How I Know I’m a Writer

Sometimes posts are easier to write than others. There are times when a subject for a post presents itself with such force that it really does — pardon the cliché — write itself.

And then there are days like today.

It’s rainy and cold outside, I have some very nice jazz on the stereo (Brian Bromberg’s exquisite album, Wood), and really the only thing I want to do is work on my book.

It’s not that I’m at a particularly exciting part of my work-in-progress, or that I’ve been looking forward to writing this section of the book for a long time. Quite the opposite, actually. The book is a bit of a slog right now. I’m past the opening; I’m a long, long way from the climax. I’m dealing with a plotting issue right now; a knotted tangle of narrative threads that is driving me up a wall. In short, it’s something of a mess and it feels like work.

And still, it’s all I want to do.

I think this is something that some beginning writers, and lots of people who don’t write at all, don’t understand. I remember years ago, when the first generation of affordable laptop computers were first marketed, an ad appeared on TV talking about the convenience of having a portable computer. And one of the things that the ad said was that this would finally give people the freedom to write the Great American Novel, or some such nonsense. And it showed some guy in jeans and a flannel shirt sitting on a dock overlooking a placid mountain lake. He had his laptop and nothing else — no books, no papers. Nothing. It was just him and the scenery and the computer, and he was typing away. My wife and I thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever seen.

Writing a book is a little like maintaining a long-term romantic relationship. Early on, the excitement of beginning something new is intoxicating and consuming. Remaining committed at that stage is easy. It’s all you want to do. But when that early passion subsides a bit, you’re left with the work of keeping things moving, of overcoming problems and adjusting your expectations to new realities. That’s when the commitment becomes more challenging. That’s when the writer is separated from the pretender. This has nothing to do with getting published; it has everything to do with following through on a project and finishing it.

You have to love the process so much that you’re as willing to tackle the hours of research, the plot problems that make you want to scream, the days of rewrites, as you are the early chapters that flow so easily. Writing a novel isn’t about sitting on a dock and waiting for the muse to strike. It’s not about seeing your name on a book or a check, either, though those are very nice when they happen. Writing is about embracing the work. It’s about sitting down with pad and pen, or desktop and keyboard, or laptop and latte because it’s all you want to do, even when you know that the problems you encounter that day are going to make you nuts.

I have no doubt that my work today is going to suck a little bit. Not the actual writing; I think what I get written will read pretty well when I go back to check it later. But it’s going to be hard and frustrating and downright unpleasant at times. I’ll get up from my desk a hundred times to go check the laundry, or get a drink (non-alcoholic; I promise) or wander around the house cursing my characters and my story line at the top of my lungs. But every time I get up from my desk, I’ll come back to it, put my butt back in the chair, and write some more.

And I won’t do this because I’m virtuous, or because I have more discipline than someone else, or because I’m better at it than anyone. I’ll do it because I love it, because in spite of the cursing and the whining and the frustrations, it’s the only thing I want to do with my time. I like the challenge; I enjoy the slog. Weird, I know. But it’s days like these that make me feel like a writer.

Know what I mean? Yeah, I thought so. You’re a writer, too.

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  1. 1. Lynn Flewelling

    Great post! I’m having just such a day myself.

    I remember that laptop commercial. Still makes me laugh. Guess the reality wouldn’t make a very good sales vehicle: man/woman in bathrobe at noon, seated in jumbled home office or at dining room table that never gets used because it’s always covered with writer stuff, fingers clenched in uncombed hair, dog/cat drinking from cold cup of coffee/tea/bourbon on the floor beside them. Notebooks full of unintelligible notes scattered in unintelligible heaps. Pan to house in need of cleaning, stack of bills, kids in need of attention . . . Or is that just me? ;-)

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Okay, until you asked if that was just you I thought I’d left the webcam on….

    Thanks for the comment, Lynn. Hope you’re getting stuff written today. I’m doing my best, but things keep cropping up. And now I have proofs coming tomorrow. Bleh….

  3. 3. Phiala

    Yeah, but when I hit that spot somehow the day job becomes more demanding and the rest of the world needs more attention. Writing takes a back seat. I can find the motivation when it’s a New Shiny, but that middle slog? I have a hard time.

    Guess where I am right now?

  4. 4. Alma Alexander

    Been there done that (and often chewed on the T shirt in frustration).

    This is the muddle in the middle when EVERYTHING seems harder than it is – it isn’t the rear view mirror that’s the problem but the front-facing mirror (if there is such a magical thing) shows EVERYTHING as larger and more menacing than it is…

    Finishing off a project over the next couple of weeks, Then I have a brand new novel to get going on. And in the meantime still waiting on stuff from the two current on-submission projects which are at the agent’s offices in New York.

    Ah, the glamour of a writer’s life…

  5. 5. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    That’s so true. That commercial should be relegated to the pit of stupidity along with all the movies where agents and editors call and check on writers and drop in at their houses . . .

    I traveled over Christmas and took an enormous stack of books and notes with me, and was still afraid that the internet wouldn’t give me the answers that what I took with me didn’t. Writer’s paranoia.

    Great post!

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Phiala, yes, the distractions become far more appealing when I enter the vast middle of a book. The slog makes other activities — laundry, cleaning dishes, raking leaves — look tremendously fun…

    Alma, best of luck with all of that, especially the submissions. I know the feeling. Promoting one, proofing another, writing a third. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Thanks, Di. I hate trying to write when I’m traveling for just that reason. There is so much I would have to bring with me — reference books, dictionary and thesaurus (because I like MINE), my maps and files and notes, etc. — that I’m better off taking the time to relax, knowing that I’ll get back to it when I return home.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    This was also how I knew archaeology was something I really loved: I was willing (if not happy) to get up at 5 a.m. to go dig in the dirt. There’s nothing else I would do that for — not even writing, if in that case solely for the reason that my eyelids are glued shut at 5 a.m. and my brain is even worse.

    If you still want to do something even on the bad days, then that’s the job for you.

  8. 8. Gabriele Campbell

    Ah, that’s what I’m doing wrong. I dress when I get out of bed, I don’t have a cat, and I can’t work at a cluttered desk.

    I also find the first chapters harder to write than the middle. Am I a lost cause? :)

  9. 9. Kristan

    Aww, this post makes me so happy. Because I do in fact know what you mean. :)

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    Marie, it definitely works with lots of other things aside from writing. It’s how I knew that I WASN’T cut out to be a history professor, even after I got the Ph.D. It’s how I know that, given the chance, I’d leap at the opportunity to do professional photography. But writing is the one that makes me happiest, even while it’s making me grumpy.
    Gabriele, you’re definitely not a lost cause. I have no cat, and I don’t — can’t — write in my PJs. I like to feel like I’m going to work, even if I’m not leaving the house. And first chapters absolutely present their own unique challenges…
    Kristan, glad it made you happy. It’s a crazy profession, but I do love it.

  11. 11. Doug Hulick

    I know I’m a writer because when I close the laptop for the day and leave the house to get my kids, I come up with the *perfect* scene/piece of dialog/description ten minutes later. Of course, by the time I get a chance to sit down later that night/the next day/dig out a grocery receipt and a pen, it’s gone. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  12. 12. David B. Coe

    Yeah, Doug. I do the same. I am always telling myself that I need to be more conscientious about writing stuff down, so I remember those wonderful ideas. But somehow that note to myself always gets lost, too….

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    What’s this about early chapters that come easily? Where can I get some of that?

  14. 14. Dianna

    What a great post. I’m really glad I found it.

    The hard parts of the book are the parts that you look back on later with pride. You look at them and you say ‘I got through this’ and you know inside that this is what you were meant to do.

    Keep writing. I’ll definitely keep reading now that I’ve found your blog :)

  15. 15. David B. Coe

    Well, maybe “easily” is the wrong word. But there is that early energy that can be sustaining for a while, until one hits The Slog…

  16. 16. Elizabeth Scott

    This is just a lovely, lovely post. Thank you for sharing it.

  17. 17. Jeri Smith-Ready

    Great post, David! I feel the same way, although there are definitely days when I’d rather be reading than writing. But as soon as I start reading, it just makes me want to write again.

    I don’t remember that commercial, but the thought of a laptop that close to a body of water is hilarious.

  18. 18. mikaela

    Nuh-uh. Writing a first draft isn’t work . Except for the times when the scenes lasts for ever, and… All right. It is work. But *fun* work. Revising? Right now the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I actually have something that’s worth submitting. :)

  19. 19. David B. Coe

    Thanks for that, Dianna. Glad you found us. I agree with you. That feeling of accomplishment makes all the struggle worthwhile.

    Many thanks to you, too, Elizabeth. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    Hi, Jeri! I have those days, too. I’d rather be reading, or out taking pictures, or sleeping. And sometimes I’ll take a bit of time to go out hike with my camera, or something like that. But more often than not, it all comes back to the writing, and before I know it I’m in front of the computer again. And yeah that commercial failed on so many levels….

    I know what you mean, Mikaela. Revisions can be painful. But they yield such great results when done right. Best of luck with what you’re working on.

  20. 20. Lucy Coats

    Thank you, David. This is EXACTLY how you know you are a writer. Books don’t write themselves–it’s damned hard work, but as satisfying as anything else you will ever do–if you are a writer. Of course there are those times and days when the creative muse goes AWOL, takes a little holiday to parts unknown, and you are left desolate. I’ve just blogged about those difficult times of what is labelled Writer’s Block, but is different for everyone (some never experience it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). There’s been some interesting debate on the subject, both for and against. I’m glad I found this via Twitter.

    Lucy Coats @ http://www.scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com

  21. 21. Rebecca

    This was exactly what I needed to read today, so thanks. :) Doing some sloggish replotting and waiting for (dreading) critiques, and generally wondering why I don’t do something more useful with my spare time, like watch TV….

    (Found this via Twitter.)

  22. 22. Melanie

    Thank you for this post. I am in the process of writing my first novel and I am never quite sure if what I am going through is “normal” or “just me.” Your insights have helped me understand more about the process and the fact that some of the struggles that I am having are indeed “normal.” :)

  23. 23. Jessica Leader

    So gratifying to see my experience mirrored by someone else. And to see that someone else gets up for drink refills an alarming number of times. (At least I can thank my profession for keeping me hydrated!) Thanks for this post.

  24. 24. David B. Coe

    Thanks, Lucy. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks as well for the link to your blog. I’m one of those who tries desperately to deny the existence of writer’s block. I try to get through the rough spots by putting myself in the chair and writing my way past them. But I’m sure that your post will prove helpful to people.

    Rebecca, glad you found the post helpful. Replotting, revising, dealing with critiques — it’s all part of the same process. The goal is to write the best book you can possibly write. And yeah, it can be a difficult trek at times. But worth it, and way better than watching TV…. :)

    Melanie, thank you. Glad you liked the post. At MagicalWords.net, where I post every week, we say quite often that there is no “right” way to do any of this. There are as many ways to write a book as there are writers making the attempt. So it’s all “normal.” The hardest part is learning to trust your own creative process, and that can take time and experience. And so, yeah, it’s nice to know that others are going through the same slog. I’m sure that you’ll get through that first book and then begin another. Some of what you did the first time round you’ll do again; other things you’ll change. Gradually, your process will emerge, and you’ll grow more comfortable with it. Best of luck.

  25. 25. Shari

    TOTALLY get what you mean. Fantastic post – thanks! :)

  26. 26. David B. Coe

    Jessica, sorry. Your comment posted after the others, and after my reply. Yeah, there is no end to the number of things I can find to do instead of write. But somehow the pages get written anyway. Another sign, I suppose, that I really do love my job.

  27. 27. David B. Coe

    Thank you, Shari!

  28. 28. Malcolm R. Campbell

    If only writing were always as celestial as that commercial. Of course, I don’t clean up as nice as the actor in the commercial, so expecting a rich setting to do my work for me is probably over the top was well, expectation-wise and reality-wise.

    Young love and new manuscripts are often somewhat intoxicating; they threaten to occupy a writer’s every waking moment, if not his dreams as well. But to get to the end, including all the edits, is more like a darned good marriage: it still has to be nurtured and worked at for the long haul.

    Malcolm

  29. 29. Rita Arens

    This is a great post. I’m in the first revision of my novel. I hit a wall a few days ago and realized it was the sentences. They were weak. So I slashed and burned anything that made me feel a bored reaction, and now it’s flowing again. I wish I had more time to devote to it.

    I run a creative writing forum on BlogHer. We have many beginning writers that could really benefit from posts like this. I hope you’ll consider participating. http://www.blogher.com/groups/creative-writing

  30. 30. Andy Duggan

    My work-in-progress is definitely at the stage where I’m not sure I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I still don’t know the main characters as well as I need to. A story, for me, reaches critical mass when the characters feel as though they’re speaking their own lines and my job is to record faithfully what they say.

    Andy

  31. 31. David B. Coe

    Yeah, I don’t have the same access to lakeside luxury either, Malcolm. Because, well, I’m a writer…. Thanks for the comment.

    Andy, I have the exact same experience. When I feel that what I’m doing is transcribing conversations, listening to my characters rather than telling them what to say, I know that the book has come alive. There is nothing cooler for me than having my characters surprise me with their words and deeds. It can take time to get there, but it’s always worth the wait. Good luck with your WIP.

  32. 32. Kenneth Mark Hoover

    Very good article!

  33. 33. Carol J. Garvin

    I remember that ad… and I hate to admit I’ve been known to sit with my laptop on the lakeshore (we don’t have a dock) in front of our remote summer cabin, listening to the loons and writing my way through the afternoon’s stillness. Sorry about that!

    But of course that isn’t my daily norm; the workday chaos is. It’s nice to hear that the day to day desire to ignore everything else in favour of wrenching words from within puts me in good company with other writers. :)

  34. 34. David B. Coe

    Thanks, Mark.

  35. 35. David B. Coe

    Rita and Carol — apologies. Your posts were a bit slow getting through the filter, so I didn’t see them when I responded earlier.

    Rita, thank you for the link. I’ve done the slash and burn; we all have. And painful though it is, it usually leads to a better book in the long run. Best of luck with it!

    Carol, no need to apologize! If I could take time to write in a spot like that, I would. But as you point out, that’s not the norm. We have to have our sources, our references, our notes, access to the internet, etc., and that’s why that commercial was so silly. And yes, you are in good company. Thanks for the comment.

  36. 36. Uli Kusterer

    Funnily, I think this can be extended to pretty much every job. It’s how I decided to become a programmer. I sat down, thinking about all the things I would want to do in my life, and then it struck me that, even on a bad day, I would still want to sit down and work on a program:

    Figure out the correct behaviour of a complex task, ponder how my users would use my program, fiddle with drawing code to get the look just right, work out how to do the same thing differently, so it will be faster. Programming is like inventing how to weave a carpet *as you build the carpet*.

    When I thought about becoming a graphic designer, or a tech writer, or a novelist, or a theatre actor (all things I still do, some as part of my job, others as hobbies that eat up way too much time), I realized that I couldn’t do them on a bad day, or I wouldn’t be able to do them every day, over and over again, without getting terribly depressed.

    It’s the measure of whether you have the right job: Can you do it on a bad day?

  37. 37. David B. Coe

    Uli, I think that’s a great point. All the people I know who love their work feel that way — that they can do it any day, good or bad. Writing for me, programming for you, teaching and doing research for my wife, etc. Great comment. Thanks.

  38. 38. Amira

    So, I was web wandering.. because at the moment the pile of notebooks looks too intimidating, The readback was several minutes “How the hell did I write myself into that corner?”, and the list of “Other writing projects,” the ones I keep near at hand when the novel starts eating my brain, is a little higher and scarier than I want it to be right now. The cat tried to help. Really. But I doubt I can sell eighteen pages of “hwhdwehhqehfiefcedujciveufgjuireuiw” Besides, mention “Royalties” around a cat and they get completely the wrong image.

    So then there’s this article that reminds me why I’m doing this. Because I have to. Because it doesn’t matter if it sells or not. Because there’s words and scenes and images in my head that will die if I don’t give them some kind of permanency. Because some days, it may not matter WHAT I write, but every day it matters THAT I write.

    Man, why couldn’t I fall in love with something less stressful? Like Drag Boat Racing?

    Thanks for the reminder. Now back to pushing keys.

  39. 39. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the great comment, Amira. Glad to provide the reminder. At times I need it, too. I’ve just handed in a book and am actually looking forward to a few weeks of NOT writing. Then I’ll need to get back to it, of course. But now and then resting is good, too.

    Best of luck with all your projects.

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David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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