by Wendy Keller
A new client made an off-handed comment today. She wondered why almost every writer gets strong urges not to write. "Suddenly, the plants need watering, the dog needs petting, the laundry needs folding at that very moment." She laughed sheepishly. "I find in the moments that fall into my lap and announce they could be used for writing, I am suddenly possessed by an irresistible urge desire to clean closets, skim the internet for some obscure fact, or finally finish reading that book I started last month. It's worse than craving chocolate, and just as narcotic!"
Writers have it tough. The very thing we most want to do, we don't do. My ex-husband, who was a journalist at the time, dragged home a snippet of a quote. "No one likes writing, but everyone likes having written." I am not sure to whom attribution belongs, but I'd wager it's a professional writer. I am disinclined to write unless there's a deadline looming. Perhaps this is why so few authors actually get published. Finishing a proposal or the first draft of a fiction work is usually a self-imposed deadline.
I used to think it was the fear of criticism or rejection that kept most writers from writing. But now having been a writer all my life, and working with thousands of them as an agent, I think that is just the tip of the, well, the tip of the pool cue, to avoid a cliché. My dad, an old pool shark legendary only in his own mind, remembers people who were nervous about taking the shot who endlessly chalked their cue stick. It's the same with us, isn't it? We fuss and distract and whine that we don't have time or the right circumstances to write. As for me, if I'm not alone in a cabin in Big Bear with a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies (or in a pinch, oatmeal raisin), in front of the fieldstone fireplace with snow falling outside, in my favorite faux leopard skin slippers, how could I possibly be expected to turn out prose of any value? Quite simply, I cannot write unless conditions are perfect. That's what I tell myself. That's what my writers tell me.
The question in my mind is always "Why don't writers just force themselves to do it?" I gave a seminar some years ago, when I was naïve. I taught a class to eight professional speakers. I charged exorbitant rates to force them through a proposal creation process in just three days. They were limp when we finished. I sent them home edited and complete, with only one sample chapter to finish. Six of them had had sample chapters coming into the event - we'd edited them on site. All they had to do was incorporate those edits! Five years later, I have yet to get a completed proposal from any of them. What's worse is that I happen to know that no other agent or publisher has seen their work either in all this time!
Upon deep introspection and a cup of peppermint tea, I have determined once and for all that the reason writers don't write is because we simply know that language cannot begin to convey accurately the words in our hearts, minds and spirits. Like the Inuit who allegedly have hundreds of words to describe snow, or the ancient Greeks who had six words for love, we are immediately restrained by our limited language skills. The first words we type will instantly disappoint us, because they cannot perfectly convey straight into the heart and mind of another the precise message we wish to send.
And this is utter failure. And complete success. It is failure in all the obvious ways, but the way it is success is valuable to consider. For in our failure to direct our message perfectly, we leave it flayed open, exposed to any reader's interpretation. Each reader sees in the work precisely what he or she needs to take from it. They get what they wanted to get, nothing more or less. The critic who dices a book gets another paycheck next month for being pithy and curt. The reader who skims only the first few chapters and carries away a wholly different message from that intended needs that skewed message to verify his or her own opinion, pro or con. If fifty people read our work, there will be fifty interpretations of the same work.
We should have learned this in college English classes, for therein is the beauty of the craft and the release from the "Writer's Procrastination" malaise. Each person sees something different in the book, even the author upon rereading it later. We are perfectly met by words, because the words mean something different to each of us. Themselves, they are merely symbols for meanings, and meanings are wholly subjective. In California, the yellow stoplight means "hurry up!" In Chicago, it means, "slow down!" The words we see come to us in their own stark beauty, they adhere to our own vision of what we want and need from the text we are consuming.
When you next set fingertips to keyboard, or quill to parchment, remember that your efforts to convey a distinct message are only and sublimely your efforts. A whole world of possible interpretations exists behind each phrase you turn, each word picture you sketch. Resolve to allow all who choose to indulge in your writing take what they prefer, like a bountiful banquet table. Then you are liberated to write what is true and has meaning for you, what is real, in the best language you are capable of using. With clarity, logic and precision, you are freed to let the words flow onto the page. Those who take them up will see your work only from their own myopia. Your job is complete when the words have been spent and they lie there, self-satisfied and heaving on the page.
(c) 2007, Keller Media, Inc.
About the Author: Wendy Keller is Senior Agent at Keller Media, Inc. She's been selling books for other writers since 1989 and meanwhile has had 29 of her own books published under 8 pseudonyms. To get her and her staff on your side, go to http://www.KellerMedia.com.