Writing is easy.
You put one word in front of another and keep going.
Would that it were so simple.
Writing words is easy; writing the right words—in the right order—is hard. And writing tens of thousands of them in a cohesive narrative with all the requisites that the form demands and keeping going over a period of several years—on your own!—is as close to impossible as to not be worth bothering with.
All those books.
There’s no end of metaphors for what writing is like.
- Writing is like climbing a mountain; like pulling teeth; like climbing a mountain whilst pulling teeth.
- It’s rowing across the Atlantic in a leaky bath-tub; wrestling a gorilla into a pickle jar; pushing an elephant up the stairs.
- It’s bleeding on the page, giving birth, walking into a dark room with nothing but a miniature torch.
The simple truth is that writing a novel is a slow and inefficient process, and most of the time you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing. Perhaps you're thinking that’s a bad thing.
“The writer,” the great Donald Barthelme said, “Is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.”
Do you feel reassured? Maybe you feel confused.
Here's George Saunders (who we'll be hearing a lot from) to explain:
“Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art.”
Don't worry, though, because he goes on to say that being a writer is to exist in "a state of professional uncertainty" which is something I think we can all get behind.
Here's a few other artists who say the same thing:
"When I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing."
— John Cage, composer, music theorist, artist, philosopher and one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.
“I don’t know how to write. Which is unfortunate, as I do it for a living. I’ve written six books, but instead of making it easier, it has complicated matters to the point of absurdity. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
—Keith Ridgway, award-winning Irish novelist
If you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing, keep doing it—you're in good company. As a writer, you need to get good at being comfortable with uncertainty and your own ignorance.
Here's what John Holt, American author, educator and proponent of the "unschooling" approach, said:
"Good thinkers are more interested in asking questions than getting answers. The poor thinker dashes madly after an answer; the good thinker takes his time and looks at the problem…. The good thinker can take his time because he can tolerate uncertainty, he can stand not knowing. The poor thinker can’t stand not knowing; it drives him crazy."
Look, there's no way to sugar-coat this: writing a good book is very hard and will take you a long time.
How, then, to proceed—efficiently, productively, without going mad?