“[What does it sound like when you get stuck?] Fuck. Shit. Don’t. Fuck. You dumb bitch—who ever told you that you could write? That’s what it sounds like.” —Mary Karr
Writing is hard. Although it feels like it, you are by no means the only person experiencing the debilitating self-loathing that comes with trying to put pen to paper. Come to think of it, the actual act of writing isn’t hard, expressing what we’re trying to express in the way we want to express it is hard. As Joan Didion said,
“I start a book and I want to make it perfect, want it to turn every color, want it to be the world. Ten pages in, I’ve already blown it, limited it, made it less, marred it.”
And then there’s the hours upon hours of trudging through mud and filth while carrying the heavy load of self-doubt. The gloom that sneaks in, trying to suffocate us mid thought. The heaviness that sits upon our fingers, making each sentence an ocean to cross, our shame and self-hatred like violent currents trying to knock us off course.
And then there’s the publishing part of it – the act of baring yourself naked in front of the world. The uncomfortable and self-inflicted pain of ‘putting it out there.’ After hours, days, months of isolation, you give yourself over to the masses. You go from hiding to exposing.
It’s a career built on discipline, isolation and failure. It demands focus and stoicism in the face of criticism. But isn’t that the prerequisite for any great career? Isn’t entrepreneurship built on the same principles? Isn’t moving up the ladder in any job dependent on the same set of skills? Determination, discipline and habit? Going to work the days you want to call in sick? Staying late when you want to go home? Wondering if you’re any good or just faking it?
Of course, there are aspects of writing that are unique to itself and for those writers going through the throngs of it, I hope these quotes will give you the courage you need to keep writing, keep you on track when you feel lost and sooth you when you feel like you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.
For those who aren’t entertaining a writing career, I hope these pieces of advice give you your own type of courage needed to get the job done.
1.Give Yourself Permission To Do It Your Own Way
Writing is, finally, a series of permissions you give to yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stopping too often to reread. Allowing yourself, when you dare think it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration’s shove.
— Susan Sontag
2. Stay With Something Until It’s Finished
That’s the hardest thing to do—to stay with a sentence until it has said what it should say, and then to know when that has been accomplished.
— Vivian Gornick
3. Accept That Excellence Takes Time
You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
― Octavia E. Butler
4. Don’t Expect Encouragement…Learn To Encourage Yourself
Writing is difficult. You do it all alone without encouragement and without any certainty that you’ll ever be published or paid or even that you’ll be able to finish the particular work you’ve begun. It isn’t easy to persist amid all that. […] Sometimes when I’m interviewed, the interviewer either compliments me on my ‘talent’, my ‘gift’ or asks me how I discovered it. […] I used to struggle to answer this politely, to explain that I didn’t believe much in writing talent. People who want to write either do it or they don’t. At last I began to say that my most important talent – or habit – was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It’s amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up.
— Octavia E. Butler
5. The More Time Spent on Something, The Better It Will Be
Every minute you spend on your first paragraph is a wise investment. Polish it until it’s perfect: beckoning, welcoming, irresistible.
— Susan Orlean
6. Know When To Walk Away
If I get frustrated, I’ll go eat something, I’ll go open another Diet Coke, I’ll go to the barn, I’ll distract myself, and then the parts in my brain that were working click and I get an idea. I read an article about how to learn to play a musical instrument. You practice, practice, practice on Friday, then you walk away. And then when you sit down on Saturday, you’re better. Not only because of all the practice, but also because of the walking away. I’m a firm believer in walking away.
— Jane Smiley
7. If You Want To Learn Something, Dedicate Yourself To It
Write all the time. Rework what you write. Hack it to pieces, cut and change … Writing is a self-conducted apprenticeship.
— Martha Gelhorn
8. Accept Your Vulnerable Moments, But Don’t Heed To Them
I would look at the words on the page—still do—and think, This is so naive. This is so stupid. Who’s going to want to read this? How will I ever get another sentence out? Of course, every writer is vulnerable on that score. To the degree that you become a writer whose life is richly experienced through the work, you are, I believe, less tormented by that particular demon, and book by book the work will find itself deepening, paving the way for the very best a writer is capable of.
— Vivian Gornick
9. Build Habits
First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.
— Octavia E. Butler
10. Always Speak Your Own Truth
I realized I was more convincing to myself and to the people who were listening when I actually said what I thought, versus what I thought people wanted to hear me say.
— Ursula Burns
11. Learn How To Inspire And Entertain People
You better make them care about what you think. It had better be quirky or perverse or thoughtful enough so that you hit some chord in them. Otherwise it doesn’t work. I mean we’ve all read pieces where we thought, Oh, who gives a damn.
— Nora Ephron
12. Don’t Stop Just Because It’s Hard
Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.
— Ann Patchett
13. Get Comfortable Being Alone
To really be centered and to really work well and to think about the kinds of things that I need to think about, I need to spend large amounts of time alone.
— Donna Tartt
14. Accept The Hard Work
Writing is largely a matter of application and hard work, of writing and rewriting endlessly, until you are satisfied that you have said what you want to say as clearly and simply as possible. For me, that usually means many, many revisions.
— Rachel Carson
15. Figure Out What’s Necessary and What’s Not
Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
16. Make Time For What’s Important
Make time for your art because no one else will. Even if you have to steal 10 minutes a day, make sure you help grow your gift.
— Lilliam Rivera
Featured Image – Donna Tartt at Bennington College