13 Myths About the Writing Life
1. If you write mysteries, especially whodunits involving murder, then you will somehow become embroiled in all kinds of scintillating local mysteries, and will become an expert police consultant. I blame Hollywood for this myth—Castle, anyone? (Love that show, by the way.) Or cast back a little further to Murder, She Wrote . . . I have a secret theory: Jessica Fletcher is the ultimate serial killer and con artist, and she herself committed all the murders she supposedly solved. There’s just no way one sweet little old writer lady could witness that many murders—I mean, come on, she lived in a teeny little town in Maine! How could she always just “happen” to be around when all those poor people got killed? Coincidence? I think not.
2. Writers get to go hole up in beautiful, secluded resorts with stunning vistas while they pen their masterpieces. Um, maybe this is true for a lucky few (except that poor writer in Misery, for whom the secluded resort was a horrible idea), but most of the writers I know are scrambling to find ten free minutes, and we’ll take them anywhere we can get them. I’ve been known to scribble on scraps of paper in the bathroom in the middle of the night, to be sure I don’t forget an idea before morning. Most of us are on a first-name basis with the baristas at our local coffee shops—my children think I work at Starbucks! And day in and day out, most of us end up sneaking time on the laptop at the kitchen table—we sit down, tune out the shouts of the children, and ignore the damp Cheerios as they crust over and glue themselves to the table, and our story whisks us away, wherever we’d like to go.
3. Writer’s block. Do writers occasionally get stuck during the writing process? Sure. Do we sometimes need to take breaks from our stories? Of course. Do some stories turn out to be dead ends—at least for a while? Yep. But I’ve found that “writer’s block” is an exaggerated, borderline mythical phenomenon that makes writing sound more agonizing than it actually is. It’s like, if a writer claims, “I haven’t slept in days; I’ve stopped paying my bills; I’ve behaved like an ogre toward my family and friends,” and their friend asks why, as long as the writer answers, “Writer’s block,” the friend’s eyes will widen in sympathy and all will be forgiven. (But having said that, I still reserve the right to claim a whopping case of writer’s block, should I ever need a romantic-sounding excuse for why I’m not writing, or why I’m stomping around in a horrible mood.)
4. Writing is miserable. I think we writers, being the dramatic type, sometimes enjoy making our work sound torturous and darn-near impossible—perhaps because we have so little to show for the countless hours we labor at our beloved projects, and we want people to admire and appreciate our efforts. But for me, writing is my happy place. If I don’t write, then I’m miserable. Writing is an escape, a thrill, a joy—the thing I’d rather be doing than anything else in the world. And I think most writers—at least most writers who stick with this crazy career long-term—would give that a hearty “amen.”
5. Writers are angsty. Okay this one is kind of true, but not always. But I prefer the words “ponderous,” “sensitive,” “insightful,” “creative,” “artistic,” “talented,” and “soulish,” thank you very much. Many of us are drawn to writing because we are captivated by people, by the difficulties and intricacies of relationships, the deep questions of life . . . and so we experience life in neon, where others may see only primary colors. But does that mean we’re all self-absorbed drama queens? Only when we have writer’s block.
6. Writers are emotionally fragile people. Most writers I know exhibit a fascinating dichotomy: They have extra strings on their sensitive emotional guitar, and this helps them to experience chords of emotional nuance that others may miss—and yet they’re tough. It takes courage to write about real life without glossing it over. It takes even more courage to write the truth about yourself, and lay it out there for the world to see—even in fictional form. And if all that doesn’t do the trick, the competitive nature of the writing industry makes us resilient and forces us to develop thick skin—although when we get those lovely rejection letters and bad reviews, we reserve the right to cry and throw the angstiest of fits. But you know we can’t help but crawl back to the computer a few days later . . .
7. The writing life is glamorous. This one’s actually true—of course we writers lead the coolest lives on the planet. I mean, what do Brangelina and their 18 kids have on me and Mr. Tall Dark & Handsome and our adorable 3.5 children and dog and snail, I ask you? I mean, I sometimes wear sunglasses and black clothes and no makeup, too. Where’s my paparazzi?
Okay but seriously: Again I blame the movies here—and not just for the existence of Brangelina. Movies offer us this iconic stereotype of writers, hanging out in Manhattan in their cliques of well-dressed writer friends, imbibing liquids that children’s writers should not publicly admit to imbibing, and hobnobbing with intellectuals who bluster with large vocabulary words about such elusive concepts as existentialism and postmodernism. I’m sure there are such writers, but they’re the minority.
Mostly, we work like crazy on our books as we juggle family life and several other jobs—not exactly a glitzy lifestyle. And when my beloved writer’s group gets together, we hang out in our little coffee shop and critique each other’s chapters, in between admiring pictures of children and grandchildren. And yet somehow . . . it’s glorious.
8. Writers are rich. Ha! HahahaHA! I mean, some of us—I should say them—are, but most of us don’t write The Hunger Games or Twilight. Many of us work for years without seeing a paycheck. And here I have to give an enormous shout-out to all the husbands and wives and parents and friends and babysitters who support us in our pursuit of our writing—who choose to see it as an investment, not a money pit—because they believe in our talent and embrace the insanity of our dream, and give us the time and freedom to pursue, not just what we love, but who we are, whether we ever get paid or not. They understand that if we don’t do this, we shrivel up and die—so who cares if we ever make a dime? (Although a few million dimes in the bank would be nice.)
9. Writers naturally excel at grammar. I’m a total grammar geek myself, and yet I have to acknowledge that on some level—that’s what editors are for! Some writers easily “get” grammar, but others, for whom grammar is a challenge, are great storytellers—and they should still tell their stories! (The editor in me can’t help belaboring the obvious: Every writer should work to improve in the technical aspects of our craft, and should always submit manuscripts that are as clean and polished as possible. Duh.) I heard Henry Winkler (a.k.a. the Fonz, of Happy Days fame) speak at a conference this January, and he shared that because he has dyslexia, he never thought he could be a writer. But write he has! He’s written (in collaboration with coauthor Lin Oliver) seventeen novels about a dyslexic hero named Hank Zipzer. How great is that? But let me finish this point by saying this: Every writer needs an editor, no matter how grammar-savvy you are. If you’re going the self-publishing route, please hire a great editor to help you produce a professional product.
10. Writers can only write when they’re inspired. We all love those “aha” moments when our creative Spidey Senses are tingling—for me, these hyper moments usually happen when I have significant amounts of caffeine zinging through my veins, so I suspect that they may be deceiving me with a coffee-fabricated, imaginary sense of brilliance and creativity—but if you want to be a writer who actually finishes a project, you’ve got to learn to discipline your creativity. I learned this about a week after I started writing The Thirteenth Summer, when the initial rush of inspiration had worn off, and I realized it was time to buckle down and write the whole book . . . and it was going to take a long time. When you sit down and start to write—something, anything, no matter how awful you think it is—if you do it enough times, day after day, the creativity starts to come when you call it. You may not feel inspired, but once you start putting some words on the page . . . they’re usually not as bad as you think.
11. “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is merely coincidental . . . ” You know this disclaimer at the beginning of books? Yeah, that’s a bunch of legal baloney. (But if a lawyer asks you, you didn’t hear it from me. My blog was hacked.) Of course writers watch people and incorporate their personalities and traits into our characters. But actually, most of our characters are an amalgam of our own selves and many different people we know—so they’re not direct representations of a single individual.
12. Writers sit down, and out pops poetry. Every once in a while, you write a zinger of a line the first go-round, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Comparing your first drafts—or even second or third drafts—to polished, published work is just not fair. First drafts are just that: first drafts. Practice words. A way to get the story out and get to know the characters. Most of us don’t get a beautiful line until we’ve wrestled with it for a while. Revision is where the magic happens.
13. Writing is a solo sport. One of my favorite things about writing is the community: the way we all work together to advise, inspire, and even commiserate with each other. Writers are team players—especially children’s writers. We share ideas, tips, advice. Some of the most generous-spirited people I’ve ever met are seasoned writers who gladly share their wisdom and experience with new writers—or who give newbies a pick-me-up when self-doubt starts taking over. I have to close with a big shout-out to my favorite fellow writers: my writer’s group, which has stuck with me even after I’ve moved—Emma, Gail, Muriel, and Susan; and to my first and forever writing companion, who taught me to love language in the first place—my dad. Thanks for making my writing life a joy.
Elizabeth works from home as a writer, editor, diaper changer, baby snuggler, laundry slayer, not-so-gourmet chef, kid chauffeur, floor mopper, dog groomer, and tantrum tamer. She is always tired, but it's mostly the good kind.