Private Writing vs. Public Having-Written

It’s twenty-five(ish) years ago. Lunchtime on a workday. Walking the landscaped grounds of a building especially constructed for the two to three thousand programmers, managers, and support staff — and giant mainframe computers, hard drives, and other hardware — in the service of what, for now, is still the world’s largest telephone company.

I’ve got two buddies with me, let’s call them JB and JDS (not not *cough* their real initials). All three of us have talked, sometimes, of Going Outside for a living. JB aspires to make and sell software and training for programmers to use while they themselves work to make software. JDS seems to like the ideas JB has, and has even offered to help — although he also seems more clearly destined to manage people like JB and me. (He’s so level-headed; the other two of us never have more than one foot planted firmly on the ground.)

Me? I’ve been telling them about the second annual week-long vacation from which I just returned: a vacation during which I went nowhere and did “nothing” except write stories, in longhand, stories which I then type up and file away. I tell them: I might try doing something like this fulltime someday. (The “someday,” back then, is still four or five years in the future.)

JDS is talking with me about practical matters — what would I live on, and where, like that — but JB has stopped in his tracks. JDS and I have actually gone a few steps further (the momentum of dreams, y’know) and have to turn around and go back for him.

JB’s got a faint smile on his face. He looks at me.

“What do you do?” he says to me.

“You mean—?”

“When you’re writing. What do you do?”

“Uh…” I still don’t know what he’s talking about.

“You just sit there in a chair,” he says, “and you pick up a pencil, and some paper—”

“Well, yeah—”

“…and then you… you just write?”

“Sure, yeah—”

But he’s not listening to me. He’s laughing, softly. JB has two sorts of laughter: rarely, a short bark of derision when he’s feeling cynical; more often, when delighted beyond speech, a soft heh-heh-hff sound. Today, at the thought of someone sitting at a table while fiction pours from the point of a pencil, today he is laughing the good way.

It is a little odd, isn’t it? Hell, it’s a lot odd.

Luckily, I had never stopped to consider how bizarre the whole enterprise might be — the act of it, I mean. I remember being vaguely discomfited the first few times I sat at that card table. Okay, I thought, I’m here. Writing… Writing Uh… What about?… Well, suppose there’s this guy, and he’s on a train going to work, and he looks out the window and he sees — wait, better write this down before I forget it

Eventually, I came to realize, I always do forget it: not the story itself but the act of putting it to paper. There’s everything that happens when I’m “in writing” and then there’s everything that happens when I’m outside it. Two distinct psychological, even sensory states: in the former, for long bursts of time I don’t even see or feel the keyboard, barely see the words on the screen. You remember the old advice, Be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in gear? For me, writing’s the other way around. If I’m too conscious of the mechanics, the physical activity, my surroundings, I lock up completely.

I’ve got to coast. And that’s when fiction happens.


Over the past few days, especially while reading writerly/bookish blogs, I’ve noticed a tension not just in my head but in the heads of many writers — the tension between the acts of writing a story and sharing it.

Is it a given that all of us imagine someone, sometime and somewhere, reading what we’ve written, and liking it? some stranger especially, someone with no stake in the writer’s happiness or fortune? I think yes, that’s a given. (Even many a plain-old diarist experiences little thrills to think that someone might someday find his dusty journal buried in the rubble — find it, pry its little toy lock open, and read it, and weep with the recognition of their own tragedies in its pages.)

DarcKnyt, last week, worried about succeeding not with fiction, but with blogging. But many of the questions were the same: how do you find readers, and how do they find you? what do you do when you’ve found one another? how much should you care about your readership, in the sense of tracking their numbers, being intermittently satisfied with same but mostly panicking when they zoom dramatically up or down? how important is it — whether or not you obsess about their numbers — that you hear from them? does the conversation need to be two-way?

Over at writing in the water, on pretty much any given day you can find its author chewing over a dilemma of art and/or writing — mostly not a dilemma of technique but of mind, of the things artists and writers do inside their heads which stop them from doing the things they’re “supposed” to do.

Recently, The Intern delivered to her readers who also write some very bad news (which we’ve secretly known all along): As a writer, you’ll never be happy for good. You know you can always be better: more talented, more successful, more, more, more.

And yet… and yet…


Yesterday, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast presented an interview with the author and the illustrator of a new kids’ book. If you haven’t already, set aside some time to hop over there. Bring a cup of coffee (etc.) of your own, and settle in. Take your time…

Here are two creative people for whom the joy and wonder of creating are almost indistinguishable from the experience of having-created. Do they have perfect lives? Not a lot of people do, and I’m sure Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee have their moments of doubt and despair. But dang. These two love what they do.

Is it just because they’re creating for kids? (I don’t believe for a minute that this is easier than doing so for adults, by the way.) Is it just because they’ve hit some certain, maybe inexplicable level of success at it? Is it something else? A combination?

And then there’s the home of the former Warrior Girl, now a Warrior Mama, whose proprietor just yesterday completed what was, to me, an almost unimaginably ambitious program: to produce 100 art projects — works of art — in 100 days. She’s feeling ambivalent, but mostly optimistic now that she reached that particular objective:

I run out of energy sometimes. I get gloomy sometimes. Things don’t work out right and I get other things wrong sometimes, but this is where I am planted. The only way I know how to grow is one day at a time. One petal, one step, one painting at a time.

It seems insurmmountable when you look at the big goal from the beginning. It looks inconsequential when you pay attention to only the single steps, and doesn’t seem like you are going anywhere. But when you start to add those days up, you can literally track your UNimpossible progress. You can see the logic of movement. You can understand how growth happens.

And then when you reach your goal, the thing that once seemed so unreachable, you look back and think, “huh! that wasn’t so hard after all.”

You know what? I think The Intern might not be 100% right about the whole thing after all. The dirty secret isn’t that it’s hard or impossible, that there’s always another challenge, that our labors go unrewarded, are for naught. No.

The dirty secret which writers and artists keep to themselves, don’t share with the outside world, is this:

We really like doing what we do.

So then: Why do we like it? Why do you? At the end of a writing session that’s gone well — any project born of sheer imagination and creativity and craft — what makes you grin to yourself as you look back at it? what makes you, to yourself only, shake your head and go, softly, heh-heh-hff?

[In the comments for this post only, if you’re shy about confessing any of this, feel free to use “Anonymous” as your name, together with some bogus email address.]

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  1. I ain’t shy.

    I love doing what I do; I love the idea of writing something that might reach out and touch some deep chord in someone, pull on that chain in the heart which makes them cringe, or shudder, or gasp at the screen.

    I love the idea of being able to write something someone can’t finish in a dark house alone with a reading lamp for company. I like the idea of them cowering up against their headboard with widened eyes and clenched jaw and vowing never to read my work at night again.

    I like the tactile sense of putting words on screen via keyboard, or on paper with pen or pencil. I love the riff of the keys, or the rasp of the paper tooth against my hand.

    I love the look of wonder on someone’s face when they read something I wrote and are engrossed in it.

    I love the process of trying to come up with a fully-formed idea from a scrap and working it into the basis for something I can translate into words.

    I like all of it.

    But the part I like most is the part where someone reads it. Someone besides me gets the joy of it. I hear a lot of writers — and I mean a lot of writers — say they’d write even if no one else read their work. I don’t know if I can say that, and maybe that means I’m not truly a writer.

    I’d draw even if no one else saw it; do it all the time, from doodles and cartoons to fully rendered drawings. I’d still sing if no one else heard me … though less now than in years gone by. But if I could write and knew no one else would read it, would I still do it?

    I don’t know. The effort required, the work to learn the craft, the time invested … I don’t know.

    And as I sit here and wonder that, I realize I couldn’t not write. I’d journal. I’d blog. I’d post long-winded rambling comments, like this ‘un here. (Sorry.)

    Yeah, I’d do it even if no one else saw it. Why? Because I like doing it. I do.

  2. Darc: I don’t know if I could say, “I’d still write even if nobody ever read it,” either.

    But there’s a catch, which is this: at the time I’m writing, I’m not thinking about that hypothetical reader. I can think about him/her only before or after. And even afterward, the very first thing I think after a satisfying session isn’t, “Hmm. Will somebody actually like what I’ve done here?” The satisfaction is more egocentric than that, still just between me (on the page) and myself (in my head).

    But the feel and sound of the clicking keyboard, oh yeah. For a long time, a hardware company named Northgate made these phenomenal keyboards which, by God, felt like you were doing something, keystroke by keystroke. At times when (say) I’ve had a Band-Aid on even a single fingertip, I can just never get “into” it — I can’t feel the keystroke.

  3.'s brudder says:

    Well, I guess I’ve got to weigh in here, ’cause it’s been searing my brain pan for awhile. Why am I designing and drawing anything? It has seemed grimly unsatisfactory for long enough, now that I am doubly troubled by weighing-in. Tonight, I will be taking the time (even after way too many working hours) to evolve the design of another new home directly across from a rather successful recent commission. What is the measure of the success? The family that lives there seem to not only love it, but feel that their lives have been improved by it’s existence (or so they’ve told me – were they just being facile? I think not). For me I can absolutely NOT fathom “designing” for myself. A very long time ago my last year at Pratt, when the nominations came for the Sr. Awards Jury, I was proud to just be included in the group. What was fascinating was to see the number of my peers who were voracious spillers of ink and pencil to the page just for the exploration of the spatial possibilities. For the life of me, I kept wondering about this: but who will ever get to feel those spaces except our fellow designers to be? Who will ever actually experience these tweaks of our three-dimensionality?

    For me the consummate joy is in the experience of others of that thing created. It is the social acknowledgment of that thing created.

    Even when I get into a design groove, I notice that there is almost always a sense of someone else present as I move through the creation of a new room, space, building element. I actually envision the experience not only through my own eyes but how I might expect to surprise another onlooker. And the surprise really matters, too. Why create, what is creation if not an effort to see something, feel something, hear something, taste something, fully engage the haptic sense of “otherness.” Tonight I will turn on some tunes, roll out the tracing paper, and “play” with a new life for my client. I’ve only met them twice but they will be alongside me (mentally) as I toss about the forms and surfaces of the place they plan to call home. That journey of leading them someplace that neither of us has ever seen before is a real place of joy – and keeps me keepin’ on. Absent that – I don’t think I would do this at all.

  4. Well now. It’s really interesting when you see your own words thrown back at you. I didn’t know I said that until I read that you said I said it.

    And this is a lovely post.

    Now I know, I have to get back to the writing. I’ve been off of my novel for nine months. It’s been simmering and I’m afraid and it seems insurmountable, but you know what? I do love to write. It’s fun. It’s scary but it’s fun. And dammit, I said that step by step it isn’t insurmountable.

    So thanks for this.

  5. brudder: Okay okay okay, but first set aside one big difference — architects work on commission, and/or on spec. Academic exercises and competitions aside, there’s always a client driving the whole thing. Writers, on the other hand — unless they’re at the Stephen King et al. level — never have any idea that what they’re working on will ever be public.

    So then, let’s put this in fairy-tale world. Say you either (a) had another day job and “did architecture” as a pastime or career-change possibility, or (b) were independently wealthy and didn’t need any day job at all.

    Given this once-upon-a-time condition, would you still design houses, office buildings, municipal complexes, renovations, etc.? If so, why? What would keep you coming back to the drawing board?

    Suppose you work on-spec for a client who doesn’t provide much (or any) feedback until your work is “done.” And then that client says “No thanks,” and walks away without explanation. Could you still consider it a successful design? Doesn’t something happen during the process which is its own reward?

  6. rowena: Nice job on sentence #2, even though I did have to re-read it about four times. :)

    While you were doing your 100-in-100 challenge, I tried to think of some way to match it with writing, in a meaningful (to me) way. (I guess it could be blog posts or journal entries, but that doesn’t feel as real to me as your Flying Girls or the wreck-this-journal mini-projects.)

    “Get back to the writing”? I don’t know. I don’t know, at all, how you and others manage to work with the writing-art split — how you have the psychic energy ever to do both.

    All of which said, thanks for doing the 100-in-100 thing so publicly. Not that I “enjoyed” watching you do battle with it, but I think I learned a lot from seeing it unfold. And I did enjoy seeing those moments when you were happy!

  7. In haste, but want to quickly say: This is great. Will pass it on to Liz and Marla!

  8. Your post is why I keep coming back (if only just to get a taste of both brudders)!

    I really love when you are typing away, involved in the story and you go back and read hat you’ve come up with and think, did I do that? Did I come out with that? Almost like something or someone else was guiding your hand, your brain, your spirit, whatever. And then, someone you trust comes along and you hand it to them, wringing your hands whilst they peruse. And they smile at the part where it was rather witty, and they crinkle their eyebrows at the part that’s worrying the character and you know, you just know, where they are and it makes me so incredibly joyous to know that they understood what I said, what I meant and how I meant it. Although I am reticent about sharing my writings, it just makes me bloom when someone reads it and says, “that was pretty good!”

    So I guess, the answer is, I definitely write for others to read, but not confidently enough to share with just anyone.

  9. I’m a mess. I think I’d write if no one ever read my work because somewhere in my mind I would still hope that someone would, really in an unknowable future and place, read my word. And yet when my work is out there and people are reading I suffer from anxiety and stress. Joy and terror.

  10. Jules: Thanks! (And I can’t imagine why you’re in a hurry. :))

    cynth: So it sounds like you’re voting with the “If no one ever reads it, I’ll stop doing it” crowd, no? You’re saying there’s nothing intrinsically enjoyable about writing, pre-audience — at least, nothing enjoyable enough?

    marta: If they ever make a movie of your writing life, I hope they enlist Tim Burton to direct.

  11. Nah, that can’t be right either…I think I’m closer to what Marta said. I like writing, and even in my journals which NO ONE reads and probably don’t really want someone to. But I guess there’s that subliminal thought that someone someday would read it. The future anticipation is greater sometimes than the actual event?? Oh, nevermind.

  12. Helen Couchman says:

    Aspirations. It takes a strong friend to support us fully in these. Too much misunderstanding or worse jealously can get in the way. When a person supports someone else in their endeavour it lifts them up a little but they have to put their ego aside for a moment.

    Your momentary interaction with you work mate moves me.

    Anyway sending you an email with some good news today.

    Also I realise slowly that even as a ‘non’ writer I have many more readers than I supposed.

  13. cynth: Okay, I’ll concede the point that having someone read and respond to what we’ve written and “published” (in whatever sense) is better than “publishing” it and hearing nothing. But I wasn’t arguing that point in the first place. I was just saying: you admit you like writing your journals, even though you expect (want) no readers at all. So then: Is there something about the writing itself that you like? Something tactile, maybe? And/Or is there some intrinsic psychological pleasure? Like that.

    Helen: Got your wonderful email announcement; I hope you don’t mind if I mention it in the post I’m working on now? (It fits very easily into the theme.)


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