Everyone asks me what it takes to be a writer. Well, not everyone, since in fact most people don’t care about us writers. Or at least, they mistake the labors of writing for unemployment. Whenever something has to get done in my building, someone will email me saying: You’re at home, you don’t work, can you deal with this? I generally say no. Because the secret to being a writer is…writing. Writing and revising, which are the essence of discipline.
Can’t sit in the chair eight hours a day? Then this probably isn’t the life for you. Delmore Schwartz wrote “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” in one weekend. Harold Brodkey claims to have written “The State of Grace” in thirty-six hours. But these are anomalous experiences of prose writing that mistakenly suggest writing is magic, writing is fast, writing is easy. I am reminded of Thomas Mann in this context, who once said that “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Our standards are higher; we expect more. And we also work at it more. First drafts can often be pumped out with some ease and speed. But first drafts are usually awful. The trick is learning how to outlast your worst ideas until the good ones start to make their way onto the page. The trick is always to demand more and never to settle.
What’s needed for this work is a healthy ego and an even healthier capacity for self-disgust. Ego gets you writing; self-disgust makes you revise. It’s a delicate relationship that needs to be protected, lest you are steeped in one more than the other. Which is all to say: Writing is a complicated business! But also incredibly fun. As the old saw goes: If you’re having fun while you work, you will never have worked a day in your life. So that’s what I tell my students: Go enjoy yourself. Put in the time, but have fun doing it. Excoriate yourself for writing poorly. Lash out at the gods. Drown in your own self-loathing. Then get up with a smile the next day and do it all over again. There really is nothing better.