I consider myself lucky…
… not to be working in a coal mine or on an assembly line or at any of hundreds of other dangerous and cripplingly repetitive jobs
… to have a writing-related job that supports my not-quite-profession of being a fiction writer
… not to have to punch a time clock (though perhaps I’d be more productive if I did).
On this Labor Day, I recognize my own good fortune and salute the millions of workers who put in a long day’s labor for too little pay, only to go home exhausted—or, worse, on to a second job to try to hold their lives together. And I pay tribute to the labor organizers who fought for, among other things, the right of workers to paid time off—including three-day weekends.
Looked at from this perspective, a writer has little to complain about. From the outside, writing seems romantic and enticing, and yes, there are moments of romance and some enticements. But like electricians, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and chefs, writers engage in the hidden humdrum of their profession far more than in the glamor. For every hour spent reading before an audience, the writer spends hundreds of hours alone, writing, editing, revising, doubting, and writing some more. And that’s not even counting the marketing part of the job.
Writing is, like most other jobs, WORK.
For me, the most painful part of the work of writing is the initial extrusion of the story onto the page. That’s what it feels like—extrusion. Merriam-Webster defines the root word, “extrude,” as “to force, press, or push out.” Something stirs inside me: an idea, a sensation, a feeling, a hope. I stare at the computer screen. My fingers rest on the keyboard. I listen to the rising and falling hum of my computer’s fan. I push out one word and then the next.
Occasionally, I hit a rhythm that makes this process, writing, feel almost pleasurable, like getting to the third or fourth mile into a five-mile run when endorphins take over. Mostly, though, it’s like a jog in the cold rain early in the morning. You know you should do it, but most of the pleasure comes afterwards, as a result of being done.
A New Yorker essay by John McPhee called “Draft No. 4” describes the work of writing in words more eloquent than mine. For a further peek inside the writing life, see the Brain Pickings article on the daily routines of well-known writers.
Who gives a crap?
But, as writers, should we share our work struggles with readers? Conventional wisdom says readers care nothing about the travails that produced the book. After all, a diner in a restaurant doesn’t give a damn that the chef had to get up at four in the morning to make it to the farmer’s market to select the ingredients for the day’s menu or that the pâtissier ruined an entire batch of custard because the eggs failed to emulsify. The diner just wants a tasty meal, artfully presented and graciously served.
I think the answer to the to-share-or-not-to-share question depends on the writer’s audience. The thriller junkie or murder-mystery buff might not care what labors produce their favorite books any more than the casual diner cares how the restaurant kitchen works. But if your readers are students of the world, people with a curiosity that goes beyond finding out what happens on the next page—if they are the literary equivalent of foodies—then by all means, throw back the curtain and reveal the machinations that take place to put a well-crafted page before them.
What are the hidden parts of your job? What do you wish you knew about how writers work—or do you prefer blissful ignorance?
- Writers and Other Laborers (marcysbookbuster.wordpress.com)