Sep 01

Write Only If You Can Handle Conflicting Advice About Writing

One of my friends has been posting inspiring quotes about writing on his social media, both as a way of keeping himself moving forward, and to share the wealth of support with others. It’s a pretty great thing to do. But yesterday, he posted a quote from Elie Wiesel:

“Write only if you cannot live without writing.”

And while I’m certainly not in a league with the words and work of this great man, I feel like this is one of those quotes that sounds supportive, and useful, but can lead to feelings of inadequacy and uselessness in people who might have a lot to say, and some really interesting ways in which to say it. Not everyone works the same way as Elie Wiesel. I certainly don’t.

When I was in university, I came, as so many young writers do, to a professor and wanted to know if I really had the goods, if he thought I could “make it.” And while being generally supportive, his advice to me was something fairly generic, which falls into the same school of thought as the quotation above. He told me I should only write if I felt that I “had to write every day,” and sent me off assuming that was the most helpful advice he could give.

And yet, that advice held me back for years. While I definitely agree that a lot of becoming skilled at anything in the arts is applying the idea of “perspiration, not inspiration” – that you need to just knuckle down and work, write anything, everything, often as you can, and that’s how you’ll find yourself improving – I feel like you also have to realize that there will be times when you simply can’t do that. And that’s okay. Sometimes life gets busy, sometimes you have to focus on other things – keeping a roof over your head, getting to know a particularly interesting human connection, keeping yourself in good health (mental included), and you shouldn’t feel guilty when these other things take you away for a time from the constant exercise of your chosen craft.

I did. I castigated myself for years, no matter how tempestuous and important other aspects of my life might have been to focus on – I felt like I had betrayed my professor and my own talents when I didn’t write every day, or every week, or sometimes even every month. I felt like I shouldn’t bother to come back to it again after such a delay – what was the point? I’d already failed at the most important step.

But eventually, I did come back all the same. I found that, in time, I was ready to push myself further, and the words came back to me. Maybe it took me longer to use the full measure of my talent because of it – but my path is my path. I’m doing good work now, and I wouldn’t change the life that brought me here. My experiences, my loves, my failures – all of those are a part of what deepens the words I write now, and I’m not sorry that sometimes they took me away from the daily work of pen and paper (or okay, usually keyboard and monitor).

If you want to make the most of your words, you have to put a lot into it. Your truth, your most honest thoughts, and certainly a healthy amount of sweat. You need to write and write again, revise and revisit and re-imagine, you need nights and mornings when your brain feels wrung out and left to dry, and your fingertips are sore from pressing pen or pencil or thumping down on keys repeatedly. You have to do the work, and I’m not trying to say any different.

But it’s okay that there are times when you need to set it aside. When life gets too busy. When your friends, loves, children need you. When you need you. When there’s a book you really want to finish; a chance to go to the cabin, or out on the town; when you know it’s better to yourself to take a nap with your free time that day. It’s okay to do something else for a time – try your hand at sculpting, even if you suck, or delve into those singing lessons you always wanted to take. You can wander down other paths when you feel the call.

The writing will still be there. None of it disqualifies you, or your talent, when you make it back.

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