Writing Is Not Hard Work

December 15, 2015 § 44 Comments


Mike Minchin

Mike Minchin

A guest post from Mike Minchin:

Let me tell you what hard work is: bending over in a field of low-bush, wild blueberries, your back arced so you can slide a forty-tooth rake like fingers under the bushes and pull back, settling the berries and tiny green leaves into the rake, then dumping them into a five-gallon bucket at your side, only to lug the bucket three hundred yards to the sorting machine where you lift it onto a wooden trailer and the man stamps a star-shaped hole in the card you keep in your back pocket, the card already soaked through with sweat and eight more hours to go, the sun like hot coals on the back of your neck, your shirt already tossed on the ground beside the gallon of water you froze the night before, the only thing that will keep you going through the wasp-riddled, poison-ivy laced field.

Writing is not hard work.  I’m talking about writing, not Facebooking, workshopping, copyediting, tweeting, submitting or, my least favorite activity, writing cover letters, but writing, that essential listening, that patience with words, hearing the voices come, seeing a scene come to life in front of your eyes, sitting at a computer until the computer falls away like the page of a good book falls away, until the screen becomes clear like the surface of a pond after rain so that someone looking into the water can see the rotting logs and Budweiser cans on the bottom and the fish swimming around.  The act of creation has nothing to do with hard work.  Writing is, to me, a beautiful, liberating process that feels unlike any work I have ever done in my life.

I write early in the morning until my kids get up.  And then I work all day, no longer in the blueberry fields as I did when I was fifteen, but in a hospital caring for patients.  Writing is one of the most enjoyable parts of my day.  I would trade almost anything to have more time to write, and finding the time is hard.  But I read and hear all the time about how hard writing is, and though I can understand this on one level, fundamentally the tired notion that writing is hard work seems counterproductive at best.  Writing certainly takes patience, effort, dedication, a focusing of attention.  It can be emotionally exhausting, absolutely.  And the business side of writing—don’t even get me started.  It’s work, sure.  But sitting down in a café or a dark closet with a cup of coffee or nip of schnapps and musing about your next novel is anything but hard work.

Let me tell you what hard work is: twenty-two hour shifts in an Alaskan cannery with earplugs in your ears, your rain gear covered in bloody fish guts, a knife in your gloved hands, though you can’t feel your hands for the icy salmon that keep pouring onto your cutting board, and you can’t hear the supervisor yelling at you to work faster, though you can see her lips, and you know she means business because she sent two workers home yesterday, and they had to pay their airfare back to wherever they came from, and so you work faster, cutting fins, stripping the pink membrane from inside each fish so that no one who buys a can of cooked meat will have to eat the membrane, though you know some will, and then you sleep for two hours and get up again and somehow keep going all summer, until you can’t feel your feet on the concrete floor and the sound of birds is amazing when you are finally done and realize you have lived in a beautiful place and seen almost nothing except a concrete floor and the inside of fish.

The next time you sit down to write and become frustrated, resist the temptation to complain to yourself about how hard writing is.  What you are attempting is not hard work; it is divine; it is not taking the trash to the end of the driveway; it is lightness; it is not shoveling snow all day; it is a joy, and if you are patient and let it be what it is without asking anything of it, it is beautiful and necessary and utterly worthwhile.  But it is not hard work.

__

Mike Minchin’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle MagazineVermont MagazineGreen Writers Press, and Mud Season Review.  His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has received Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and the 2015 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.  He is the winner of the 2015 Vermont Writers’ Prize.  He earned his MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2014.

 

§ 44 Responses to Writing Is Not Hard Work

  • davidwberner2 says:

    Finally! Someone said it! Writing is a spiritual act. No hyperbole here. Seriously, it is. We all get what Hemingway said about bleeding at the typewriter, but it’s really only a paper cut. Does it require discipline? Most certainly. But grueling work of the most painful kind, full of angst and sorrow? No. Thanks for reminding us, Mike!

  • Kim A. says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. There’s a weird glamour attached to the idea of suffering over one’s writing—that suffering is somehow supposed to ennoble the act. I do think writing is a kind of work, though. Not hard physical labor, obviously—and not a service job or a white color job or a factory job—but I think it’s true that writers work in the sense that they spend energy—exertion—in order to cultivate and produce, reveal, bring about something that wasn’t there before. But what an incredible gift to be able to do this particular kind of work. This post reminded me of one on Brainpickings a while back, on art as a form of active prayer: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/30/melissa-pritchard-a-solemn-pleasure-spirit-and-vision/

  • Depends on how one defines “work.” Not all work is grueling, boring, or physically demanding. Work and “spiritual practice” are not mutually exclusive.

  • Reblogged this on CELONA'S BLOG and commented:
    “Writing is, to me, a beautiful, liberating process that feels unlike any work I have ever done in my life.”
    I had to share this!😉

  • Marilyn says:

    “I’m talking about writing, not Facebooking, workshopping, copyediting, tweeting, submitting….”

    Should I dilute the power of this quote by adding a comment? No. Perfect, just the way it is. LOVED all you wrote here. The hours between 4 and 7 AM are pure gold here.

  • Jan Wilberg says:

    A writing teacher told me the most important thing about writing was having something to say. I think writers get caught up in how ‘hard’ it all is when they don’t have that – a problem of there maybe not being enough there there. I loved the descriptions of hard work in this essay, so vivid. You had no trouble having something to say.

    • Lyn Fenwick says:

      Jan, I think you are right. I have had so many people say they want to write a book…have ideas for their book…but they never sit down to begin. I love what Mike had to say! Making time may be work. The discipline of rewriting, editing, striking passages you love, polishing may be work, especially if you are doing those things at an editor’s suggestion rather than your own realization that it is needed. Marketing is definitely work, at least for me. But, writing is not work. Lyn

  • The notion that writing is hard work is not tired it is true. There are different kinds of hard work. I love many things in your essay but insisting over and over that writing is not hard work – when for some of us it is, that is certainly my truth some of the time – just annoys this reader.

    • Mike Minchin says:

      Valorie, I appreciate your comment. Ultimately, what I had hoped to do was honor writing, rather than diminish it in any way, to say that it is a sacred act that needs no justification, that it is not a drudgery. There are different kinds of work, and, as others have noted here, people experience writing, and work, in different ways. Agreed. The essay is true to my experience, but only mine, as you’ve so rightly reminded me.

  • […] here is the article that set me […]

  • bpeschel says:

    I commend you, because your days are filled with silence. When you have a headache, you don’t complain. You think about those who have chronic pain and remain silent. When you feel depressed, you don’t say anything, because you think of those who have such deep depression that they kill themselves. When you think this country is in trouble, you think about countries where bribery is endemic, where the rule is dictatorial, where the people are hungry, and you stay silent.

    You must live a very peaceful life.

  • TPL says:

    Kind of a useless piece of writing, if you ask me. Is writing *physically* as difficult as working a cannery line? Of course not. I don’t need you to tell me that. But, as others have pointed out, the act of creation is not always “lightness” or “a joy”. It may be “necessary” and “utterly worthwhile,” but it is not without pain or difficulty. And by difficulty, I do not mean racking your brain for the right simile. I am reminded of Eugene O’Neill’s dedication (to his wife) of his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night: “Dearest, I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.” Don’t tell me writing is not hard work.

    • unclegabby says:

      TPL: You make a good point.

      Writing *is* a joy. And it is hard work.

      This debate will rage on continuously because we are individuals with minds of our own … and no one else’s. “To each his own” comes to mind because that is exactly what it is. One’s own.

      Yet … there are a lot of whiners out there, too, who revel in the whining because they don’t have the words or they don’t have an idea or they simply don’t know *how* to write from time to time.

      But when the time comes – whether through the fog of the mind or whether through the time granted to write – therein lies the joy …

  • I loved your post. It brought tears to my eyes. However, writing my memoir about caretaking my mother for more than a decade after she abandoned me as a child has been the hardest work I’ve ever done. And just because I haven’t worked in an Alaskan cannery doesn’t mean I don’t know hard work. As a home birth midwife, all night gigs with no sleep, hunched in a corner of a bathroom with a laboring woman, making sure all is well and safe, was hard work. (Greeting a baby at dawn is divine, lightness and joy.) As a newspaper reporter on an Indian reservation I wrote about someone’s daughter being murdered, about poverty and a town about to die. Photographing brides…don’t even get me started. Balancing trays in a hot coffee shop in a ski resort? Equivalent to a cannery.
    I know hard work…but sitting at my desk, day after day, sometimes for only a half hour because I can’t bare it, wishing I was somewhere else, doing anything else, is hard work. And just because I’m not being physical, it’s hard physically.
    However…what you say about listening to too many people say it’s hard, like Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, may be a key. I will resist the temptation to complain, I will trust that what comes forth is “beautiful, necessary, and utterly worthwhile.” And hope for the experience of divine lightness and joy.

  • I liked this piece very much. It is is suffused in gratitude and that is rare indeed.

  • Richard Gilbert says:

    Such wisdom here. Reminds me of a new beloved quote:

    “Suffering is the thought ‘This isn’t it.’
    Wisdom is the thought ‘What is this?'”

    It was attributed to meditation teacher John Tarrant, though I am not sure he originated it.

  • I get the idea that writing is not hard work, only in the sense that I’m doing what I want to do. But writing is also some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, and I’m not a person who tends toward writer’s block. Writing is a million things, with a million different ways to go about it. So I’m always skeptical when someone claims to be an authority on the life of the writer — although I have come to detest most conversations and quotes by writers on writing. I have had dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of jobs in my life. I know what grueling is. Writing for me can be freeing, grueling, and everything in between.

  • Absolutely lovely. In my experience, while writing has remained physically and emotionally exhausting, it has also been liberating. A complete release of thoughts. A release of what had previously weighed me down. So I have also found it to be nothing more than a beautiful gift. Thank you for sharing!

  • hyper4reading says:

    Yes, yes yes! It is a gift.

  • Wake38 says:

    “Writing is, to me, a beautiful, liberating process that feels unlike any work I have ever done in my life.”
    I have to say, just this morning I was having a conversation with my Mom about making comparisons. I have to say that I would rather write about gutting fish and hard labor, then doing it!
    I did not always think that writing was divine at one time. To be honest, I hated writing and reading, sorry. Then tragedy paid me a visit unfortunately and in tragedy I came to discover that writing gradually gave me hope. I was isolated in a cubicle doing absolutely nothing, just a body in a seat at work when I discovered that I could heal, be free, and find joy, and beauty in writing!

  • […] Source: Writing Is Not Hard Work […]

  • Lyn Fenwick says:

    Mike, Thank you for your piece. I share your feelings; however, I do not depend upon writing for my income. Perhaps those of us who have another source of income and write because we want to write don’t appreciate the stress and tedium of writing on demand. As for me, I love the process and write for the sheer pleasure of it. The marketing I dread, and rewriting something of which I am proud and well satisfied to make it more marketable feels different–false, using someone else’s version of my idea, a betrayal of my intensions. That is not to say that I close my mind to good advice. My writing has benefitted from that. As some of the comments have already noted, work can be pleasurable. Assigned work–maybe not so much. Lyn

  • The tone…”let me tell you what hard work is….,” and the repetition of “writing is not hard work,” did not work for me. I don’t need to be told what is and is not hard work; I am sixty. Even if this is an opinion piece, the tone seems shaming and lecturing, almost a rant that does not accommodate those of us who feel differently, but instead judges. There is a trend on social media to tell people to stop whining, and this essay reminded me of that. If the writer had all the time in the world to write, he might actually end up feeling quite differently about writing, who knows. This reminds me of the follow your passion refrain and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Flight of the Hummingbird speech. She no longer advises people to follow their passions, assuming everyone is like her, because many, many people are not, and she devastated at least one woman by advising her to follow her passion.

  • Diane Tibert says:

    Agree completely. I don’t bleed, I don’t suffer and I don’t dread the writing. I embrace it. I love it. It is the best thing in the world. Some may call it work, but work is not meant to be so pleasurable.

    But I know writing is not pleasurable for everyone, yet they still want to write. I understand they feel this way, but writing is not work for me.

  • Hyorin says:

    When you love to write then writing is bliss. I am a technical writer working in an 8-5 hour office. I chose a job that is not pay so much, but I made sure I could have my own computer and get the best writing assignments that even desk lawyers would wonder how I analyze cases better than they do. Although I love writing, I still still have difficulties writing stories. To write my own novel is my biggest dream but I could not seem to make the first step to write it. Technical writing is not about me. It’s about the subject of concern of the office I am working for. My novel is me: a product of my imagination, desires, views and character. I find it mind-bogging if someone reads my stories – like I am stripped naked before the world. So for some who can write like you do, I find them really brave and strong. How I wish I could be like you.

  • Allison K Williams says:

    Before I was a writer, I was a circus performer. It’s another job that is and isn’t hard work. It’s backbreaking labor (sometimes literally) for hours in order to present some beautiful, perfect, joyful minutes to the world.

    Maybe the difference between the bad kind of hard work and the good kind of emotional investment and attention work is that there’s often a satisfactory payoff (and that’s not always publication) to our work in the arts.

    Is training for circus “fun”? Sometimes. In a way that training “normal” in a gym is not, for me. But whether or not I’m having a good time, it’s work.

  • Sheila Shedd says:

    Well said, and entirely true. Thank you for reminding us fortunate enough to get to write not to whine in between berry picking.

  • Little Voice says:

    Yep, you pegged it…writing is not hard work when you let it flow…or not.

  • Thank you for this perspective. You are so right. Writing IS divine, a joy, a privilege, all of that. Hard work is something else altogether.

  • Allie Marini says:

    Yes, because apples and oranges are exactly the same fruit. Straw man argument. Physical labor isn’t supposed to be the same as psychic “work.” But you know that, & this op-ed panders to that, baiting us. By your logic, teaching isn’t hard work, either. I mean, you’re just up in a class, talking, sharing your knowledge, right? EASY PEASY.

    • Really? I don’t understand the animosity toward the author of this post. He says writing brings him joy. Part of the joy is comparing it to unpleasant manual labor jobs he’s held in the past. That seems to make sense from where I sit. He acknowledges that “Writing certainly takes patience, effort, dedication, a focusing of attention. It can be emotionally exhausting, absolutely.” I think we can all agree that this last part applies to teaching too. But in the end, he _never_ said that teaching was not hard work, so your anger on that count seems rather misplaced.

  • […] Mike Minchin has an opinion about what constitutes “hard work.”  […]

  • Patricia Winton says:

    Agatha Christie said it best. In her autobiography she wrote, “Writing is hard work.”

    PW

  • jackgetze says:

    A wonderful dose of reality. We all get caught up with the daily struggle. Thank you, Mike. Even as a newspaper reporter, I understood how lucky I was to earn money with my mind, my ability to string together words — what seemed a natural gift. I saw how hard my high school friends all worked to feed their families, mostly with their hands and their back, and I knew writing wasn’t really work. Despite the recurring heartches and aggravations of the artist showing his efforts, writing my fiction now is pure joy, not a task.

  • Feel relief for the first time today. Exactly. The wee hours. The delight of it. The actual beginning transparency of why we often start in the first place.

  • […] Ruth Carmel writes in response to Mike Minchin’s guest blog post, “Writing is Not Hard Work”: […]

  • If you make a living from your writing, as in, you are an actual professional writer with deadlines, agents to pay, and editors to please, it’s work. I can always tell the non-professionals because they wax poetic about the pure joy, and how writers should quit if every word is not ecstasy. No one loves a real job everyday. Even the guy at the taffy pull factory gets sick of taffy once in a while. If you’re doing it right, if you’re creating content and constantly improving your work, if you’re building an audience and a backlist, if you’re challenging yourself to make every book an improvement on the last, if you’re paying your mortgage and putting braces on your kids because you stayed up until 4am to make a deadline–it’s work. Sure, it’s not de-tassling corn kind of work. But my husband sits at a desk and what he does is called ‘work’. If you love every moment of writing and every word on the page is euphoric pleasure, then you’re not a professional writer. And it’s a touch insulting to those of us who are. And anyone else who has a desk job, for that matter.

  • […] Writing does not leave me with pinpricks along fingertips. Writing does not scald like a hot iron. Writing is not a body ravaged by cancer. Writing is not a garment factory in Bangladesh, or a cannery in Alaska. […]

  • […] think both ( Mike Minchin, who defines work as difficult physical labor exclusively and Ruth Carmel, who focuses on the […]

  • […] the full article “Writing is not Hard Work” by Mike […]

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