

  2. This was a good reminder. Thank you.

  3. Oh, does a can of extra time sound wonderful. Two hours to write that doesn’t put painting the upstairs hallway even farther behind schedule. Two hours of sitting at the computer doing jigsaw puzzles that doesn’t come out of either of those things, or the many other waiting tasks. Two extra hours of sleep…. Sign me up!

  4. Completely off topic, but kind of fun.

    The kids say we should have read that chapter yesterday. Because yesterday was Friday the 13th. And we’re reading Thirteenth Child. Chapter 13. When Eff and Lan are 13 years old.

  5. “that they’ll have to write about XYZ traumatic thing” <- That. Tons of that. Except that the traumatic thing is still ongoing. Normally I write to escape from reality – not write about it more!

    I'd really like it if my subconscious could come up with an DIFFERENT problem for my MC to be dealing with.

  6. “Writing about the trauma still going on” … I wrote _The Interior Life_ while taking care of small children.

  7. This: “that they can’t be a good/real/serious writer if they write the type of fiction they want to write; that their family and friends will disown them if they write what they want.”

    I’ll admit it – I’m past 50 (just) and this is still an issue with me. It’s hard having an inferiority complex. It’s never a good feeling, thinking that bone-deep, you’ll never be good enough for people who had high expectations, or different tastes in fiction, or are always judging. But then, I had to decide: who am I writing for? Well, yeah, ME, first, and then the imaginary audience in my head of people similar enough to me to possibly enjoy what I’m writing.

    There’s also the YOLO factor. Unless you believe in reincarnating as another human, you go around this merry-go-round one time, no extra tickets. And at my age (see above) I don’t see time reversing itself so I can have a do-over, either. It’s fatalistic, but reality. So, to the family I imagine (and probably would) tsk-tsk at my choice of subject and genre, to heck with them. I’ll choose the people I want to please.

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