Reaping and Sewing

Jean Reynolds Page said the greatest pleasure in writing is not the publishing but the process, that in the end getting her three good pages in a day is more satisfying than seeing her book on a shelf. I understand that for writers still waiting to see that first book in print this may seem like so much publishing political correctness, but I think it is perhaps the most important concept to hold in mind, no matter where you are in your writing career. T. S. Eliot said, “Think not of the reaping but of the sewing.” This is what Jean Page was referring to, and what nearly every author I have spoken to reiterates in one way or another. It is about the process. First of all, the process is all you have control over. Agents, editors, readers, and critics will say and think what they will say and think, and you will suffer more sleepless nights dreaming impossible ways to control what other people think of what you have done.

But more than this, if you do not love the process for itself, in all likelihood, writing is probably not for you. It reminds me of something I heard the NFL coach Bill Belichick say about what he was looking for when drafting new team members. “I want football players,” he would say. Meaning, he wanted grown men who loved to play football. Seems obvious enough, but there is a difference between wanting to be an NFL quarter back, say, and loving playing quarterback.

I had a friend once who after seeing snapshots of coalminers standing outside their mines arm-in-arm, smiling sooty-faced at the camera, declared, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be a coalminer?” “Sure,” I said. “Except for the part where you go into the coal mine every day.” Likewise, it might seem cool to be a writer. We’ve all written something, in our lives, wouldn’t it be cool to have other people read that and love it?

Indeed it might, but that is only a fraction of being a writer. Mostly what you do when you are a writer is write, everyday, by yourself, without applause, precisely as you are probably doing now. So rejoice. You already know what it is to be a writer. And if it’s enough, you needn’t worry about it anymore.

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