Writing is Hard Work and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different

new camera + new lens

Writers (and I’m talking about creative writing) who in the debate about whether or not writing can be taught say that “writing cannot be taught,” or writers who say they “don’t revise” are engaging in a game of intimidation.

Whether they are accurate or not in their assessment (if you are 140% talentless, I guess writing cannot be taught…and perhaps some brilliant writer out there really doesn’t revise their work), I hate it when writers try to make writing “magical” and solely about “talent.” It’s such an arrogant thread of thought to imply that you either have it or you don’t. Certainly, talent is a crucial part of the pie–but people with talent still need coaching, mentoring, and practice. Tons of practice and hard work.

This bucket of sick giraffe bull reminds me of my high school. I have a lot of wrath toward my high school years, so be forewarned. I went to a super cut-throat competitive high school that happened to be a public high school. The counseling office would actually publish the top 100 GPAs of students in descending order every semester. They didn’t list names, but they did list student ID numbers. Who were they kidding? You think we ultra-competitive students hadn’t memorized each others’ SIDs? We knew exactly where we all stood.

But I guess the counseling office was bored, and needed to generate work. Because I’m sure after those rankings, they’d have to do a lot of counseling. And I’m not talking about the academic kind.

Anyway–I’m talking about people who front about how easy shit is, just to intimidate other people in a competitive atmosphere. And I was talking about my high school, which was full of students with gray bags under their bloodshot eyes saying they had a full night’s sleep, didn’t study for the test at all, and the test was a cinch. For awhile I believed them. Until my father said, “Are you an idiot? Of course they’re studying. They’re just psyching you out! Now go to your room and study all night until dawn breaks.” My dad is such an Asian Dad. Literally. And figuratively. Okay. I just wrote notes to my friends all night long. Like, twelve page handwritten notes. I was destined to be a writer. But I did study, just not as hard as my father wished I would.

The claim to a well of genius/brilliance without the investment of hard work stems from deep arrogance and/or fear.

You mean to say that Jackson Pollock just threw some paint up on a canvas and that was it? That dude worked long and hard to attain those splashes. There is an entire history of Pollock paintings preceding his “drip canvases” that attest to that. You mean to say that Itzhak Perlman fell out of the womb playing a violin? That Lance Armstrong just rode his bike and rode it to victory from the start? No shit. They all worked hard. There’s the equivalent of about 100,000 bottles (probably more, but I don’t feel like researching the amount of sweat a bicyclist would exude in his/her training) of Gatorade that Armstrong had to suck down to replace the sweat from training exertion. They played until their fingers bled. Or at the least, had whopping callouses.

I know someone who was a concert violinist earlier in his life and even if he did not make it his lifelong career, he has a little hollow in his jawbone; he practiced so often and for so long, the bone grew as if his face were attached to his chinrest. Which it was. Because he practiced for hours and hours as a small child.

At AWP this week (and I’ll be quoting from AWP for awhile to come), Nami Mun at her Works in Progress panel said you can’t succeed solely on talent–that there is the concept of practice, citing Yo-Yo Ma. That the only difference between an average person and a successful person is focused practice; a “willingness to practice, develop your craft, and understand the difference.”

And Margaret Atwood, in her keynote said, “I’m startled by people who say they want to write but don’t like reading. Those people want an audience for them to listen to their sad story and that’s the end of it. They’d be happier on reality TV, because that’s less work. And yes, I said the ‘w’ word: WORK.”


I know that my novel certainly has waited for me to grow and develop as a writer. And that it’s guided me through my own maturity as a human being. I molded the novel into shape, and in recent times, my novel has been the thing to mold and shape me in return, and it has led me into amazing life adventures, calling to me with its needs such as much time spent on wikipedia and google and sometimes twitter for novel research. That I couldn’t write this novel eight years ago didn’t mean I could never write the thing.

It takes practice. It takes hard work. It’s pain. And it’s joy. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes my novel sucks. Whatever. Work more.

I am one of the legions of writers who has been married to a novel-in-progress for more than five long years (and I am not close to being finished). We, the slowest of writers, salute those who write a novel a year (I’m looking at you, Joyce Carol Oates). At AWP, Don Lee said he takes two years to write one novel: the first six months spent on generating ideas, another year to write the draft, and then another six months of revision. I salute you too, Don Lee.

But over cocktails, my tongue freed up by a gin and tonic at the AWP conference headquarters bar (by golly, all ten thousand writers BROKE that bar–it was four people deep, and it took 20 minutes to get a drink order in–it’s a wonder that ANYONE even got tipsy)…I announced that my novel dictates the speed at which it is written. I think at least one person said “Amen” to that. Who knows. I get drunk off half a cocktail. Some stories demand a long time. And some stories demand to be told immediately.

My novel is better than the person I am. And it’s being patient. And asking me to be patient, in turn. And to work my ass off so I can deserve the novel I end up showing the world.

And yes. I revise. Everyday I’m a better writer than the day before. I’m learning to write everyday damn day. I also had eyelid surgery so I could have double eyelids. And I hate bell peppers.


Filed under Novel, Revision, Writing

13 responses to “Writing is Hard Work and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different

  1. Elana K. Arnold


  2. Shae

    Nothing…NOTHING worth reading can be written without work. Revise, re-work, be brilliant!

  3. All true.
    I like the Junot Diaz interview (that I believe I saw because you posted it) who said that his novel was asking him to become the person he needed to be to write it. That made a lot of pieces fit into place for me. It’s a growth process, or it should be.
    I also like the quote I heard somewhere about the people who become writers are the ones who didn’t stop writing. It’s the journey.

    • @Elana: thank you, and for being such a loyal supporter!
      @Shae: I remember our undergrad talks about writing. INspiring!
      @tea: Our novels make us grow up, and because they don’t give up on us, we shouldn’t give up, either!
      @Alvin: *fist bump*
      @Matthew: I sure did. My mom rolls her eyes when I disclose it, and so easily, but yep. I put a lot of thought into it, and then I just decided, “fuckit. I wanna wear eyeshadow.” And booked it in Seoul. If someone had told me how much it would HURT while having it done, I am not sure I woulda done it. But now I can wear eyeshadow.

  4. I think the “writing can’t be taught” thing is confusing because that’s looking at it backwards. The truth is that writing has to be _learned_. As you say, nobody pops out of the womb able to write a novel. You have to learn how, and that’s a lifetime process. And Nami Mun is exactly correct: it does take practice. People sometimes assume that writing is different from playing an instrument, that musicians practice and writers wait for inspiration, but they are actually the same (I’ve done both).

    That being said, I don’t think writing can really be taught. Whatever happens in classrooms and with teachers can help some writers, but it’s never more than a small fraction of the process of _learning_ to write. If the students aren’t putting in the rest of that work, and doing all the hours of practicing, it doesn’t matter what that teacher says up there.

    “Some stories demand a long time.” Yup. I’ve written two novels. Each took fifteen years. I like how they turned out. As Rooster Cogburn says, “There is no clock on my business!”

  5. Andrew W.

    Writing is really, really, really, really hard. So one thing that separates some writers from others is the extent to which a writer needs “design constraints” in order to get the work done.

    An M.F.A. program, for example, is a design constraint: you *must* slog through writing, else you end up with student loans and nothing to show for it. A writing career is a design constraint: you must write, else you lose your apartment. And then there’s obsession and addiction, the psycho-physiological need to write, to stave off a breakdown.

    The lack of a design constraint is why I don’t write longform anymore. My head always says, “Come on, this is hard. The sun if out. Wouldn’t you rather be walking your dog?” The writers who amaze me — certainly there are some amongst the commenters here — are the ones who write when they don’t need to and yet still treat it as a craft, with consequences. It’s not weekend woodworking in your basement. It’s not hacking code. It’s painful and you still do it.

  6. Clearly talent is required to write a great piece of work. After that it’s 95% blood, sweat and more blood. When I was at UC Riverside, I was amazed at how quickly prof. Susan Straight worked. She is one of those individuals with talent and discipline. Even though she had a computer for her kids, she wrote her novels on an old fashion type writer. For her, type writers were part of the formula.
    I had classmates that could crank out short fiction and short short with minimal revision. Michael Jayme was able to crank out stuff that appeared way better than the junk I turned in, or the rest of my classmates. It’s probably why he is a creative writing teacher now at UCR.
    When ever I hear you struggle about writing, it reminds me life is a struggle. It’s the struggle that makes the achievement valuable. If it just came out perfect on the first try, would it mean as much? Even though I no longer write poetry or short fiction, the same kind of struggle gives me a great sense of satisfaction with programming.
    I learned many valuable lessons at UCR creative writing program. The best one is to keep trying and stay hungry. One of professors forced himself to write every day for an hour. It didn’t matter if it was total junk. For him, it was the process. For other people, it might be going to a inspirational space.

  7. Of course writing can be taught. I think people get hung up on that idea because writing can’t be taught to just anyone. There has to be an aptitude for it, naturally. Just the same way as there has to be an aptitude for medicine or physics or music. I could take violin lessons from now until the day I die and I would never be that good, because I have zero natural musical talent. But I would get better. Same thing with writing. You can’t teach someone to be a genius, but you could make them better. And you can give a genius the challenge she/he needs to put their talent to use.

  8. Nate

    Actually, Lance Armstrong put in the work and it STILL wasn’t enough! He had to illegally alter his blood chemistry (and probably shorten his life in the process) in order to get that good. Right or wrong, that just shows you the length to which some must go. Think of all of the riders that worked harder and got bupkiss because life isn’t fair.

    Also, if I might add to Nami Mun: talent, practice, and opportunity. Who’s to say that there aren’t dozens of Yo-Yo Ma’s out there rolling hotdogs at the 7/11 because their school’s music program was 86ed? You can teach cello and writing, but you never know where that rare combination of ability and drive exist. That’s exactly why equal access to education is so damn important. It is not a coincidence that the granddaddy of all working class American lit, Raymond Carver, went to college for free (knowing a little about Nami Mun’s biography, she probably at least had a lot of help.) Of course, those days are long gone; Exhibit A: http://tinyurl.com/7ulvrux

    Personally, I enjoyed my time in a writing program, but it also amazed me how many of my fellow students clearly did not write or read much (other than what they were assigned, but UN-F*ING-BELIEVABLY not always that!) I think that many Americans have been conditioned to the supreme value of credentialing, and many writing students expect that, just as their SID showed up at the top of the list in HS and they got their shiny BA from Warbuck’s U, they can become a writer by following someone else’s program and getting a Gold Star. It’s just not that easy.

    Oh, and CZ, please, please, please convince my in-laws that writing is hard work! 😉

  9. Eve

    This is fabulous. So good, in fact, that I’m going to share it a few places. Talent is pretty much worthless without diligent application of same.

  10. Makes me wish I had creative writing classes here in Bangladesh so that I could learn writing creative.

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