"They make it look so easy!" my sister sighed, as she watched the Winter Olympics figure-skating competitions. And indeed they do. They glide so effortlessly upon the ice, twirling and leaping and smiling...
Of course, we know it's not really that easy. When the camera zooms in at the end of a performance, we see the skater struggling to keep that smile in place while laboring for breath, exhausted. The little bio-documentaries give us some small hint of the hours and days and months and years of training that brought each competitor to the arena, the coaching and practice and sacrifices that go into "making it look easy."
While writing has yet to be nominated as an Olympic sport (though some, I suspect, think it should be), it has something in common with these elegant skaters: When done well, it looks sooo easy! And that, for many, proves to be a pitfall. Many would-be writers are drawn to the sport -- er, I mean, profession -- precisely because it "looks easy." Unlike many professions that require training, certification, advanced degrees, and expensive equipment, writing seems to require little more than a flat surface, an pen, and a piece of paper. (Twenty years ago, I often had to explain to writers why a computer was an essential tool; today, it would be hard to find a would-be writer without one -- or more!)
And how hard could it be? After all, if I can read a book in three days, why should it take me three years to write one? Scientists have demonstrated that women, on the average, may speak 20,000 words in a single day (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2281891/Women-really-talk-men-13-000-words-day-precise.html), so how hard could it be to write down 100,000 of them? (Men have a bit of a disadvantage here; they speak, on average, only about 7,000 words per day.)
In fact, I sometimes wonder if there is any other profession so likely to be chosen simply on the basis that one assumes it is "easy." I wonder if people approach professional auto mechanics and say, "I could do that!" Do people go up to airline pilots at parties and declare, "You know, I'm going to fly a plane someday, when I have the time..."? Do would-be carpenters show up at a job site, pick up a hammer and look around blankly, asking, "What's this thing for?"
Hammering a nail looks pretty easy too, until you've tried it. Once you've hammered 100 nails, you'll have acquired a few bashed thumbs, an impressive collection of hopelessly bent nails, quite possibly (inevitably, in my case) a couple of holes in the wall -- and a great deal more respect for the art. Hammering nails, you will discover, isn't as easy as it looks -- but after hammering 100 of them, you may find that you have, in fact, become quite good at it!
The same is true of writing. Every one of us, at some point, undoubtedly assumed that writing would be "easy." That's because every one of us, at some point, was an amateur -- and believing that a skill, any skill, is "easy" is a belief that only an amateur can sustain. The problem arises when one sits down and begins to write.
If you are lucky, you quickly discover that writing is not, in fact, as easy as it looks. It's not a matter of simply transferring some portion of one's daily word quota to paper. Very quickly, one learns that writing, just like carpentry or mechanics, involves a toolbox -- the difference being that this toolbox is largely invisible. It may also be largely empty, until we fill it up, by acquiring the tools that make the difference between speaking 20,000 words today that will be forgotten tomorrow -- or writing 20,000 words that will be read and remembered for, perhaps, centuries. The tools in our toolbox are what make the difference between "Like, I said, I say, she's, like, so cold, man, and, I mean, Dude, it's just, like so totally, like, well, you know what I mean..." and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."*
But what if you're not so lucky -- or so wise? Unfortunately, there are many writers who never do grasp that writing isn't as easy as it looks -- or who continue to cling to the belief that it should be easy. Rather than building a writer's toolbox, these writers go on jotting down jumbles of words, and then blame pretty much everyone else in the universe for the fact that those words are not "successful." It's the fault of editors, of publishers, of biased critiquers, of unfair instructors, of agents who are just looking for the next mega-blockbuster (and who don't realize this is it), of readers who don't recognize quality when they see it. The unwise writer is the one who goes on believing that writing is easy -- it's just getting published that's hard!
The wise writer, of course, comes to realize that neither are easy. Getting published isn't quite as exclusive a sport as the Olympics, but sometimes it seems a close second. But the wise writer also recognizes that while putting on a pair of skates may be the first step on the road to the Olympics, it's only the first step -- it's the next few thousand steps, the practice and the growth and the inevitable pratfalls -- that change that gold medal from an impossible dream to a potentially attainable one. Along the way, the wise writer is also likely to ask, in tones of bewilderment, "but doesn't it ever get any easier?"
The answer, actually, is no. You'd think, by filling up your toolbox with such skills as spelling and grammar and punctuation and research and plotting and outlining and marketing and... well, ad infinitum... you'd eventually find writing "easier." But think about it a moment. If you hammer 100 nails into oak planks, by the end of the exercise, oak doesn't get any softer. The last piece of oak that you tackle is going to be every bit as tough as the first. But by becoming a master (or mistress) of your tools, hammering that last nail is going to seem a great deal easier than it did at the beginning. It's going to go in smoothly, it won't get bent, and your thumb has learned to stay out of the way. Hammering didn't get easier; you just got better at it.
Perhaps that, in a nutshell is the "secret of success" that so many writers seek and inquire about. The higher you climb on the writing ladder, the more saddened and frustrated you may become by such questions, because you know that you can't give that person the answer they're looking for. Nothing ever makes writing "easy." But many things -- many skills in our toolkit -- can make us better at it. And one reason getting better at something doesn't always make it seem easier is that the very process of getting "better" often involves striving toward greater heights and greater challenges.
You know you're doing just that when would-be writers come to you and ask, "what's your secret?" They're asking, because... well, because you make it look so easy!
*"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
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