by Bill Kenower
I always ask the writers I interview their advice for beginning writers, and often the advice they give boils down to this: it’s about the process. Not the publishing, the process. When I was younger and angrier I would hear this advice and think, “And when I’m published I’m sure it will be all about the process for me too.”
I am older and happier now and find myself in complete agreement with these men and women. The siren song of writing is publishing. It has lured legions of unwary travelers to the depths of a mysterious misery, who upon finishing some wildly popular potboiler have thought, “I could do that.” And indeed they could. But will they?
Typically, professional writers attempt to scare off these sorts of prospective writers with this stern warning, “It’s hard. You think you want to see your book in the wire racks or sitting on Oprah’s lap? Well, guess what, kiddo, writing a book is hard.” Fair enough. Every book, from the slimmest picture book to the thickest epic presents its author with many challenges. But “hard” is misleading, and not so useful for people who actually want to be writers.
Don’t get me wrong. Published writers often moan to each other about how “hard” writing is. But these are just war stories. Every one of these complaining writers goes back willingly, happily even, to their desk the next day for another round of hard. Why? Because it is not actually hard. Writing is, as I said, challenging, and there is a great difference.
There are days when the writing comes quickly and there are days when it doesn’t. On those days when it doesn’t, we have brought ourselves—because no one forced us here—to a kind of crossroads. We have wound our way on those easier days through more familiar streets only to find ourselves in an unfamiliar part of town, without a map, wondering where to go next. Why do such a thing? Because we desire to expand what is possible, and we cannot expand what is possible unless we explore the new.
Thus we complain that writing is hard, as if we weren’t sitting down every day seeking the very challenges about which we complain. But the warning to prospective writers is legitimate, if perhaps a bit too stridently phrased. Writing, like anything else you do in the world, is not an end result, it is a process. Unfortunately, as processes go, writing is particularly deceptive because, if a writer gets published, there exists a concrete, static thing—a book—which appears from the outside to be the whole point of the effort.
But the book is not the point. Books, trophies, rings, plaques, and photographs are all nice to put on your shelf, but you do not live on a shelf. Whether you like it or not, you are always seeking the unknown, the new, because only within that unknown, within which lies all discovery, do you feel the delicious potential for which we all came to this planet in the first place.
The question is, by what means do you wish to explore the unknown? This is a very important question. The books, trophies, rings, homes, cars and so on are the product of the discovery, not the reason for it. The reason for the discovery is the discovery itself, the act of it, because it is only during the discovery that you can experience the great pleasure of discovery—not afterwards.
If you love to play the piano, think how much fun it was to learn to play the piano. Then think also, if you hated math, how tedious it was to learn geometry. Writing is simply one of many ways to learn, to explore the new. By which means do you wish to learn? If it is indeed writing, then understand that everything you need you have at this moment.
I have written about getting published and I will do so again, because it is a necessary part of being a professional writer to understand the ins and outs of finding an agent and a publisher and all the rest. But be absolutely clear: all the books in the world are, with few exceptions, the product of someone choosing to challenge themselves every day, not the reason someone chose to challenge themselves every day. You are going to challenge yourself; you can’t help it. So how do you want to do it?
Bill Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time freelance writer. He lives in Seattle.