10 Painful Truths about Writing

Sometimes My Muse Kicks Me to the Curb.

I’ve always been a writer.

And it’s been both a blessing and a curse. For a long time, I ran from it as if the Hound of Heaven were after me. When I finally gave in and submitted to the call to take up the pen and go forth, I still vacillated. For many years, the only words I strung together became to-do lists and letters and secretive jottings in spiral-bound notebooks.

It took a life-threatening illness and a car accident to grab my attention, to shove me over the fence I’d straddled for so long, where I landed with a thud. Once the illusion of many beautiful forevers disappeared, I was ready to face the writing life, heart and soul committed, knowing full well that time was not my friend. Not any longer.

So, having tasted the bitter tang of mortality, I revived my childhood dream of becoming a serious writer. I took numerous online writing classes, which taught me many things. But mostly I learned that I needed to do as Anne Lamott says, get my butt into a chair and sit there, every day, ideally at the same time, and actually show up to do the work. To write. Or at least do some research to support the writing.

You see, and this is the secret, the key, to the life of a writer: it’s painful. Sure, many writers have said that. I used to think that these luminaries were being romantic and literary, expounding on the mental suffering that supposedly lies behind all great art. But I now know they spoke the truth. Writing demands much and returns little of the goodies that define success in our culture.

I know of some writers, or at least people who think they want to write, who start blog after blog, leaving each after a few months, always seeking a new venue, hoping to make a huge gimmicky splash and be “discovered.” I call this the “little-red-hen-syndrome,” because like the animals in that small morality play, these writers want to gorge at the feast without the sacrifice of blood and sweat and a lot of tears. They won’t sign up for the hard work of serious writing.

And some of these same writers, well, they boast of bursting with ideas for many projects, many more than one person could ever humanly hope to finish, much less do well. But being unable to focus on one thing and finish it, that is the curse that haunts them. Procrastination is not a friend, as Megan McArdle suggests in “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators.”

It takes sheer, almost soul-numbing, effort to wrestle some structure into a beatific vision of what any piece of writing should be. I almost always start the early stages of a project blinded by a tantalizing image, as my Muse dangles verbal jewels and melodious metaphors before my mind’s eye.

But sometimes my Muse kicks me to the curb, leaving me grasping for structure and motivation, reminding me of the seriousness of the calling I follow. Then I know once more the truth about writing: it’s painful. As love torments the most assiduous of lovers, so too does the art of writing challenge writers, as Dani Shapiro emphasizes in “A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale.”

Like being a lover, being a writer demands much, maybe not a Robert Johnson pact with the Devil, but certainly a covenant with pain. And hard, hard work.

Being a writer requires:

  1. Tolerance for failure, over and over and over again.
  2. Knowledge of what it means to be alone, to seek the solitude necessary for the work. See #4 below.
  3. Acceptance of the fact that the reality of the written word never comes close to one’s rhapsodic visions.
  4. Silence, because sometimes other writers steal ideas too freely and generously shared.
  5. Persistence, even when it seems that no one is paying attention. Striving to get better and better.
  6. Holding fast to dreams, even in the face of constant rejection.
  7. A thick skin, and a thicker skull, for the inevitable criticism that comes.
  8. Getting used to feeling inferior, although the pundits say never to compare yourself to other writers. Ha, who are they kidding?
  9. Discipline — not unlike the structure that creates armies, produces exemplary life-saving medical research, and sends humans to the moon.
  10. Love for the process of writing itself, not the product. Passion, in other words.

Yes, writing and passion share much.

And, despite the Muse and the curb pressing against my psyche from time to time, yes, I am a writer. And I will be so, until my last breath.





Follow Cynthia D. Bertelsen:

Writer and photographer Cynthia Bertelsen has published essays, book reviews, and photographs, both online and in print. Her book, Mushroom: A Global History, sprouted from her blog, “Gherkins & Tomatoes,” while her historical novel-in-progress (Across the Oceans of Time) grew from the roots of medieval mysticism and herbal healing. It begins in Tudor England and ends in colonial America. https://gherkinstomatoes.com/

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4 Responses

  1. Ann-Marie Magné

    Amazingly, I have never felt any of the angst you write about. Words seem to flow effortlessly and are typed out before me practically without trying. No writer’s block, my muse always at the ready.


    You nailed it, Cynthia

  2. Skipper Hammond

    Yeah, I agree that writing is hard. But I take issue with your number four, the requirement that a writer must be silent for fear her brilliant ideas will be stolen.
    I’m finding that writers are the most generous, sharing people on earth. Just look at the pods in WAG. Members spend long hours reading each others’ work and helping make it better. They support each other when they are having trouble and they have fun together.
    And most writers write because they have something to say. Speak silently? I think there’s a little contradiction there.

  3. mallory oconnor

    My high school art teacher, Ralph Goings, put a sign up above the door to the art class room. The sign said, “ART IS HARD.” I was reminded of Mr. Going’s sign when I read Cynthia’s essay. Making ART out of words is a HUGE challenge. I have no problems with generating ideas–they bubble up in my brain like mushrooms after a Florida rain. It’s the grunt work of REVISION that wears me down. But it’s that tedious, irritating, infuriating re-writing that brings the reward of perfection–or as close as I can come to it.

  4. Jason McKnight

    I see your issue as to really being called to write. To me it felt as though I am a ghost writer as if someone is planting seeds. My work seems like a gift as an art form that occurs from incomprehension like the first whatever coming into fruition. Love is for the product and discipline to just write and you are not alone.