Going Through the Basics by Tom Rich
I was chatting with my mom the other day, telling her about my current project. “It's pretty dumb,” I said, “but I'm having a blast writing it.”
“Well,” she said, “that's all that matters,” which is her usual response to me calling my work “dumb,” “unpublishable,” or “complete crap.” As long as I like it and enjoy writing it, that's enough, to her. I'm always tempted to argue—after all, I'd like to publish some of it—but I usually don't because arguing with your mother is rarely a good plan.
The conversation, though, did get me wondering about the whole business: the writing and the editing, the sending out for critiques and publication, the workshops and the late-night bull sessions: the whole silly carnival that is being a writer. I know a lot of writers who want writing to be fun, or wistfully remember a time when it was fun, but I can't remember an instance of one of my writing buddies talking about a writing session the same way that they talk about, say, going for a beer, or playing Call of Duty, or going on a good hike.
I mean, we do talk about it: you don't have to go far to find a writer holding forth on how much writing he or she did the other day. Sometimes it's with a sort of weary triumph, as if they'd cleaned the apartment, or perhaps driven off marauding Vikings. Sometimes it's clearly a boast, accompanied by an unspoken “and how much writing did you do?” But with a tone of fun? Like they went to Dairy Queen and got the most awesome Blizzard imaginable? You don't see that too much: look through the Writers on Writing posts on this very blog for many examples.
As a kid, I took karate lessons, and there were a set of simple moves called basics that we used as a warm-up. Every lesson, Sensei Julie would say it was time to “go through the basics” before we moved on to other things. One night, though, she said we were going to “practice the basics” instead. She explained that “go through” implied that they weren't important, and that we were just rushing by them to get to other things. She explained it with the analogy of a tunnel: you go through a tunnel to get somewhere else, not to enjoy and experience the tunnel itself.
I wonder, then, if some of that attitude is evident in the way writers talk about writing, if not in the way we actually practice it. Are we writing for the pleasure of writing—of using a pen or computer to put together a sequence of words—or are we just doing it as a step to some other, loftier goal: a finished thesis, a published short story, colleges paying us to come and speak? Are we going through the writing, or are we practicing it?
Writing for the sake of writing, without thought to ever finishing it or even the idea that it could be finished. Editing for the sake of editing, without considering where it came from or where it's going. Hell, even the process of sending stories out could benefit from being divorced from its relationship to the rest: cut out the emotional investment of having written the piece and the hope of seeing it published, and you're left with a potentially interesting puzzle spread out over months and years.
If nothing else, focusing on enjoying the here and now of writing makes the whole messy thing more fun. Enjoy the tunnel for its own sake, and happy writing!
Tom Rich is a writer, itinerant academic, and flannel enthusiast. His work has appeared in the Midwest Literary Magazine. Since graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2011, he has gone professional in filling out applications.