When you write, are you happy?
“I believe that half the trouble in the world comes from people asking ‘What have I achieved?’ rather than ‘What have I enjoyed?’ I’ve been writing about a subject I love as long as I can remember — horses and the people associated with them, anyplace, anywhere, anytime. I couldn’t be happier knowing that young people are reading my books. But even more important to me is that I’ve enjoyed so much the writing of them.” – Walter Farley (author of The Black Stallion)
At book signings, I see long lines of readers waiting for one widely known author or another to arrive, and this is good, of course, because the people love books and want to meet the bestselling authors they usually only see on TV. Of course, I’m there, too, in the same line waiting for my 30 seconds with the author where s/he is signing books so quickly, it seems like his or her tired hand will need a lot of Aspercreme at the end of the evening.
To many people, an author is the name on the book, the name they trust for the kind of reading they like, somebody who shows up on a talk show or who’s interviewed by Kirkus or Publishers Weekly. If you’re not a writer, you probably don’t think about what your favorite authors are like while they’re writing. I often wonder if those thinking about becoming authors are skewed off the road to reality by seeing authors as celebrities showing up with a lot of fanfare at a bookstore or a studio.
A favorite line of mine out of an old writing book went something like this: Most people don’t want to write, they want to have written. They’re looking only at what comes when the book is done; that’s only the tip of the iceberg in most authors’ lives. Most of the time, they’re alone with a pencil, pen, typewriter or computer. They’re wearing jeans and a tee shirt and look like they haven’t gotten enough sleep for years. It’s hard work, writing, and I think that people who imagine seeing their books on the bestseller lists don’t always think about exactly what they’ll have to do to make that happen.
Is the work fun?
Since most of a author’s life is spent researching and writing, enjoying this part of the process seems to me to be an important prerequisite to considering poetry, short stories, novels and plays as part of one’s career. The writer at work, should be the picture of bliss and contentment. Okay, there’s frustration and profanity, too, and on the bad days, an extra glass of Scotch. But most of the time, authors who like being authors are happy while they’re writing.
In fact, writing is like drugs. Once an author finishes a book, s/he will variously be tired, excited, joyful, elated and (sometimes) relieved. But soon, s/he will have to be writing again because nothing else compares with it. Perhaps it’s a meaningful addiction or perhaps it’s a variation of the kind of high a runner often feels or a tennis player or a musician. Doing the work is the author’s focal point.
So, my two cents for today is to suggest that if the writing itself doesn’t make a person happy, perhaps they’re in the wrong career. At her sarcastic best, Dorothy Parker once said, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
It’s not an easy life and, when it comes down to it, most people really don’t like writing all that much, Reading, yes, but writing: forget it. They’re thinking about going on a talk show and having dinner with Jo Rowling, but not about the work.
If the work isn’t making a person happy, then it seems pointless to me to be writing fiction with big dreams but no sense of the day to day way most of one’s time will be spent. On the other hand, if it makes you happy, your friends and family make consider you a lost cause since–quite clearly–your addiction to your art is almost more important than anything else.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Emily’s Stories, The Seeker, Jock Stewart and the Missing See of Fire and other books that were a real hoot to write.