Friday, August 15, 2008

Red Smith's "Opening a Vein" versus Stephen King's "Do It for Joy"

When Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” he was talking about the vulnerability a writer must bring to the page.

What does that mean? Vulnerability for writers is how much they reveal, show, let the reader see about themselves. Some writing teachers call it “showing up at the page.” Many of us struggle with this vulnerability—how much should be shown, how much should be hidden, and how much “letting it all hang out” will cause the rest of our lives to fall apart.

Last year, when I began writing another nonfiction book--this one about how to write a book, since I'd written and published twelve and was asked so often if I had one on my writing methods--I was also working on two others. They were at various stages of drafting and almost-completion. My novel was being shopped to publishers, who were giving me feedback and suggestions for changes. The novel's sequel was in second draft, with all the sections written and pasted together; it did not yet resemble a book but it held promise. The third, the nonfiction monolith, was in the proposal stage and I was beginning to draft chapters.

One fine day, the novel got accepted by a small publisher with a good editing team. I was thrilled, called my friends, cried with my family, and went out to celebrate. When I got back to my office the next morning, the other two manuscripts looked at me reproachfully, as if to say, “We still need work. Don’t forget you’re a working writer.”

I write and teach full-time, so I have the luxury of many days alone in my writing studio with just my words to keep me company. Finishing the last rewrites of this soon-to-be-published novel was like being in a dream state. Some days, I found it hard to “wake up” and greet the normal world. So I wanted a few minutes with normal activities, like watering the garden and cleaning the bathroom—believe it or not!

The successful writer’s life is all about this balance between creative time and our normal life.

A big myth: writers (and other creative artists) must be financially distressed alcoholics who can’t keep a relationship going. In fact, many writers in the past have been, but today’s book writer has other options. It’s a matter of finding that edge where you can walk in some comfort, produce good work and get your book written, and still be a responsible member of your community.

As Stephen King says in On Writing: "If you do it for joy, you can do it forever."