Advice for academics about writing and getting published
By Rachel ToorThe Chronicle for Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, October 30, 2007
I do not like people who say they like to write.
Once I asked a friend who is a novelist — an irritatingly good novelist, a prize-winning novelist — when he worked. He said, “I write when I feel like it,” but before I could bond with him in slackerhood, he added, with a grin that made me want to smush his handsome face into the well-manicured lawn of his huge Victorian house where his lovely children play and his beautiful wife hangs out, “And I almost always feel like it.”
From another friend I heard a comment made by a novelist we both know, who was working on her second book. She said that each day she sits at her desk and channels her main character; hours later, she notices that she has written pages and pages. I’m glad that remark came to me secondhand. Had I heard her say that in person, my response would have been less than pleasant.
A good friend of mine, a graduate student in history, made the mistake of interrupting me on one of the myriad occasions when I was ranting about the hard work of writing. “No,” he said. “Laying bricks is hard work. Digging post-holes is hard work. Writing is not.” He would have been OK — maybe — if he had left it at that, but he didn’t. He went on to allow as how he enjoyed writing and didn’t find it all that taxing.
My hackles rose. I reminded him that I had read a lot of his writing. I reminded him of some of my more pointed comments about his writing. And then I whipped out Samuel Johnson: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
Maybe novelists can go into some kind of fugue state while they’re writing and it’s enjoyable. They do tend to say weird things like, “I really like this character” or, “I can’t wait to see what happens,” as if their agency — their authorship, their authority — has somehow been shunted aside. Maybe it has. If that ever happened to me as a writer, maybe it would even be fun.
So I’ll forget about my friends in fiction and say this: Writing nonfiction is not fun. It’s work. Hard work.
Those who are excellent at what they do — whether it’s writing, bull riding, or figure skating — make it look not only easy, but effortless. It’s when the labor starts to show, you are reminded how difficult it is.
Each time I’m in the throes of writing a book, I realize that I have somehow forgotten how exhausting it is, how much it hurts. After writing for a couple of hours, I have to go lie down, wrist thrown across an aching forehead. It helps only a little to remember that I am not alone, to think of George Orwell’s comment that “writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”
It’s not only doing the work that’s hard, it’s also the recognition that you never quite know when it’s over. Once you get through the labor of creation, there’s the torture of revision. You can revise for months. For years. You can convince yourself that, unlike a Thanksgiving turkey, it’s never going to be done. In a way, having deadlines, while adding cuticle-chewing stress, can be a boon.
I will allow that there may be people who like various aspects of the writing process. For some, it may be the excitement of facing a blank page. (Hate them!) For others, it could be a sense of getting a sentence just right. (Jerks!) There may be those who like the revision process, who can go over what they’ve produced with a cold eye and a keen ear and feel a satisfaction in making it better. (Liars!)
Dorothy Parker said, “It’s better to have written than to write.” Amen, sister. Unless you are called on to read what you have published. Then you have to go through the printed book, with its tight little lines, and edit every sentence before you can bear to hear yourself pronounce any of it aloud.
Those who don’t approach the blank page (or document) with the same fear and trembling as climbing aboard a ton of angry animal are, I think, about as bright as bull riders who have landed on their heads too many times.
It’s a daunting thing — to believe that you have something to say (that others will want to hear); to convey information in a way that is pellucid and intriguing; to find the mot juste, to avoid the tired and the clichéd; to create scaffolding to support the ideas you are juggling; and then to have the confidence to put it out there in the world, where it will surely be picked apart, kicked around, and perhaps even trampled.
While there are no shortcuts, there may be ways to make the whole affair less hellish.
Routine helps. Knowing that you have to do it, every day, at the same time in the same place (and if you’re me, with the same breakfast in front of you) for some number of hours makes writing a normal part of the day, just another chore like mucking the Augean stables or training Cerebrus to fetch.
Knowing the limits of your own productivity helps. I have about three hours of writing time in me. After that, there’s a lot of Internet surfing, Spider Solitaire playing, and staring off into space. At that point, it’s useless to keep sitting in front of a screen. Hemingway said it’s best to write in the morning and then not think about it for the rest of the day; to let the subconscious go to work. He also said that he always stopped at a point when he knew where he had to go next; it made it easier to start again the following day.
But no matter what tricks you find to make writing less onerous, it will still be hard work. If it’s not, then you’re asking the reader to fill in your gaps, to glide over your flaws. Readers don’t like to do that. I know I don’t.
If you love to write — if you think it’s a joy to express yourself on the page, if you are transported by the muse — bully for you. But give me wide berth. And please, don’t ask me to read your “work.”
This past summer I ran a 50K race in the (big, rocky) mountains just south of Helena, Mont. The whole state had been on fire for some time and the air was filled with acrid smoke. The course had thousands of feet of elevation change. There were points when you felt dizzy from a lack of oxygen; there were no flat parts. It was in August — hot. I led the women’s race for five hours and then, somehow, missed a turn. I ended up going up, way up, and then down, and finishing off course, out of water, out of food, having run more than 35 miles without even getting an official completion. It was hard.
But it was not as hard as writing this column.