One Bite at a Time




Thursday, April 14, 2016

Sacrifices Must be Made

Few writing topics spin me up quicker than listening to an author complain about how hard writing is. How they suffer. Writing is not a hard job. It’s difficult. It’s trying at times. It may be vexing. Anyone who thinks writing is hard needs to try some manual labor for a change. I’m not talking about household projects or gardening. I’m talking about heavy lifting under difficult conditions when you don’t much feel like it and you know you can’t really quit because you need the money. To paraphrase Daniel Woodrell, some people have to work from can to can’t; writers get to work from “want to” to “don’t feel like it.” You one of those who can’t remember a time when you didn’t want to be a writer? Never wanted to do anything else? No kid dreams of growing up to be a miner. Some occupations aren’t jobs as much as they’re sentences, and options are often limited.

That said, writing’s no walk in the park. Or maybe it is. Lots of “writing” takes place away from the keyboard or notepad. Walking. Showering. I rarely play music when I drive. It’s the perfect time to let that part of my mind ramble. Maybe it will trip over a solution to a problem or suggest a whole new avenue.

I took a class in grad school called “Chamber Music Interpretations,” taught by Benjamin Zander, founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. (For those late to the party, I am not one of those who never wanted to do anything else but write; I have a Master’s Degree in Trumpet Performance and I’m not giving it back no matter how dire the Conservatory’s threats become.) Ben sat us down the first day and gave a little speech, which I will paraphrase here:

All of you have made the decision to dedicate your lives to music. This is an honorable calling, yet not without sacrifice. You already know of many of them, but here you will learn another: you can never again listen to music purely for enjoyment. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy it, but that you must listen to everything analytically. Even if you’re in an elevator and a soprano saxophone is playing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” you must listen to the phrasing and expressiveness to take what you can from it, or decide how it could have been done better.

I’ve rarely felt more amped up about anything as I was after Ben’s speech that day.

Writing’s the same way. If you are serious about being a writer—if you want others to take you seriously—you can never again read anything just for enjoyment. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy what you read; frankly, I don’t believe in reading anything you don’t enjoy on some level. I’m saying that can’t be all you do. You can choose your reading purely for its enjoyment potential, and you don’t have to—shouldn’t—read to analyze what’s on the page, but some part of your mind needs to be looking for things you can learn from. It can be anything. How the author used an action to avoid a string of dialog tags. Letting characters describe an action scene after the fact as a way to get differing points of view across, leaving the reader to wonder what really happened. Things that irritate you and you want to make a point not to do. Could be anything.


To write and expect others to devote their two most precious resources—time and money—to reading what you have written is an act of extreme ego. That’s fine. Great things don’t happen unless someone has some ego involved in getting that thing done. It’s also a responsibility. If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s more writers. Prove your worthiness. Art is not served by living in an unheated garret, writing page after page while wearing gloves with the fingers cut out, hacking up pieces of lung into a bloody handkerchief between paragraphs until you die of consumption. You have a job lots of people would trade you for in a heartbeat. Keeping your head in the game seems small sacrifice for the benefits we all accrue, regardless of how “successful” we are. If you love writing, are writing, and people read it, you’re a success. Appreciate it.

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