Some might see it as rather arrogant of me to write about writing, and find it an added audacity that I named my article the same as the title of books written by the likes of Stephen King and Charles Bukowski. To add to these audacities, I have never been published, I hold no writing honors, and the writing I do is blog posts, something common looked down upon—and I’ll add, for good reason—and yet here I am to write about writing. What gives me such a hearty stride, what makes me so willing to fly close to this sun? I am a writer.
What do I mean? Well, it might seem against the general “you-can-do-anything”, imposed positivity of our era, but I believe that being a writer is something deeper than a can-do attitude and the ability to put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). It is an engagement. It is a commitment. And it is an impulse. An instinct. An intuition. One is not a writer because they write, but they are a writer before, during, and after they have written. Often, a writer lives through another label: an activist, a skeptic, a poet, a philosopher, et al. But it is their unspoken inclination to write about what they love. The poet Charles Bukowski’s grave, in Los Angeles, says “Don’t try”, which is a reference to his poem So you want to be a writer? All the books on writing ought to be thrown out, disgraceful for all the trees sacrificed for their existence, because Bukowski captured what writing is in this poem, and my favorite part of the poem is towards the end:
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.
A writer is not a human, but an instinct, an action. Something within, who grasps out at the words around them, an instinct that fills in the emptiness, that overpowers all else within, and compels you to the keyboard. And all the other things you do are for this singular purpose. If this is not the case with you, then you are not a writer; and if I am a heretic for saying this, burn me in effigy. I am with Christopher Hitchens, who said, “If you want to write, it must be the thing not that you want to do or would like to do, it must be the thing you have to do.”
Too many people, with their store bought aesthetics and their writing programs and their flashy notebooks, walk around and call themselves writers. They have scribbles in their notebooks and unfinished documents on their drives and a list of their favorite authors. They are born of false inspiration, living lives of brittle purpose and meaning, and so they feel the need, constantly, to assert that they are a writer. And when they assert themselves as a writer, they will tell you about their projects, and about their ideas, and how they are just stuck in writer’s block. And then they will eat their salads and smile to themselves. They will be calm, and they will be collected, and that is what is wrong!
A writer with writer’s block will deny it, first. They deny it because they know what is to come. They know about the way not writing burns. When they accept they have writer’s block, it will never be out loud. It will be with a sense of defeat, a sense of impending dread. The long nights of being awake with no sleep, of the endlessly devoured distractions, the coming pain of looking out onto a dull world, will eat at them. Their minds are made of teeth meant to chew on anything and everything, and with nothing to eat, it will turn on itself. To the one who claims to be a writer, a literary poseur, there is never a sense of terror in their writer’s block until they are within the view of others. To them, such writer’s block is a relief. It frees them up to do, or focus on, something else. Often, to the poseur, writer’s block is just the socially conscious way of sublimating their instinct to what it truly wants.
Next, one will see the writer become an occasional character, taking up something they either would not be doing or put off doing. They go out with friends, they learn a new skill, they actually make it to activities they otherwise might miss with a lame excuse. This is a way to escape themselves, or try to, because they want to be away from the stillness of an uninspired instinct, an unfed intuition. But they do not desire to leave the problem at hand, and so they carry it within; Freudians will say it has been banished to the subconscious, the Christian will say it has been banished to the soul, and a New-Ager will pick terms they don’t understand and tell you that it has been banished there. To me, the writer takes the problem and let’s their intuition play with it quietly. They are never unaware of the problem, but they step away from it just enough so they can breathe, to let their eyes become fresh so they can re-engage their topic. To the poseur, this will seem like avoidance or lack of commitment or being lazy; they would rather sit at the desk, chained there for hours, flipping through different apps and web pages, watching videos, and talking to friends. They would sit through boredom instead of taking the hint that their minds care nothing for writing, and would prefer to do anything else. The blank page is lukewarm to them, and so they can sit and not care that the page is empty. The writer leaves because the empty page burns, and they merely lack a clarity of their own ideas. The poseur has no ideas at all, and thus the blank page does not offend them.
And yet, following this craze, where one can often see the toll that not writing has taken on the writer, they will finally write. They will often collapse afterwards, or they will let their closest friend know they have finally broken free of the dullness of being unable to write. They did not try, they did not intend, they wrote. And the world, for a little while, is in a haze of the sort of high only creativity can bring. The world is in harmony, and they are happy. They will feel the way the poseur does when they put off a book or give themselves the excuse they need to finally not be writing.
Why did I outline this? Because I tire of the cocktail writers and the dinner party authors who tell you that they are writers, but yet don’t. Or the people who join forums or Facebook groups and tell other people that “you do not have to write to be a writer”, telling them that to sit for years without writing is “okay.” To “try to write” has now become the standard for the writer; that is, to talk about their book “ideas”, who buy their “writer’s essence” through a “writer’s aesthetic” based on consumeristic clothing or pens or laptops or Pinterest boards. They seem less enamoured with writing than possessing some trumped up, Hollywood addled “soul” of a writer. They want to be without doing.
My issue with this, in a sense, is not about elitism, but rather about the idea of inauthenticity among writers that is propagated by a society too willing to help us dream up goals in bad faith and let us bear the failure of doing so. Because it is not profitable to the corporate board member, the school teacher, or a college, one is not allowed to be spontaneous, to be by doing without the need to define themselves. I tire of the cocktail writer not because I find them inferior; but rather, because they can do something, but they just cannot do writing. They are forcing themselves for whatever myriad of issues, traumas, or social pressures that they shoulder everyday, but where one encourages people to write, one must also know when to discourage those who suffer from doing what is inauthentic to themselves. And in the name of beau monde, we push this idea that anyone can do anything, when perhaps the truth is closer to this: there is an infinity of things, careers, vocations, and goals one can do, but there is only a few or even one thing one authentically ought to do. To quote Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, “I try all things, I achieve what I can.” Try writing, try all things, but follow that which you can achieve.
If you find yourself stuck in an almost dialectical tension between feeling relieved that you are not writing while disappointed because that is what you said you were, or if you do not need to write but merely want to, then I suggest you beat it. Don’t be a writer, and don’t write. I am not saying you cannot do anything else, that is up to you to weather the storms of life and find what you cannot do without, what you wake up needing to do. But I tire of those who are empty and look to writing to fill themselves, instead of realizing that the writer makes themselves full by the act of emptying themselves into their writing. As Ernest Hemingway put it, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”