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Some rambly thoughts on treating writing like any other job and the American work ethic

Posted by Shannon Haddock on November 16, 2015 in Rants, Writing process |

WARNING:  I get political in this one.  I’m not willing to argue politics, so if you’re of the opinion that the American work ethic is obviously the best thing in the universe, just stop reading here and save us both a headache, please?  Also, I’m not willing to debate the existence of talent, or the role luck played in the success of J. K. Rowling or any other famous author.

There are two commonly given bits of writing advice that are directly contradictory:

  1. You have to treat writing like any other job and put in your x hours/y words a day.  (X is usually 8 and y, 2000, I’ve noticed.)
  2. You have to accept you’re unlikely to ever be able to quit your day job and write full time and squeeze writing in when you can, even if it’s just five minutes a day.

First, contradictions like this amuse the hell out of me by proving very well why no writing advice should be given as absolutes.  Second, I realized just how fucking much is wrong with the first of those.

Writing — and when I use writing herein I mean the sort that goes into creating works of fiction; I am well aware there are other forms of writing, but it would be awkward to state “creative writing of fiction” every fucking time, okay? — isn’t like a normal, eight hours a day, five days a week, job.  If my wife is having one of those days where your brain just won’t fully engage at her day job, yeah, her performance suffers, but she can still do her job.  If she’s having one of those when she tries to write, nothing is going to happen.  Yeah, yeah, I know:  Writer’s block is always laziness and all that bullshit.  No.  I don’t believe in the quasi-mystical “the Muse isn’t visiting today” sort I see so many wannabe authors talking about, but not being able to write because your brain has put up an “Out Of Order” sign?  That’s a real thing that happens.  (Patrick Rothfuss had some interesting things to say about this and the statistical likelihood of writers having mood disorders here.  Sorry I can’t remember where exactly.  And that is the right video, despite what the title is.  Somebody goofed.)  Along those same lines, I read a blogpost recently — can’t find it right now, unfortunately — that said something like “No one tells an artist they have to paint/draw/sculpt every single day or their not serious about their craft; yet people say that to authors all the time.”  Why do people treating writing differently than any other art?

I, honestly, think that comes from things like NaNoWriMo and other things and people that encourage the “Anyone can be a novelist!” idea.  There’s nothing out there claiming that even I, who can’t draw a decent stick figure, could be the next Andy Warhol, yet I see things all the time claiming that — so long as a person sits down and puts in their x hours/y words a day — they could be the next Stephen King or J. K. Rowling.  So the question remains, what’s the difference?

There shouldn’t be one.  All arts should be treated the same.  Why isn’t writing?  I think it’s for a variety of reasons:

  1. It’s too easy to conflate writing — the putting of words on paper, with creative writing — the putting of words on paper in a way which tells a story
  2. Rowling started out a poor, single parent and now is a millionaire.  We want to believe that we can reach her level of success, despite the fact that rags-to-riches stories have always been the exception instead of the norm.
  3. Related to #2, we want to believe she had to work her ass off for her success, because otherwise the whole American (or Protestant or Calvinist, whatever you want to call it) work ethic gets called into question.  Luck and talent can’t possibly have been factors, in fact they can’t even exist!
  4. We have a cultural obsession with quantifying things.

I’m going to pull the third point out and expand on it.  The American work ethic, as I’m using the term here, refers to the idea that hard work is the only path to success — success here generally equalling “having tons of money and stuff”, and that therefore it’s admirable to always be working as hard as you can, at the expense of such silly things as family life and happiness.   Yes, I am saying that the American work ethic is inherently the same thing as being a workaholic.  By the standards of most of the world, Americans are all workaholics.  See point 2 on this page.  And I’m including myself in this.  I feel terribly guilty when I go too long without writing, even when I know I couldn’t have been writing.  Why?  Because it’s my job, so I’m supposed to put in 8 hours a day, 5 days a week at the absolute minimum, or I’m utterly failing at being an adult.  I know this is total bullshit, but the idea is that fucking pervasive in our culture!  So of course Rowling, King, GRRM, etc. have to have slaved away for hour after tedious hour, day after day, year after year, before they reached where they are now.

Now, to some extent that’s probably true.  I’ve said before, and I’ll never stop saying, that generally the first thing you write shouldn’t be published.  But luck is a factor in what succeeds and what doesn’t.  Remember, Rowling was rejected by lots of publishers because she was writing in a dead genre — the boarding school adventure thing.  Then the first book only got a very limited release.  Luck got it noticed by the right people to win an award and from there it spread.  Yes, if it hadn’t been good in the first place this wouldn’t have happened.  I’m not saying luck is the only factor in success, I’m just saying that denying it is factor is fucking stupid.

Tied up in the work ethic stupidity, is the idea that you shouldn’t be enjoying the act of writing.  Guys, if you aren’t enjoying it more often than not, quit doing it.  Writing doesn’t pay well enough, unless you get stupendously lucky, to do it if you’re not enjoying it.  Yeah, there are always bits you’ll just have to stubborn your way through, but if the whole book is that way?  Find something else to do and quit making yourself miserable.  I know, I know, lots of you want to have written a book.  You want that marked off your “bucket list”.  Here’s the thing:  it’s not that fucking cool a thing to have done.  It means you strung word after word into something that tells a story, that’s all.  If that’s really fucking hard for you to do, then let it go.  Though if you could explain to me why our non-reading culture places so much praiseworthiness on having written a book, please do.

(For more on the work ethic thing, I highly recommend the article I linked to earlier.)

As for talent, all I’ve got to say is that I do believe it exists, but I don’t believe it’s the only factor in whether or not an author — or any sort of artist for that matter — is any good.

Now I’m going to tackle point 4, which is actually what I thought most of this post would be about when I started writing it.  It’s always confused me how anyone thinks you can quantify the amount of time a writer spends writing.  I mean, engaged in the actual putting down words bit, sure.  But writing is ever so much more than that!  And being a professional author certainly is!

Look at my day, for instance:

I woke up with fragments of two different dreams still in my head that might have made interesting stories.  One was like Pitch Perfect crossed with Bring It On and started with an attempted murder.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t recall enough of it to say more than that so I quickly dismissed it as something worth trying to turn into a story.  The other had a really neat cultural element in the group of elves it was about though it had no plot, so I did jot down some notes about it and am trying to figure out what to do with that element. Does this mean that the amount of time I spent having those dreams counts towards working hours today?  The time I spent writing the notes down?  What about the time I spent trying to recall more of the first dream?

I favorited some things said by some of my favorite authors on Twitter.  Some count this as networking that is essential for “growing my brand.”  So does it count as time spent working, even though I’d be following the same people even if I weren’t a writer myself (and even though two of the tweets I favorited were kitten pictures)?

I randomly started pondering the two statements at the beginning of this post while making a cup of tea.  Does the time I spent pondering them count as time spent working today, since it led to a blogpost and keeping this blog is, supposedly, a professional activity?  (Even though apparently lots of agents and publishers are starting to say “Yeah, we were wrong.  Social media presence and blogs aren’t as important for getting readers as we’ve been saying for the past few years.  Keep one if you want, but it’s not a crucial bit of our marketing plan any more.”  Hence me being less concerned about being professional here than I used to be, hence being more political.)

I’ve spent about three hours writing this post, interspersed with reading more of that article I linked to.  Since, as I said above, this blog is supposedly a part of my marketing plan, do those three hours count as hours spent working?

After dinner, I probably am going to spend some time revising the next chapter of No More Lies. Not because I need to.  I did as much revising yesterday as usually takes me two days, so I’m a bit ahead this week.  But I want to.  I like the next bit, and I’m getting tired of having the damned book hanging over my head, distracting me from other things I want to work on, so I’m trying to get a chapter a day done so I can be done with this draft and let it sit for a few months while I concentrate on something else.  This is the only bit of my day that inarguably counts as working.

I might work some more on the megadungeon I’ve been making with the random charts in the back of the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide tonight, which was supposed to be just something I was doing to stave off boredom one recent rainy day but has, of course because I’m me, begun to grown into a whole fantasy setting.  I’ve been considering setting my fantasy travelogue idea in this setting, so does time spent rolling random room sizes and wondering what Gary Gygax was smoking and why no one took his goddamned thesaurus away count as time spent working?

Well, I’m done rambling now.  I’m not sure this actually makes any sense, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got some good and/or interesting points interspersed with my babbling, so I’m posting it any way.

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