Don’t Buy the Myth of the “True Writer”
There are people who feel compelled to write as if by demons—people who have stories inside them screaming and begging only to be let out. They feel as if they’re merely channeling their stories. Writing is both effortless and necessary to who they are. They don’t struggle for motivation; they struggle to contain it.
“All I am is literature, and I am not able or willing to be anything else,” said Franz Kafka. He also wrote, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Isaac Asimov said, “I write for the same reason I breathe … because if I didn’t, I would die.”
And good for them, I say.
It must be nice to be more troubled by the inescapable drive to write than by the struggle to find creative ideas or to stay motivated to keep putting words on the page.
Unfortunately, such writers have created the myth of the “true writer” or “real writer.” According to this myth, if you don’t feel as these authors do, you don’t count.
But, in fact, not only is there no such thing as the “real” or “true” writer, but it’s also a harmful myth to perpetuate. It becomes nothing but a yardstick by which people may measure themselves only to fall short. It does nothing but discourage potentially wonderful writers.
Real Writers Also Struggle
Many famous, admired, successful authors have struggled to stay motivated. Douglas Adamas routinely blew deadlines by months or even years. He once made it to the two-year deadline for a book having written exactly one sentence of it. He had to be locked into a hotel suite by his editor for three weeks in order to complete So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.
And Adams isn’t the first remarkable writer to receive the “hotel treatment”: Hunter S. Thompson had to be locked in a hotel room for five days to make him produce one of his pieces.
Take this quote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” That’s Thomas Mann, a Nobel Prize laureate.
Or this well-known Hemingway quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
So if you don’t feel you measure up to the idea of the “true writer,” that’s OK. It doesn’t mean anything except that not all writers are the same or feel the same way.
Why is the myth of the “true” writer so seductive, even for the writers whom it dismays—who use the myth as a yardstick and find themselves falling short?
I don’t know. I don’t know why writing appears special enough, mystical enough, to be deserving of such labels to begin with. I suppose it’s because our task is ephemeral and operates in the imagination. But a writer is just someone who puts words on a page, sometimes with great difficulty, and sometimes gets paid for for it.
Says Stephen King, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” To work.
Writing Is a Type of Work
I think the myth becomes more obviously nonsensical if you apply it to other vocations. Is there such a thing as a “real accountant”? A “true veterinarian”? No, there are just people who crunch numbers or treat animals and generally get paid to do it.
Some stay motivated all the time; others drag into work late every day. Some get paid a lot; most don’t. Some feel that their work is a calling; many see it as a paycheck. Some are regarded as having a gift for what they do; others just muscle through.
None of these factors affect whether they’re allowed to call themselves or think of themselves as accountants or veterinarians.
Maybe the problem is that a writer rarely receives a slot on an org chart confirming her title, or an office with his name by the door. That is, there’s no outside confirmation for a long time, if ever. Without the corporate endorsement and paycheck, it’s hard to ever stop feeling like a fraud.
Plus, I think we writers tend to be self-deprecating. “I’ve only written one book, and it’s not even very good. I can’t be a ‘real’ writer yet.” Nonsense! That makes about as much sense as, “I’ve only treated five animals. I’m obviously not a ‘real’ veterinarian yet.”
This is just insecurity speaking. Having only treated five animals makes someone an inexperienced or novice veterinarian, but not a fraudulent one—not a poser.
The Harm of the Myth
Writing is difficult enough for many of us without this kind of judgment and self-judgment. If you are supposed to not only put words on a page but also do it joyfully, with no need for motivation, then how hard has your job become? For many of us, virtually impossible.
And this is ridiculous. The world would be a poorer place had Douglas Adams and Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway quit writing.
The myth of the true writer who needs no motivation is even more dismaying to those of us with ADHD. For many of us, nearly everything we do requires superhuman effort nearly all the time. So it’s insulting to suggest that if we’re not cheerfully and effortlessly producing—if we’re not driven to produce—we can’t be the real McCoy.
Claim the Title
So if you put words on a page sometimes, and you want to be a writer, then claim the title.
Be a writer who struggles with motivation and who doubts the worth of his prose, if that’s the kind of writer you are right now. Be a writer who gets paid, if you do, and who doesn’t, if you don’t (yet).
By all means, be a novice writer or an amateur writer, if that’s what you are. Be an infrequent writer, if that’s currently the case.
But claim the title. And don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t count.
H. C. H. Ritz is a writer, editor, and writing coach based in Houston, Texas. Learn more at hchritz.tumblr.com.