Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat

A Reading Note

Ethan Marcotte writes about the need for shitty first drafts, referencing Anne Lamott’s excellent Bird by Bird. Which reminded me of this passage from another great (and in some ways very different) book on writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing:

Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Your other jobs include fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.
If this is the case—making, fixing, killing, arranging—how can your writing possibly flow?
It can’t.

Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.

A writer may write painstakingly.
Assembling the work slowly, like a mosaic,
Fitting and refitting sentences and paragraphs over the years.
And yet to the reader the writing may seem to flow.

The reader’s experience with your prose has nothing to do with how hard or easy it was for you to make.
You’re not writing for the reader in the mirror whose psychological state reflects your own.
You have only your own working world to consider.
The reader reads in another world entirely.

So why not give up on the idea of “flow” and accept the basic truth about writing?

It’s hard work, and it’s been hard work for everyone all along.
There’s good reason to believe this, apart from the fact that it’s true.
If you think that writing—the act of composition—should flow, and it doesn’t, what are you likely to feel?
Obstructed, defeated, inadequate, blocked, perhaps even stupid.
The idea of writer’s block, in its ordinary sense,
Exists largely because of the notion that writing should flow.

But if you accept that writing is hard work,
And that’s what it feels like when you’re writing,
Then everything is as it should be.
Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat.
It’s a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, page 67

As with a lot of writing about writing, I think this advice is just as applicable to other creative pursuits. It also neatly explicates a related truth: that the stories we tell ourselves about our work can make the difference between whether we see that work as useful or not, as successful or not. The difference is all in your mind, but that’s often the difference that matters the most.

Related books

Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott

Personal musings on the life of the writer. Lamott is primarily a novelist, but I find her writing advice to be just as relevant to nonfiction.