Can a writer be persuaded not to write?

Anthony Morris ponders why tales of writers' drudgery don't deter aspiring authors.

Image of the painting The Passion of Creation by Lenoid Pasternak.

The Passion of Creation by Leonid Pasternak, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s sometimes said that if you can be convinced not to write, you’re not really a writer. The people who say this are usually writers themselves and they’ll often go on to describe, in excruciating detail, just how difficult it is to stay motivated. Some even write books about it. Take, for example, two relatively new Australian how-to-write guides – John Birmingham’s How to Be a Writer and Catherine Deveny’s Use Your Words – both of which start out by letting their readers know they’re heading down a path of pain.

‘The first thing you need to know is that writing sucks. It’s horrible. Expect it to suck. It’s meant to,’ writes Deveny. Birmingham compares freelance writing to ‘desperately grubbing out a miserable existence on the fringes of respectable society and selling the occasional bodily organ to make rent,’ on his first page. Wow, sounds like a great career. Wonder if the 7-Eleven is still hiring?

From my perspective, writing doesn’t suck as much as, oh, every single form of physical labour. And most white-collar jobs aren’t all that much fun either, once you look into them. But if these books started out with, ‘Hey, welcome to a career of sitting around staring off into space, making stuff up,’ we’d all be trampled in the rush.

The trouble is that the staring-off-into-space bit is only part of the job. It’s the putting-down-your-thoughts-in-a-form-that-will-connect-with-others that’s tricky. So, in many ways, Birmingham and Deveny are right: writing is often a grim, lonely job where hard work and dedication can take decades to pay off (if at all). Yet they’ve both written books – entertaining, practical ones – that, in the end, do encourage people to write. How can they justify encouraging people to travel down this nightmarish path?

When [successful authors] say loudly and firmly that writing is hard graft for little reward, would-be writers look at them and see plenty of reward.

For Birmingham, the trade-off is that a freelance writer gets to be his or her own boss. That fits in with the nuts-and-bolts approach of his book, which focuses on the mechanics of putting a freelance career together. He has practical tips, too. He’s especially full of praise for the Pomodoro time management method, where you slice your day into half-hour chunks to make slogging through an unpleasant chore seem that much easier. Birmingham is a great raconteur, dropping amusing tales from his career as a freelancer and author throughout the book.

Deveny sees writing (or storytelling; for her, writing things down isn’t necessarily the best way to get your message across) as more of a compulsion, something inside you that feels good to get out. In her book, she acts more as a motivational speaker, revving the reader up to get the job done.

I came to these books with a slightly different motivation than most. Having spent a small but significant chunk of the last two years co-writing a novel, I wondered how these books would read coming at them from ‘the other side’. (Yes, writing a novel is such hard work that I actually died doing it). Would Deveny and Birmingham let their readers know the boring but vital role of time management? Would they stress the importance of following up on unpaid invoices? Would there be a chapter on making up stupid songs about literally every item in the room as a way to avoid work? (The answers: yes, yes and sadly not.)

Both Mel Campbell (my co-author) and I have been professional writers for years. That means – and this is where books like Birmingham’s and Deveny’s come in handy for first-time writers – after years of struggle we already knew our strengths and weaknesses. Said weaknesses mostly involved long lunches, while our strengths were a) we’d both done a lot of pop-culture writing, so we had a pretty good idea of how our chosen genre, cheesy rom-coms, worked, and b) we were both good at making up dumb jokes. So, we sat down, planned out the plot, then gradually fleshed out that plot with a bunch of stupid jokes. Ten months later, we had a novel. (It’s called The Hot Guy and it’s out next year.)

Clearly this is not the kind of experience that either of us can base a how-to-write guide on. That’s a shame, because there seems to be money in it. The thing is, once you get past the basics, writing is a very personal thing, and not just in the matter of what words you choose to put on the page. For Mel and I, the best way to write The Hot Guy was to meet up once or twice a week and write for a few hours with one of us throwing out ideas and the other shaping them as they wrote them down. It worked for us, but part of what makes writing so hard is that it’s so hard to figure out a way that works for you.

Of course, the real selling point of how-to-write guides isn’t that they’ll give you the tools to become a writer; even I could do that. What they’re selling is the tools to become a high-selling writer. Deveny and Birmingham are skilled, prominent and, above all, successful writers. Their work has been widely read and they’re invited to speak to fans at festivals across the country. When they say loudly and firmly that writing is hard graft for little reward, would-be writers look at them and see plenty of reward.

If you really want to be a writer, nobody can tell you not to. Successful writers prove it can be done, while failed or struggling writers can provide plentiful case studies in how hard writing really is. But who wants to read sad stories of fruitless drudgery, dashed hopes, banal poverty and routine rejection?

The truth is, it’s only fun to read tales of drudgery and rejection from those who have struggled … and then triumphed! If a writer can be persuaded not to write, then maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If they can’t figure out how a basic story of overcoming hardship and adversity is supposed to end, who’d want to read their work?

Portrait of Anthony Morris

Anthony Morris is home entertainment editor at the Big Issue and a freelance film writer. His first novel, The Hot Guy, has been co-written with Mel Campbell and will be published in June 2017.

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