This post, written three years ago, is ostensibly about being a writer. You can substitute the word “writer” with any other word, and the post will retain its meaning. It also contains a joke at the expense of Copyblogger. If I were writing it today I’d include in the joke the marketing copy “experts” who’ve never heard of Flesch, or Gunning’s fog index, and have websites full of underlined headings and Capital Letters.
What does it take to be a writer? Many writers would say “courage.” But what do we mean when we say courage in this context?
Look at the question again. What does it take to be a writer? It’s a question about being, about identity, so the answers will concern the psychological or existential aspects of the potential writer. It’s not a question about doing. If you’re interested in doing writing, that’s easy. You need to watch your bullets and numbered lists, and consult Copyblogger immediately.
What many writers mean by courage is the courage to write what one wants to write, instead of what one feels one ought to write. It’s the courage to give up the ought and go with the want. And this is the hard thing. Nothing harder; in writing, and in all of life.
There’s a story I heard recently about the comic writer, David Sedaris, which illustrates the point.*
Sedaris was talking to an audience about an incident that had happened when he was a young schoolboy. One day, his English teacher had asked the class to nominate the best song on the top 40. Sedaris, encouraged by a question which surely had “no right answer” – or, he says, “so I thought” – stuck up his hand and nominated his song. For the young Sedaris, this song was not only the best song in the top 40, but “possibly the best song ever.”
It was a song, he says, that
satisfied me on every level.
Sedaris described what happened after he put up his hand:
… what I remember is not so much my recommendation, but the silence that followed it … an absence of agreement I can only describe as deafening.
And suddenly, the song he had played over and over again, the song that had satisfied him on every level turned to ashes.
… if nobody else liked it, I guessed I didn’t either. That evening, alone in my room, I found that I was too ashamed to listen to my record, to even look at it …
Give up the seduction
What’s great about Sedaris’s story is that it’s every person’s story. Every human being has been in his shoes, each has heard the deafening sound of approval being withdrawn.
Yet this is the terrain one must tread in being a writer.
The fundamental task of being a writer is to give up the consciousness of that heavy-breathing monster – the audience – that thing with each eyeball an “ought”. To give up the wanting to please, to give up the seduction. And to do so neverendingly, over and over again, sentence by sentence.
This is courage, and this is what’s required in being a writer.
But perhaps you’re asking, “What’s left? If I give up my wanting to please, my seductiveness, what will I be doing when I’m writing?”
Roberto Rossellini, a great writer in the medium of film, supplies an answer. As his artistry evolved, and he found the courage to go beyond seduction, he discovered the refinements of offering.
* As quoted in Insights and Distinctions: Landmark Essays by Nancy Zapolski and Joe DiMaggio
Images: David Sedaris, still doing time for his classroom gaffe, courtesy of The Guardian