Humility, Patience and Courage: The Writer’s Holy Trinity
by Martin Brady
I’ve been writing professionally now for about 20 years. I got started in Chicago, providing modest (100-150 words) free-lance book reviews for a journal called “Booklist.” I eventually became a staff editor for that publication, and ended up expanding my horizons as a free-lance writer, contributing 1,000-word book reviews to the Sunday “Chicago Sun-Times” book section. From there, besides my 9-to-5 editorial work, I found occasional work for hire, writing catalog and advertising copy and doing copy-editing for books and journals. More creatively, I stayed active writing sketches for community musical revues, songwriting, and I even managed to finish a novel and a memoir of my experiences in psychotherapy, both of which remain unpublished. About five years ago, I moved to Nashville to pursue long-delayed dreams as a published songwriter. These have met with only modest success, yet I managed to parlay my background as a published journalist into a regular gig as an entertainment and arts writer for “Nashville Scene,” which is Music City’s version of the “Village Voice,” and also a sister publication of both “L.A. Weekly” and “Orange County Weekly.” [Visit www.nashvillescene.com]
If there is one thing I have learned through these experiences, it is how important every little step can be on the road to writing–and writing well. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a small job or an insignificant opportunity. Yes, some jobs don’t pay much, and some don’t pay at all. But exercising the writing muscle–the very doing of the thing–is critical to any kind of achievement or success. If you find an opportunity to write–take it. It matters little what it is–whether writing about a community event for a small local paper, or crafting an internal business report, or providing a profile of an interesting person for a specialty publication–for it is through the doing that one learns, gets better, acquires skills, and maybe makes a contact along the way with someone who might utilize your abilities somewhere down the road.
I’m a big advocate of the practicality of getting involved with a publishing enterprise of any kind. Even if this doesn’t involve writing–at first–it is important to be positioned near those who do write. For example, proofreading may sound like grunt work, but it is an excellent entree into the world of words, and a good proofreader is constantly exposed to sentence construction and usage issues as well as publishing protocols. I suppose this approach is no different than that of the fellow who wants to be a stockbroker, and hence spends a few years as a “runner” at the stock exchange, watching deals get done and observing the routines of that business. Being near the writing world broadens the horizons of the would-be writer.
Writing isn’t glamorous. It seems like it ought to be, and all those glorious dreams of creating something truly artistic and beautiful are supposedly what spurs us on. I’m certainly all for the creative writer indulging his/her dreams. Dreams provide a target, to be sure. Yet the craft of writing is often painstaking, elusive, frustrating, contentious, and spurious. It also requires constant re-tooling of one’s perspective, as well as a willingness to pull back and reconsider alternatives.
The rut is one of the writer’s worst enemies. It’s not unusual for me, maybe every six months or so, to feel like I can’t possibly approach my work with any freshness. Stuck with a new assignment, I’ll stare at the computer and wonder, “Haven’t I done something like this before? Do I simply apply the formula I’ve used in the past to achieve the desired effect?” Sometimes, when faced with this proposition, I’ll go visit an editor or fellow writer I know and say. “I’ve hit a wall. I’m tapped out. I’ve done this before, and I’m so afraid that I won’t find a fresh approach. And I’m filled with anxiety. What do I do??”
Anyone who’s ever written knows this feeling. It’s an occupational hazard. Inevitably, I am received with absolute understanding, and the colleague will say, “Ah, a little bit of burn-out, eh? Relax. Take a deep breath. Go do something else. Don’t agonize. Take a break from even thinking about your problem. When you’re ready to return to the computer, make every attempt to think about the story in a completely different way than you otherwise might. Consciously strive to find a new approach. Dare to be offbeat. Focus on a new area of the subject. Rule out nothing. Consider any element of the topic as fair game for development. Don’t be hemmed in by what you perceive as your own ‘style.’ In this way, you will find renewal.”
Well, some advice works better than others. But this is as good as any. Regardless, the writer has to push on through the muck of his own mind and draw on the kitbag of tricks he has learned through experience to assist in cranking out the next project.
Perhaps the starkest reality is that writing is solitary. No one else can make the journey with you. Woody Allen says courage is ultimately more important to the writer’s success than talent. I have to agree. Vocabulary and structure are the mechanics of this trade, and yes, the writer must absorb all aspects of those to master his/her craft–and also continually seek to renew them (more words, new words, new structural approaches, etc.). But yet again, it’s the very doing of the thing that matters–there is no substitute for daring to commit words to paper. You must want it badly, you must endure the missteps along the way, and you must further re-commit to the sometimes-arduous task before you.
It is said that writing is re-writing. For quality control, from project to project, this is certainly true. But for the long haul, writing is openness and renewal and a constant monitoring of one’s desire to achieve. Therein lies fulfillment.
Oh, and did I mention? It’s almost always hard as shit–even for the best of writers. I have found this truth to be consoling. The notion that it was easy for Steinbeck or Hemingway or other supposedly deeply gifted artists simply doesn’t wash. They may have had tremendous talent in the way of vision or ideas, but the amount of sweat they expended in getting to the finished product is commensurate with your own.
So consider that, when you’re in the depth of your own meager little project, you’re in the same fraternity as the truly great ones.
Now go. Write. And be not afraid.