Why are you doing this to yourself?

Very recently, I was featured in one of Sarah Selecky’s student spotlights.  (Sarah is a Giller-nominated writer, and has been a big inspiration in my own writing.)  In the spotlight, I talk about why I write, but I wanted to expand a bit more on that here.

I am a practical, pragmatic person. I like being able to explain why I do things without people (particularly my judgemental inner-critic) looking at me like I am a crazy person.  I may make non-standard decisions, but there are reasons behind them.

Writing, on the other hand, is about the least pragmatic thing a person can do.

First of all, writing takes up a lot of time. I don’t know many people with tons of spare time just lying around, ready to be squandered. And writing is a lot of work–deceptively so. Most people think they learned to write elementary school, so the process of looking at your own writing, critiquing, trying to deciding if your character really eats cheese and if so, is he a cheddar person or more of a truffle-infused brie–well, that kind of struggle brings out the “Are you crazy?” look.  And, let’s face it, despite examples of fame and fortune, anyone who writes knows that this is the exception more than the rule.

So here you are, doing this difficult thing that takes up lots of time, and energy, which most people probably don’t value, and you get caught in crazy mental debates over the personality-implications of cheese.  Practical?  Pragmatic?  No.

Why do it?

Whether you realize it or not, you do it because you are meant to.  You keep coming back to this crazy thing that sucks up your time and your energy because something in you needs to, wants to, is compelled to–choose any verb you like–but ultimately, you are meant to do this.  You would not keep going back if you weren’t.  Whether you attach a spiritual connotation to this or not, writing is something you have to do, for yourself.

Can’t quite admit that to yourself?  That’s okay.  One thing just about every writer on earth has are doubts.  But trust me on this one–if this is something you keep going back to do, no matter how impractical, how time-consuming, how frustrating–you are meant to do this.

Once you admit that to yourself, it’s easier to make the time to write.  It’s easier, when plagued with self-doubt, to tell yourself, “Doubts, shut it.  I gotta do this, no matter what you say.”  It’s easier, when you get that crazy look, to remind yourself that you are a lucky person who knows what you are supposed to do.

Now (pragmatism again), that you are meant to do this doesn’t meant you are destined to be rich and famous and critically acclaimed.  Achieving conventional markers of success in writing are a combination of craft, persistence and luck.  But that’s okay.  You are a lucky person who knows (beneath all the self-doubt) what you are meant to do and what makes you feel most connected to your self.  That’s pretty priceless.

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Writing is my something better to do

It’s November 1st, and all across the world, thousands of writers are sitting down and frantically banging out words in search of NaNoWriMo glory.

If you are not familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is a month-long writing challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  There is a time limit and deadlines and you actually do win a PDF certificate in the end–as well as bragging rights and the ability to nonchalantly drop phrases like “yes, that’s something I explored in my first novel” into casual conversation.

I have completed NaNoWriMo, twice, which means that technically I have written 2 novels.  (There was another attempt, in between the two successful attempts, where I had to quit after 11,000 words due to a writing-related back injury.  Posture is important, people.)

The very first time was in 2004, when I was finding my way back to writing.  I’d just completed my first short story after an 8-year writing hiatus.  That story had been started two year prior, and it was short, barely 2100 words which (if you did the math) is just a little bit longer than what I would have to write every damn day if I expected to complete this NaNoWriMo thing.

So yes, I was afraid I couldn’t do it.  I was afraid that I would write junk.  I was afraid I would give up.  (What I should have been afraid of were muscle spasms in my back–posture.)  But I did it.  I lost some sleep, but I wrote nearly every day and I ended up with over 50,000 words of reasonably coherent narrative.  There was a beginning, a middle and an end.  There were characters, setting, dialogue and scene.  There was even conflict.  Yes, some of it was junk (in fact, a lot of it was junk) but some of it was actually not bad at all.  It was a wild crazy ride, but doing it, writing without fear, letting myself put down anything as long as I got words, was a trip.

I learned stuff about writing, but I also learned about what people think about writing.  You see, I was married then, and my now-ex-husband told my now-ex-mother-in-law about what I was doing, and her reaction was “Doesn’t she have anything better to do?”


I actually like my ex-mother-in-law quite a bit, she’s a strong, salt-of-the-earth soul, but clearly we never saw eye-to-eye.

At the time, I was not sure enough in myself as a writer to respond to that.  Because in a lot of ways, writing looks like an indulgence.  It’s a hobby in other people’s minds, something to do that takes up a lot of time when you could productively be working or cleaning or doing your taxes.  The rest of the world looks at you and wonders how it is that you think you have the right to waste so much time.

But today, if I were to respond to that, I’d say no, I have nothing better to do.  Writing is the thing that connects me to the world and feeds my soul.  I know in my bones I am meant to do this.  Whether I publish or am well-read or critically acclaimed may or may not be in the stars, but this is the thing that I do that helps me connect me to who I am.

I can’t think of anything better to do than that.