I recently read a fantastic book called Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. It is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote anonymously as an online agony aunt. It covers a variety of topics, but a particular letter from a writer in her 20s who felt she ought to have been more successful by now struck a chord with me. As did Strayed’s advice, which can be boiled down to the title she gave to this letter and reply: write like a motherfucker.
The problem with writerly expectations is that so much is outside your control.
Life gets in the way of writing and as Strayed says, you need to let go of your grandiose ideas in order to write well — you have to focus on your art and approach it from an attitude of humility. Many writers have a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity: we paradoxically believe that we should be accomplishing great things and that we are incapable of achieving those great things.
This mindset is not conducive to productivity. On one level, you expect to write well and on another you expect what you write to be shit. It’s no wonder so many of us procrastinate or start stories we discard before finishing!
There also seems to be a process of gaining life experience and trying to make sense of life before many writers are able to complete their first substantial piece of work. This process might take a couple of years or a couple of decades, depending on the writer. The consolation is that things somehow work out:
“I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person.” — Cheryl Strayed
All you can do is concentrate on the writing — nothing else is guaranteed.
As a writer, you hope that your work will be published and affect people’s lives. You hope it will earn you money. You hope people — especially people you admire — will like your writing. You may have bigger dreams — winning prizes and/or becoming a bestseller.
But what if this doesn’t happen? Is your writing enough for you?
Let’s be blunt: most writers fail to achieve the big goals like winning the Man Booker prize or selling over a million copies of their novel. There are many examples of writers who were hailed as geniuses only after their deaths. If you knew you would never be published, would you still write?
My answer is yes. I’m a writer. It’s a calling and part of my identity. I still hope for success, of course — I’m human! — but my writing is more important to me than the potential rewards it could bring.
The only thing you can do is what Strayed advises — get down in the dirt and write so well that it transcends everything else. She says:
“Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it to yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.”
I recommend you buy Tiny Beautiful Things for this column alone. Strayed’s advice on writing is fantastic and I would love for her to write a book focusing on writing. However, the rest of it is amazing, too. Go read it now!