Saturday, March 8, 2008

Alone at the Keyboard

Writing is like birth and death—you do it alone. Much as we writers try and make it a social activity—through blogs, conferences, retreats, electronic mailing lists, phone friends, and low-residency MFA programs—the work itself is a solitary business. When it gets down and dirty, it’s just you and your keyboard (or legal pad, or voice-activated tape recorder, or whatever.)

It’s not that we don’t have help. Depending on where you are with the process, you may have writing buddies, spouses, and friends offering encouragement, solace, and redirection. You may have a spouse or partner supplying financial and emotional support. You may have critique groups, assistants, agents and editors helping you shape your prose into something publishable. Just remember--no prose, no publication.

It’s easy to get distracted. When I attend writing conferences, I’m often struck by the lack of focus on craft. There are endless sessions on how to write a query letter, how to choose an agent, plan a career, publicize your book, and minimize taxes. The assumption is, we already know how to write—it’s all about packaging. I had one rather intense unpublished writer lecture me at length on how no publisher would ever look at my manuscript because it was formatted in Times New Roman and not Courier.

There is no license to write, so we all qualify. We confuse the mechanics we learned in school with the mysterious, arduous, threatening, magical process of writing a book that someone else will want to read. As Red Smith said, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” How much easier it is to attend another class or writing conference.

It’s possible to stay very, very busy with peripherals without actually doing any writing. You can hang out with writers, teach writing, and chair the social committee for the writing conference—but none of that makes you a writer.

Remember--nothing happens—and nothing is gonna happen until you write something. As Jane Yolen says, “Butt in chair.” Sooner or later you’re going to have to write the damn book.

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