why do writers hate writing?
or, avoid talking to aspiring artists
Someone will take this personally.
This is because writers are narcissists and incredibly emotionally fragile and unstable. Or, not all writers, but the kind of writers who would see this essay and think I’m writing specifically about them.
Writing is fun. This is maybe a hot take but I think it makes sense coming from someone like me. Someone who writes a lot of words. If you’ve just read everything I’ve written in this newsletter, you’ve likely read between 60,000 and 95,000 of words written by me. Which is both not very much and quite a lot depending on who you ask. Most novels you’ve read in your life are probably between 70,000 and 150,000 words, to give a sort of rough comparison. And so it’s safe to say that I’ve written a decent amount of words for this newsletter since launching it at the end of September.
I like writing. I’ve been taking writing seriously for about fifteen years and have generally written between 100,000 and 400,000 words per year during those fifteen years.
You might think I’d be better at it by now! But in my defense, I am—as I’ve often said—an idiot.
There’s something inherently embarrassing about writing, I think. Like it’s some deep perversion that you occasionally perform in public. To write and to publish that writing is to signal your arrogance, your narcissism, your belief that you deserve attention.
Along with that, writing is also often humiliating. The hubris required to put your words out there often slaps you in your deluded heart.
You believe you’ve written something important. Something true. Something worth other people’s time. Then, assuming they choose to not continue to ignore your writing, they might tell you that you’re actually really bad at it. That paragraph you’re so very proud of that took you hours of grooming? That’s the paragraph they underline as an example of terrible writing.
Over these many years of writing, there’s been one thing I continually encounter among other people who spend too much time doing a hobby no one cares about: writers claiming that they hate writing.
Part of this is a pose.
I mean, clearly there’s a widespread feeling of embarrassment among writers over the fact that they write at all. But it’s also a deeper posture that I think is carried in many people who consider themselves artists.
It’s more fun to be seen as a writer than to actually write. Or, to put it a different way: we like the attention but don’t want to do the work.
I’ve known many people who have gotten MFAs or who teach at MFA programs. Among MFA students, it seems that very few of them produce much work per year. A poet might write a dozen poems over the course of a year. Maybe they’ll have enough for a poetry collection by the time they graduate. Fiction writers might write a handful of stories every semester or might bang their head against a novel during the two years of their program.
To put that into wordcounts, they might write 50,000 words a year if they write fiction. If they write poetry, it’s probably closer to 5,000 words per year.
Now, we shouldn’t confuse quantity with quality. I think it’s safe to say that a handful of Ocean Vuong poems are worth quite a bit more than tens of thousands of my own words. Or, I mean, a story by Ted Chiang is better and more resonant than most novels that come out every year, and he seems to write about one short story every eighteen months.
But it’s also worth remembering that most of us are not Ocean Vuong or Ted Chiang. And most people who go through an MFA program are definitely not producing the kind of writing that Vuong or Chiang do.
Compare this to professional fiction writers who likely did not get an MFA. John Scalzi is pretty famous for a writer and he seems to write quite a bit more than any literary author I can think of. Now, granted, I haven’t read any of his books, so for all I know he may be terrible. But he’s not the kind of person who talks about writing as a torturous process. He talks about it more like work.
It is work to write. But work doesn’t have to mean pain.
I bring this up because I think there’s a serious class divide within writing. This is something I find very interesting.
Regardless of the socioeconomic background of someone in an MFA program, I think much of what happens among writers who take this more institutional path in their career is that they tend to adopt more aristocratic views about art and artists.
Yes, I’m generalizing. Grow up.
I came up as a literary writer. Worse, I came up as an experimental literary writer. Which means I was deliberately writing books no one wants to read. Even then, though, I took great satisfaction in this.
I liked it!
I still do!
I mean, I can produce some experimental fiction at the drop of a hat and love every minute of it. The reason I don’t write this way anymore is a question for a different time, assuming this kind of introspection is interesting enough for anyone to care about.
But I mention this because I never got an MFA. I don’t even have an English degree. I’ve only taken one writing class in my life and I really didn’t like it. I’ve only read one book about writing fiction and I also didn’t like it very much. For all that I’m self taught with regard to writing, I very much adopted views about art that I’d associate with the aristocratic mode I’m going to describe. I still hold many of these views, for better or worse.
There’s a sense among many people that artists are akin to shaman or priestesses, connecting the rest of us to the divine, to the muses, to the deeper innerworkings of our inner worlds. Art isn’t made.
Creativity is a gift, a blessing. Writers and other artists are blessed by the muses, by the gods of creativity, and they unveil truths hidden from plain view.
In this way, we writers are more than people. Our strangeness and eccentricities are signs of that divine spark. More than that, our neuroses are often signs of that blessing.
During many dark days of my young life, I believed my mental anguish, my severe bouts of depression, were such signs. I believed this because this is the way we talk about artists. And we talk this way because Romantic era aristocrats described themselves this way.
The tortured artist. The hysterical genius. The line between madness and artistry became a tightrope that artists tried their best to stay atop.
I believed because I wanted my affectations to have meaning.
This is part of the posture. We hate to write because that way lies monsters, but we love to be seen balancing dozens of feet overhead.
I’ve heard this in many different ways throughout my life.
Artists are more leftbrained. They’re messier. More Type B. They’re bad with time, with responsibilities.
It often feels like people give excuses for certain affected people to behave like assholes and then be rewarded for it.
Obviously I reject this notion. Yes, when I was young and sad and desperate, I justified my pain as a path to artistry. But even then, it still felt wrong. Ill-fitting.
There was nothing special about me or my pain. Even now, the only special thing about the fact that I write is that I bother to do it at all.
Anyone with any sense abandons writing before they get too deep. It’s a stupid hobby with few rewards. The only reason anyone should stick with it is because they enjoy it.
Which, sadly, I do. I love it a whole lot!
But this specialness, this shamanistic connection to the divine muses is what many of us buy into. Especially if we come to writing through institutional or academic paths.
I call it aristocratic because it often comes with hierarchical views about genres. The literary genre is the highest point, of course, with every other genre being some even more embarrassing ghetto. Never mind that those are the books people actually read.
But there’s always this sense that the best books are difficult. Whether they be Ulysses (difficulty massively overstated and the fun massively underemphasized) or William S Burroughs or William Gaddis or William Gass, the way you deform and play with language itself is the sign of serious writing.
Devoting effort and time to character and plot and so on is something for the peasantry. Because only a peasant would enjoy things primarily for their plot and characters. Only peasants bother enjoying art. We serious minded few know that art is to be appreciated, even when it’s difficult and asemic.
This is why someone got real mad at me for favorably comparing sitcoms to most contemporary literature.
The otherside of all this are those writers who write professionally and for a living. Most literary writers make a living as a professor of literature or creative writing somewhere, so their book sales don’t have to add to much (and the dirty secret among many of them is that the publication being on their CV matters more than copies sold or read). But working writers like NK Jemisin or Stephen King or Danielle Steele don’t talk about muses and how the only good part of writing is when you’re done writing. Many professional writers who aren’t famous also carry on with a different job or two that have no relation to their creative output.
They treat it like work. And they do the work. Probably they enjoy it a whole lot!
They stand in contrast to the mystification and mysticalization of art. Writing and art are not about grappling with the muses, with the gods of creativity. Writing is sitting down and, well, writing.
I do fundamentally think it’s that simple. If you keep doing it, you’ll get better at it. Just like going to the batting cage will eventually make you a better hitter.
Dostoevsky wrote some of the most important and influential literature of the 19th Century, and he did most of it rapidly, trying his best to stay ahead of debt collectors. He wasn’t sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike him like some petty and jealous angel. He was writing to keep his head above water.
And it was great.
And maybe starvation and prison are the most potent inspirations imaginable. It’s certainly led to a lot of great art. But it is quite a bit different than describing some transcendental trance required to put more than a few sentences together.
And so why do so many writers hate writing?
The ones that do are better known for talking about writing than they are for what they actually write. Most of them make a living teaching aspiring young men and women being newly saddled with immense debt on the promise that this program will connect them deeper with the muses who will recognize that they are true artists and bestow them with the inspired word that will make them respected by their peers.
All of this is a long way of saying that you should never take writing advice from anyone who doesn’t enthusiastically love writing. You also shouldn’t bother reading books written by people who hate writing.