This past weekend I was at a writer’s conference, where, as always, I learned at least as much as the writers to whom I was to impart my “market wisdom.” I am perpetually impressed by the diversity of people and richness of experience that I encounter; I spoke to a man who had been a 12-year-old operative in the Ukrainian underground, another man who had hitchhiked around the world, and a hospice nurse whose experience helping others navigate the end of life informs her understanding of the human situation. This time, however, I was struck afresh by just how much commitment, doggedness, and all-out sacrifice goes into what one of the conference speakers, writing teacher James N. Frey (note: not the James Frey of A Million Little Pieces) calls the “writing life.” According to Frey, and judging from the nodding heads around me, many in the audience, writing is neither a career nor a job, but rather, something bigger, more demanding, and generally speaking, more heartbreaking.
I’d never encountered Frey before—he teaches writing at California’s Squaw Valley workshop, and has published a number of books on fiction writing. He sports a white beard just this side of kempt, Buddy Holly glasses and a fondness for the plaid shirt. He is, apparently, a firm believer in telling writers that their works “stinks”—until, one day, with lots of practice—it doesn’t. What follows is an excerpt from his “ten rules” for writing fiction. (The first three are, not so surprisingly, “Write, write, write.”)
The next three, suffer, suffer, suffer, is the writer's lot in life. Learning the craft of writing is difficult, creating stories is sometimes agonizing, rewriting is torturous. Dealing with editors is like being tossed into the lions' den at lunch time. Then when you're finally published, often your publisher will not do enough publicity and the critics will probably crown you with thorns.
When you tell your mother you've become a writer she will likely disown you, your friends will think you've lost your mind, and your spouse will be lighting candles and saying prayers to cast out the demon. So that's it. The writer's life, suffering to make a work of art that is not appreciated, suffering the slings and arrows of insulting editors and agents, suffering the isolation of a life of an outcast, suffering at the hands of an uncaring and indifferent public and deranged, stupid critics out to get you.
So why do we do it? We do it to experience the ecstasy inherent in the act of participation in the creation of the world, my friend. That alone is more than adequate recompense. Living a writer's life, a life of reflection, of personal growth, of accomplishment, of working and striving and suffering for one's art, that is its own glory.
Melodramatic? Maybe. But looking out at a banquet room full of people with otherwise hectic lives who carved out a weekend to sit beneath extremely unflattering lights in order to listen, learn, swap stories and improve their craft, I was humbled by the degree of determination that writing demands. I get an enormous number of queries, and it’s true that I turn down far more than I take on, but even as I dispatch dreaded form letters, I think it’s worthwhile to note that I (and agents in general) understand, celebrate, and respect the work required.
Hats off to writers.