Suffering Comes With the Turf
Is writing supposed to be fun?
Surely, it’s better to suffer. It will make our writing real—give it depth and integrity.If we’re not going to suffer, we should at least work hard. We should be disciplined. We should think in terms of productivity. A writer’s not going to have a career to speak of unless she’s producing at least 1,000 words per day, right? If you get right down to it, it’s really a number crunching game. Or so the rumor goes.
Every writer has a personal tale about the hardships of writing. And we all know that writing is a lonely business. Martin Myers made this kind of alienation adorably quotable when he said: “First you’re an unknown, then you write one book and you move up to obscurity.”
But this swallowing gulf is no laughing matter. As we chart our descent into the nether world of writing, honk if you know the story already.
Outside, the sun is shining and the robins are happily pulling up worms. Inside your snug little home, you’re staring into the abyss. The terror of facing that empty page is only surpassed by the numbness of your decomposing mind.
Just moments ago you were a lively specimen of resourceful humanity. Moments ago you were finding ways to speed through your chores and commitments in order to allow yourself some precious writing time. But, now that you’re seated in front of your favorite writing implements, you uncover the bleak truth. You have nothing to say. You are less inspired than the lowliest drone sorting microchips on the assembly line. You are empty. Soulless. Mere space dust inhabiting a warm body. You have no right to aspire to that auspicious title: Writer. Where did you come up with the nerve to even think it?
OK, so you’ve managed to convince your primal brain stem these negative messages are melodramatic. You are not empty. You are not a zombie from the twilight zone. While waiting in line at the drive-up bank, you even had “an idea” and now you intend to write it down. You’re no lightweight.
In fact, you have some guts and you plan to use them. How can you not be a writer? It’s in your blood. It permeates every atom of your mortal being. It reaches all the way to your higher self. Even your past lives were spent as royal scribes in Egypt or poets in Atlantis.
Triumphantly, you break those chains of oppression. You commit some tentative words to paper. One line follows another and “Voila!” you have a paragraph.
You resist the urge to reread what you’ve managed to get down. You forge ahead: One paragraph becomes two, and then three, and then five. If the dog doesn’t throw up again or the phone doesn’t ring, you may even write two pages today. You are doing it! You’re writing. You have defied the laws of emptiness. You are a god of creation.
But, the internal drag is taking its toll. Even as you defeat inertia to get those valiant words down on paper or typed onto the screen, you are faced with another self-evident truth: You are boring. Your writing would put insomniacs to sleep. You’ve seen livelier writing on the label peeling from the dank bottle of dishwashing liquid under your kitchen sink.
Yesterday you finished reading a mind-blowing novel by a twenty-three-year-old Asian author. He learned English only six months prior to writing his book. He wrote the entire book in Oriental calligraphy, using a brush and ink inherited from his great-great-grandfather, and then transcribed it into grammatically perfect English for his publisher in New York.
His prose is fluid, scintillating—nearly translucent in its candidness and lack of clutter. It’s his first book, and yet he writes with the sensitivity and depth of a literary giant. His ancestors spring to life within the pages of his book; they say some of the funniest, wisest, most memorable things you’ve ever encountered. The writerly portrayal of this intricate, exotic foreign culture renders you speechless with admiration.
The book has won awards and has found a permanent niche on the bestseller’s list. The author is under contract for three more novels. He writes blurbs for the covers of other people’s books, and his name is sheer unadulterated gold in the publishing industry. Everyone wants a talisman; everyone wants a piece of his literary magic.
Meanwhile, sunk in a private morass of shame and self-loathing, you sit in front of the mundane passage you’ve written. You reread your words and reel in shock. It’s blindingly obvious that you should give up now to save your family from the pain of watching you bomb out. Your paltry effort should be fed to the pigs for breakfast—with salt and pepper and plenty of ketchup. At least make it palatable for the pigs!
The rush of inspiration you felt in line at the bank is now in ashes on the page. You’re embarrassed that you ever bragged to your friends about being a writer. Bragging leaves you no room to exit gracefully. Bragging leaves you no pride and no way to resume a normal life. If you give up now, your friends will know what a weakling you are and they’ll never let you live it down.
Why would anyone want to suffer this way? You sit there, dripping with failure; pungent with the sweat of your fruitless labor. You remember that you go through this same horror scene every time you try to write. You always start on an innocent high, but then you degenerate into writing hell.
By the time the hounds of hell regurgitate you, you’re limp with defeat. Your skin crawls with self-revulsion. Looking up from your mundane passage, you observe the ordinary world: You can’t help but notice that your family and friends aren’t being auto-consumed by this tapeworm called writing. You long to veg out in front of the TV with the kind of serenity you see others reveling in as their birthright.
You look in the mirror and tell yourself to “get a life.” You decide to exercise at the gym whenever the urge to write strikes. You can put your nervous energy to good use at the gym instead of doing all that unhealthy introspection. Instead of agonizing like a word miser over what you have or haven’t written.
The concept “writing is fun” is ludicrous. Experience has proven it beyond a shred of doubt. Fun for others, maybe, but never for you.
Still, you are curious to see which panacea will be on offer here. You remind yourself, since you’ve given up writing to lead a healthy lifestyle, that you’ve got nothing to lose. You have no personal stake in it now. . . . Miraculously, this has killed off the hellhounds and smashed the mental blocks. You are now free to try the exercises in this book without expectation or attachment to outcome. You’re a perfect buddha ready to give into non-judgmental acceptance.
Well, if not a buddha then a glutton for punishment. You’ve made up your mind to try these dang exercises just to prove what you already know: Writing is a torture chamber invented specifically with you in mind.
Samples of the Storyteller Writing Prompts