Do It For Nothing

Writing sucks.  I don’t have to tell you that – you’re here because you know.  You clicked on that title above because it matches the relentless voice in your own head that says, “This is never going to work.  This is never going to pay. I’ll never be Stephen King. Or even E.L. James, for fuck’s sake.” I don’t have to tell you how much writing sucks, but I’m going to, because I want you to hang out for a minute and telling stories is the only way I know how to make people sit still.  I’m not going to tell you how to make it suck less. If you know, email me, please.  What I know is how to do it anyway, in spite of the suck.

Honestly, I planned to have this all sorted out by now.  The Plan (TM) was to get married at 25, have a kid at 27, and then enjoy the work-life balance that writing for a living offers.  Oh! Almost forgot – at 17, make sure you publish a bestseller. Otherwise all the other stuff might be a little more difficult. But how hard can it be?  When I was in school, that supercilious brat Christopher Paolini had just hit the bestseller lists at the age of 17 and was awkwardly smarming all over Oprah’s couch, and Eragon was terrible!  In fact, a lot of the writers I saw making it big were mediocre – my first indication that the whole structure was bullshit, of course, but more on that another time.  I read The Da Vinci Code and said to my mother, “At least it’s a quick read – this man couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.”

“I’m trying to imagine someone writing their way out of a paper bag.  Or into one, for that matter.”

“No, wait, it’s somehow worse than that.  Dan Brown couldn’t write his way out of a hostage situation.  Dan Brown couldn’t write his way out of a ten-car pileup.”

So yeah, The Plan (TM) looked pretty feasible in the first few months of freshman year.  And then, like everyone else, I hit Real Life (TM) like Wile E. Coyote hitting a brick wall, and turned into a perfectly-formed disc embossed with my pissy little face.

What had seemed so easy when I was in high school – homework?  Nah, fuck that, I’ll work on my novel all night long – was suddenly the last thing I wanted to do with the whole exciting world of sex, drugs and job applications spread before me.  I wrote during my 20s, a surprising lot in fact, but usually only when drunk. Late at night, alone with a tall glass of limeade and Bacardi 151 – I shit you not, that was my tipple for years – I screamed into the blackness of Blogspot, filling a blog only my best friend knew about with yearning, dreaming, asking.  When I was 19 and my boyfriend moved in with me, I wrote about falling in love. When I was 20 and I had an abortion, I wrote about my terror and guilt. When I was 24 and a friend tried to kill himself three times in three months, I wrote down what I couldn’t say to him – my grief, my rage, my need to have the answers.  For ten years I drank from the bottle and spat it all back out on the page.

I’ll say this for it: it’s a lot easier to write when it feels like the top of your head will fly the fuck off if you don’t.  It was as if my brain was a kettle on a shrieking hot stove, howling and vomiting steam without pause until all the water is boiled away.  I was productive during that time, but only in the sense that I was producing something.  Words were coming out, the machine was doing its job.  But with the blog serving as friend, family and therapist, I couldn’t learn or grow.  I couldn’t make my work any better by screaming at myself. In his incredible book On Writing, Stephen King says, “Life isn’t a support system for art.  It’s the other way round.” My art was a great support system for my life, but that meant that until I sorted out my life, I couldn’t improve my art.

So I took the kettle off the burner, so to speak.  I got a job that let us lose the food stamps. Not a writing job; I can’t write on command – remember all that homework I skipped to write my own stuff?  Same thing. I read a lot of books on writing, which made me feel like I was growing as a writer even when I didn’t write a word for a year. Not sure how much I’d recommend that – in many ways, it’s a form of procrastination for me, but one that’s taught me a ton.  I got insurance, and then a doctor, and then antidepressants that saved my life. Gradually, my skull-kettle stopped screaming. (Have I tortured this metaphor to death yet?)

Now, I try to write every day.  I say try. I think about writing every day, does that count?  (No.) I still talk to my blog more than I talk to my friends, although I’ve got friends now, so I got that goin for me, which is nice.  When I ache to be loved, to be strong and confident, to be witty or wise, I write. I still live on the page better than I live my life. But letting that head full of steam die down (the metaphor puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again) allowed me to look at what I was producing and develop it in a more conscious way.  There’s a more conscious way to write than blackout drunk? Y’don’t say! And yes, the work is harder now. I write less than I used to. I spend a lot more time on those lovely soliloquies you get into while staring at the empty screen: “This is the only thing you’re good at, and you’re not even good at this. Why do you think anybody cares what you have to say?  It’s not really possible to create anything new anyway…” Yeah, my personal brainweasels talk like that asshole you met in Philosophy 101 freshman year, who droned for forty-five minutes about the inherent fundamental meaninglessness of the universe and then sent you a picture of his dick.


I’ve been rambling for a bit now.  Let’s recap. What we’ve learned so far:

  1. Writing is hard.
  2. Writing while drunk is easy, but being a writer while drunk is hard.
  3. Getting your life together and getting serious about your art are the same thing.  They have to be.


It’s that last one I want to really focus on.  It’s my thesis, as my 7th-grade English teacher would say.  She’d probably give me a D for putting my thesis all the way down here, but she also told me that “when you know the rules perfectly, you can feel free to break them judiciously.”  So far that’s been my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

The idea that you have to suffer for your art comes in part from that splinter of truth – that when you have to work, because you have nothing else in your life but your work, then you can.  Oh, boy, can you. Inspiration is like a burning knot in your chest, all the things you never get to say, the truth of yourself that you can’t get anyone to even glance at, the staircase wit and the throttled dreams… Write them all down, obsess over them, polish them like a dorodango until they shine.  But you know – like I knew, the whole time – that you’re polishing dirt.  There’s an upper limit on how good it can be, and that limit is you.

I’m not just talking about writing, let me be clear.  For “your art,” here read “your passion,” whatever that thing may be.  Maybe you code, maybe you cook, maybe you know over 700 yo-yo tricks. Whatever the thing is that you started doing and then never wanted to stop, the thing that got ahold of you and made you think, “How can I trick someone into paying me for this?”  I first got that feeling when my granddad read The Hobbit to me in about 1992.  When we finished it, I informed him that I felt Gollum’s character had been under-served by the book, and I wanted to write a sequel to it exploring his history.  Grand didn’t spoil my ambitions with petty realities like copyright law or The Lord of the Rings.  Although we started reading Fellowship together the next summer, by that time I’d already abandoned that idea and was writing my own.

So it’s this thing.  When you’ve got nothing else in life, the thing you do.  When you’re being kind to yourself, you know you’re good at this.  When you want to kill yourself, it’s because you’re good at this, and yet… and yet.

And if you are a writer, it’s that much more romantic, this struggle.  It’s practically de rigeur, darling, you simply must become an alcoholic for a few years.  You’ll come out of it just pickled in inspiration!  And yeah, you hate yourself a little when you catch yourself swirling your limeade and rum like it’s a fine whiskey, but no one else is watching, and if you weren’t a sentimental lowlife at heart you wouldn’t be here.  Yes, I got thrown out of a writer’s group for saying this once.

But although I think we all go through this “long dark teatime of the soul” to shamelessly pilfer the phrase from someone more talented, and although writers in particular are given to lingering over it, really wallowing in the misery while slurring about solipsism (just my brainweasels, then?  Alright.), I don’t think that you “have to suffer to write.” I do think the belief that you have to suffer makes writing while suffering easier, if only because you can feel a little privately martyred while you’re doing it.

I prolonged the wallowing stage longer than most – wallowing is one of my specialities – but I don’t recommend that either.  For the longest time I was waiting, in the words of Tracey Thorn, for “something that could make it easy.” We all tell ourselves these comforting stories when we’re putting off doing what we know we have to do.

“When I get a better job, I’ll be less stressed and I’ll be able to write my magnum opus.”

“When I stop drinking, I’ll be less of a pompous twat and I’ll stop using phrases like ‘magnum opus.’”

“If we move, I’ll have room for a real desk and then I’ll be able to sit down and write properly.”

“If I can find the right depression meds that don’t make me braindead, I’ll be able to work again.”

And year after year, I chased those moving goalposts.  It took me a long time. By the time The Plan ran out at age 27, I was… still unemployed.  Still living in a studio apartment and chaining payday loans. (Don’t do this thing, please.  Google “payday loan horror stories” and don’t do this thing.) But by 30, I’d gotten the job thing handled, knocked out the drinking (mostly), had an enviable desk situation going on, and had depression meds that made all of that possible.

And I still wasn’t writing.

Yep.  One by one, you fix all the problems, until you discover that the last problem is you.  There is no magic drug. There is no perfect desk. That unfucking you had to do on your whole life?  That took you your whole life to even begin?  Now apparently you have to do that to the one thing you thought you were good at, and this is where Mega-Maid switches from SUCK to BLOW, because by the time anyone else even gets a chance to like your stuff, you’re going to hate it.

There’s a lengthy Ira Glass quote about this that I won’t restate here; you probably have an inspirational wallpaper of it in your phone just like I do.  I think he’s right that the trajectory of most creative people has a goddamn pit in it, and all of this babble is me trying to say that I fuckin’ looked, my friends, and there is no quick way out of that hole.  It sucks and it sucks and it sucks… until it doesn’t. And the day you quit is the day you prove you’ll die down there.

You have to be willing to do it for nothing for as long as it takes.  I don’t just mean for free.  No money, but also no interest, no praise, no fame, no closure, no confirmation, no validation, and no hope.  You have to sit in that hole and know that you’ll never get out of it, and still find a reason to try.

I said this to my husband while doing the unfocused ranting that often precedes a writing session, and he said, “That’s a slightly bleak way to look at it.”  I get this reaction a lot, and at a certain level I always find it mystifying. I genuinely don’t find the above bleak. Maybe I’ve spent so long in the hole that I find it homey, I don’t know, but to me it feels like a promise.  Like the promises I made to the people I loved when the windows were broken and the water got shut off and we were unemployed.

I promise I’ll be here.  I promise I’ll keep trying.  I promise I’ll stick by you until we make it out of this, until it gets better.  I promise, no matter what, I won’t quit. I won’t give up on you.

I’ve said that to a lot of people.  The vanishing few are still in my life, so that’s what our promises were worth, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I made that promise to them, and yet I’ve never made that promise to myself in reference to the one thing I know how to do.  I was willing to go down with the fucking ship, “White Flag” blasting in my headphones and all, for any one of a chain of brilliant, self-destructive young men and women, but every time it got hard to write, I looked for a way out.

So that’s why I’m here.  I want to commit to this, and to you.  This is the only way I know how to make people sit still, like I said – assuming you still are, what a hero!  If you’re still with me, I want to see you at the top of the hole, when we both get there some day. I know we’ll both be there, because we’re here now, together, ready to climb.  Right now, I want you to take your art in your hands – metaphorically, okay, work with me dammit – and cradle it like the arrogant fuckboy you promised to love forever when you were 22.  Cradle it like the woman you married, who actually did stick by you until it got better, and that’s why it got better.  Cradle your guitar, or your word processor, or your favorite compiler, and be at least as fucking good to yourself as you’ve been to everyone you’ve lost.  Promise yourself. Hell, promise me! Promise the audience that’s waiting for you to speak.

    I promise I’ll keep trying.  I promise I’ll never stop. I promise I won’t hoard what I have, even if I’m certain no one else would want it.  I promise that I don’t need money, or fame, or even hope. I promise that this, just this – the way this work feels under my hands – this will always be enough.

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