On moments of doubt, again…
This post slightly revisits something we explored a few months ago, I think - namely the question of how and why to keep writing - but since it’s kind of a perennial question, I thought I’d take another shot at it, from a different angle, especially since I find myself at that “take a breath, then plunge on(?)” moment myself, after this tour.
Also, I loved the sweetness of the question.
In what follows, which I’m offering with the permission of the questioner (who wrote to me at my campus address), I’ve redacted his name and the name of his friend:
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Dear George Saunders,
I hope you are doing well as your tour for Liberation Day ends, and the holiday season approaches.
I write to you on behalf of my best friend, who I bonded with over your work. I'm hopeful that you could provide him with some words of encouragement or advice if you have the energy and time.
Since graduating, both of us have kept writing, but as I am sure you know, writing is hard, and we have both found that difficulty compounded as quote-unquote adults with full-time jobs, wives, girlfriends, roommates, car payments, and insurance claims.
Life, the world, and especially his job have been eroding my friend’s confidence and belief in his writing. I don’t think he’ll ever stop writing—he is a writer—but I worry he’ll stop trying; hopefully, that distinction makes sense.
I was wondering if you might have some words of encouragement on how and why to continue writing stories in this world, at this moment, as a working adult being ground down by a job you don’t like; advice on how to write while tragedies and labor and the papercuts of life wear on you. We talk about it sometimes, but I have run out of words that aren’t too trite to be meaningful.
He writes scythe-sharp dialogue, has a wonderful writing voice, has a remarkably intuitive sense of story and a tender empathy for his characters, and I know, just know, he has something invaluable to say with his writing. He’s also the best friend any human could ask for. Just this May he was the best man at my wedding and delivered the most beautiful toast I have ever heard. I am always trying to be worthy of his friendship.
I am sure you are constantly being asked for words. If you have any to spare, I know they would mean very, very much to him.
Well, if I were trying to persuade your friend of the value of his writing, I'd just hand over a copy of that beautiful, heartfelt email you sent me. Also, how wonderful to share a friendship like the one it seems you two have.
It’s always hard to give advice to someone you don't know although, as you'll soon see, that never stops me. :)
First, let me say that it's not necessary that everyone keep writing or be a writer; whatever wonderful qualities - of feeling, of expression, of awareness - a person has, these will find a home that is not writing, if, in fact, that person stops writing. This I know for sure. We tend to think of it as a concession or defeat if someone who has once declared himself a writer stops writing, but I know that I once declared myself a budding professional baseball player and, when that didn't work out (ha ha) I took all of that enthusiasm for life and all of that potential energy and...used it, as of course one would. In my case, it went, eventually, toward writing.
So, a person has admirable qualities, considers using these to make some writing, or "to become a writer" but there are other qualities that being a writer requires and maybe the person doesn't quite have those - an instinct for, say, how to express themselves in a "publishable" way, for example. But that doesn't at all effect or negate or lessen the reality of those positive qualities - he is just going to go off and find a more natural container for them, we might say.
So, these positive qualities your friend has will find a way to continue to be expressed no matter what. I guess that's what I'm saying.
And this is no longer said much, but I used to always hear this from mentors: "If a person can quit writing, he should." This just means that, given how hard it is and how slim the likelihood of doing something that will get one a life in writing, if a person isn't compelled to do it, etc..... (But this maxim also neglects the fact that even to write for oneself is a deep and rewarding thing to do, and publishing and so on can be intelligently regarded as a sort of "nice if it happens, but not essential" kind of thing.)
But here we are, making life decision for your friend when, really (as I re-read your note) all that’s happening is a lull, or a little decline in enthusiasm, or, you know, a sort of flat period - and who doesn’t have those?
When I’m trying to reboot my stance as a writer and recall myself to my full enthusiasm for it (I am doing this right now, in fact) I will take some defiant time off and wait for the well to fill. That is, I quiet down and see where the fun and the desire and the love for life is. I try to read outside of my comfort zone. I wait for a sign, and, for me, the sign comes in the form of....well, eagerness….a sense of impending fun and challenge that I want to move toward.
The point of this waiting/reboot is to say to myself, "OK, look: writing takes a lot of time and energy and draws you away from other things, good things, in life, that could benefit from your attention. Let's make sure we WANT to do this and are not just feeling compelled to do it, or doing it out of habit."
I remember very well almost quitting, back when our kids were small and nothing much was happening for me - or maybe, more precisely, I was trying to think about quitting - considered going all-in on music, even considered trying to host a radio show - I was just looking for some power, any power, in the world. But in the end, writing was all I wanted and was what I believed in the most.
It sounds like your friend has some real talent. But better to think of it this way, as you did in your note: he has something of value to offer the world - a gift to bring to it that, if fully realized, will tangibly alter some lives for the better. I like to think of writing that way because it takes the selfishness and desperation out of it. "Can I help?" feels more workable than "Can I win?" (Although the latter feeling is also present in me, all the time, and should be, I think - just given my particular disposition and way of proceeding.)
Anyway, not sure if any of this is helpful.
One final thought: I found it useful, when I was in those pre-publication, low-available-time phase, to think: 1) productivity is not necessarily in a linear relationship with time spent. (The stress of a busy life will sometimes take you right to some kind of truth and urgency in your work that might be accomplished in, even, ten quick minutes of writing.) So, shortage of time doesn’t necessarily mean impossibility of progress. 2) Even if you're not actively writing because you are too busy, you are still a writer, because of the way you regard the world - with curiosity and interest and some sort of love. No need, then, to declare that one is or is not a writer. You just are, because of how you think.
Above all, I think a sense of humor about the resistance you’re encountering is important (whether that resistance is coming from the work itself or the insistent, indifferent world); kind of like, “Huh, so this obstruction is happening now. Interesting, Well, nothing lasts forever, including obstructions. I guess this obstruction is going to be part of my, uh, journey - part of what I hope will someday be a happy, even triumphal, story of a victory of sorts (and this is true even if that victory includes deciding not to be a writer.”
Please give my best to your friend and, of course, encourage him to write to me if he wants to. You are a very good friend.
A reminder that on Sunday, behind the paywall, we’re going to be working on Chekhov’s wonderful “Lady with the Dog.” Join us over there, by subscribing, to find out what all the fuss is about.
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