Writing Actually Is Hard Work, Which Is Fine

January 8, 2016 § 27 Comments

pic-victorRuth Carmel writes in response to Mike Minchin’s guest blog post, “Writing is Not Hard Work”:

I’m in the winter doldrums and the writing is slacking off. More precisely, I’m slacking off it. Too much late night television, forgetting to write down my ideas. At least I have an excuse for the moment. One of my sons has winter vacation, so until school kicks in again, it’s him and me facing the world together.

He’s fifteen but less independent than a typical kid his age, so I’m his buddy these days. We spent this morning at a warehouse store. I knew better than to troll the aisles, which I find headache-inducing even when I’m shopping solo. We stuck to business. After we ordered my son’s eyeglasses (cheaper than at the local optician, with its seasonally-appropriate window displays, but less risky than the hit-or-miss of an online pair), we headed straight to the produce and the thrill of color: Powder-skinned blueberries (I lifted the tray to check the bottom; no crushed berries to threaten the rest with rot). A Carmen Miranda of tomatoes. Avocados, with their waxed-linoleum rind. Mangoes, blushing beauties stacked six to a box, either all-unripe or all nearly-overripe. I chose a batch of hard greenish specimens, then swapped out one of them for a softer fruit.

And tonight, when my husband came home and dumped the mail on the table, the first gardening catalog of spring had arrived, resplendent with promise. After the boys were fed and the laundry folded, I opened it at random. Clusters of indigo blueberries beckoned, even prettier than in the store. Luscious adjectives promised more-luscious desserts. But I know enough not to fall for lies. Sure, they make it sound easy: check your zone, place your order, stick the plantlet into a hole in the dirt, water it and stand back. They don’t tell you what it’s really like. I never tried to grow blueberries, but I’ve planted vegetables and herbs on my tiny balcony. I dragged the paraphernalia outside — seed packets and tender shoots, earthenware containers and giant green-and-yellow plastic bags of potting soil, tiny implements and rubber gloves — and began. The tomato plants grew starter leaves and kept growing up and out, and I staked them and fertilized them and watered them, hauling a galvanized-zinc bucket sloshing through my living room to combat a July heat-wave. A plague decimated the marble-size green fruit and the plants went from growing to dead within days. The parsley was easy, needing only watering, or so I thought. One Saturday morning, I saw something moving among the leaves. A striped caterpillar was perched on a stem, taking actual bites with its tiny insect mouth. Suddenly there were half a dozen of the beasts. It was the Jewish Sabbath and I couldn’t kill them, so I watched, more fascinated than annoyed, as the parsley was slowly, steadily devoured.

We won’t talk about the carrots that never progressed beyond the orange-thread state.

I decided the effort wasn’t justified. A couple of years ago I found one answer: grow flowers, not produce. The neon-pink vinca were beautiful, and the marigolds were fine; those are unkillable, anyway. For a time I was content with the ratio of work to joy. But I finally caved. Now I visit the flower district on West 28th Street in Manhattan. Every few months I navigate the greenery festooning the sidewalks, pop into the familiar stores, and point: I’ll have these spiky bronze chrysanthemums, please, or those glorious lavender hydrangea. Everything potted, delivery extra. I water my flowers a few months, they look good, I get bored or the weather turns, they die, I buy replacements. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I loved Mike Minchin’s blog post. But can I disagree? To me, thinking that writing should be easy is like believing that shiny catalog. What you’re a novice like I am, you read an essay or short story and every sentence is perfectly crafted, every word inevitable, and you think: simple. But you start writing — assuming you have an idea to write about — and watch your words thud across the page like the hapless giant pursuing Jack.

In a recent class I took, our teacher drilled it in: writing is rewriting. But it’s so tempting to think that if you are truly talented, a draft or two should do the job, and if it doesn’t, you just might not be good enough. If I don’t experience writing as the life-affirming, non-work it is to Mr. Minchin — and more power to him — am I in the wrong business? That’s why TV is important. I recently saw Stephen Colbert interviewing George Saunders. Saunders (who, incidentally, played a mean guitar) discussed the writing process and the torment of pruning away at what seems at first perfectly good prose. Is this word necessary? you ask yourself. What about the other one? And so on. He said he writes hundreds of drafts.

Hundreds of drafts. Doesn’t sound easy.

So maybe my gardening was cursed, but maybe I was too lazy to get it right. Maybe too sure of myself, or not curious enough. I know this: if those tomatoes had been the only thing between me and starvation, I would have found a way to grow them.

As it is, if I’ll never be the green-thumber I thought I aspired to, I’m at peace with that. I don’t need to be more diligent or successful at gardening than I already am: not very. I’ll buy what I can’t make.

But if I’m going to consider myself a writer — I like “wordsmith,” with its shadings of honest labor — I don’t think the work needs to be, or will be, easy. I think I need to stop letting the perfect paragraphs of great writers scare me into hopelessness. Perhaps good writing is not magic or happenstance or bliss but, simply, as much work as it takes. And being willing to sweat a bit.

Metaphorically, I mean, Mr. Minchin.

Ruth Carmel – a pseudonym – is a lawyer and writer who lives in New York with her husband and children. Her essays have been published in Ducts, Aish, Talking Writing, and Alimentum, among other publications. She is working on a memoir.

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§ 27 Responses to Writing Actually Is Hard Work, Which Is Fine

  • […] Source: Writing Actually Is Hard Work, Which Is Fine […]

  • trishrohr says:

    Best quote I have seen this week is “January is the Monday of months” – doldrums indeed.

  • The easy is good and me too I believe that writing is hard, you have the mind of writing some but just as you want to start, your mind went dry , you may know it , but how to do the layout become problem.

  • I do believe writing is hard work. I appreciated Mr. Minchkin’s sentiments, what I did not appreciate was the ranting, preaching, stop whining tone that did not seem to allow for other opinions. I did feel he was a tad naive.

  • herheadache says:

    I saw that interview Colbert did.

  • Inkhorn says:

    writing is work, hard work yes. It’s honest to say that there are days i sit in my armchair with my pen in position and a blank page for hours. My mind wanders, my brain hurts, my pride is tormented, and i look forward to housework. And then there are times and moments and days when the first drafts and ideas come rolling off the tip of my pen like the fairy God mothers magic wand. poof – a beautiful dress, poof ‘s -a chariot, poof -a poem. and then always its the finished product that is blood, sweat and tears.

  • Mike Minchin says:


    I enjoyed your post very much. And I appreciate you sharing your perspective. I feel I’ve taken a few well-deserved hits on this one. What was I thinking? Well, I was speaking my truth, which of course is not anyone else’s, and I regret I did not make that point clearer. I fear the passionate (overzealous?) tone of my essay may have blurred the heart of what I was after, which is to say that, for me, there is more love in the act of writing than what I perceive as work, regardless of the number of revisions I go through. But you remind me that that is only my narrow view of things. All the best in your writing, be it hard work or not.
    –Mike Minchin

  • storyfruits says:

    I totally agree – I know a lot of people with a natural ability for beautiful writing, but even for them it takes draft after draft until they are entirely happy with something! And if something won’t quite come to your mind, then sometimes there’s nothing you can do to force that process.

  • Timothy Kenny says:

    The whole “writing is hard work/not really” discussion reminds me of college teaching, which I did for several years. College teaching, at least where I taught, is the only job I ever had with six months off a year. Paid, of course. I taught two courses a semester. How was this difficult?

    No one was shooting at me when I went to work. The mistakes I made did not cause anyone’s death. Mostly, I was teaching what I loved with students who often had a passing interest in the topic, which was journalism.

    Granted, the teaching position I held was better than most. Still, teaching at the university level — like writing — is clean, indoor work that’s not dangerous or boring.

    We write because we like to, yes? What am I missing here?

  • marilyn801 says:

    At age 10 I was interviewed for advanced placement and one of the questions was “what’s the difference between work and play?” – to which my answer was: “play is what you WANT to do, work is what you HAVE to do”. I certainly don’t think it’s that simple any more, since I’ve been a professional musician and while I WANT to play, it’s still hard work to do it right! I’ve been blogging 7 months now and, as with music, find that it’s painstaking work to find the best words to elicit the emotions I want to convey. Yes, there’s wordPLAY involved, but it’s also work that takes effort!

  • ch4rl13sm1th says:

    Off subject, what is that a picture of? An elaborate typewriter?

  • Love this line so much: “I think I need to stop letting the perfect paragraphs of great writers scare me into hopelessness.” Yes, yes and yes. P.S. Your gardening efforts sound so, so familiar.

  • Little Voice says:

    Me thinks you trith too hard. Not certain that is a word, but my philosophy, no my habit, is not to work too hard. I hate difficult tasks…like gardening, writing, living…no, I like living, just not having to work at it. Yes, lazy is an affliction.

  • John Maberry says:

    There’s a certain silliness about this–the apple and orange comparison of physical labor to intellectual exertion. While too much of the latter can in time lead to tiring the body as well as the mind, that says nothing about how difficult or easy the writing is. Sometimes it flows almost effortlessly. More of the time it is figuratively like pushing and pulling water through a clay-clogged pipe.

  • Wonderful wonderful wonderful. I’ve given up on vegetables too although I still plant cherry tomatoes. Sometimes the animals get them before I do. And I’ve planted and planted flowers – oh, and hazelnut bushes which the squirrels get to faster than I, too. But the digging in earth after writing for a few hours feels fine. And sometimes I even manage enough flowers for a bouquet. But then, I have an old and very large Kansas City backyard. Have to do something with it. But I remember city balconies. The only luck I had was with a strawberry pot. Not that many good strawberries came of it, but it did green up, and I did get some, and I wrote a good poem out of it. There’s that.

  • Great post!!! Writing is my hard work. But when you do what you most passionate about , time flies .

  • tomadaonline says:

    For a moment your story took me to Barthleme’s The School. I just finished a story for SF Writers Studio. I sweat, nearly panicked, panicked, and finally said “That’s enough.” So I’m in your camp and, for the moment, content.

  • Writing is hard work. So what? Gardening is also hard work. So is playing the guitar. And social work. I have stories. Teaching? You have no idea. Hard work isn’t a curse. It’s a blessing that keeps us humble and staves off boredom.

    Those striped monsters that ate your parsley? They were swallowtail caterpillars. Usually the parsley bounces back after they’ve eaten their fill and gone on to the chrysalis stage. I used to grow extra parsley just for them. They’re so beautiful, and their lives are so short.

  • Gabriella E. says:

    Writing like this truly inspires me to keep plugging away at my goals. Storytelling is a fine art, and like all things, it takes time and dedication to be successful at. It’s always nice to be reminded that we’re not alone in our efforts. Thank you for the pick-me-up!

  • DhyvD says:

    Reblogged this on Kool Kenatro (Bajan13K) and commented:
    I think both of you have good points, but the core issue is that invisible work is still work. The rewriting, whether it occurs mostly in imaginary spaces of the inner mind, or on paper, is indeed the bulk of work; and so is finding the motivation to work, which occurs within the soul, dealing with invisible forces of emotion, duty/obligation, and drive/purpose, amongst other potential complications.

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog is a rare gift:

    A non-fiction piece that’s lyrical…

    An honest look at what it takes to “write good”…

    A reminder to my former self that nearly every first draft needs improvement…

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