Happy Writing

January 26, 2022 § 29 Comments

By N. West Moss 

My first rule of writing is to never beat myself up about the work, and I don’t. I don’t beat myself up if I sit down and write something lurid, crappy, sentimental, or incomprehensible. I don’t beat myself up if weeks go by without finding time to write, and I don’t beat myself up if I write something great and no one wants to publish it. Writing is the great passion of my life, and because of that, I protect it, even from myself. 

The world can be a sour, judgmental, stress-filled place. It seems to be forever shouting at us to be productive, as if productivity (whatever that means) were everything. If we don’t have something to sell, then where’s the value in what we’re doing? We’re supposed to get up before dawn every single day, and labor over the conveyor belt of writing, constantly “upping” the word count on the ever-increasing leviathans of our books. If we don’t, if we pause to think or read or grieve or, God forbid, enjoy the lengthy process of choosing the right word, we’re supposed to feel like failures. 

I count almost everything as writing. The unsuccessful stories and books stuffed into drawers? Yup, that’s writing. Staring at the ceiling is also writing, as is revising, as is research, as is just plain old living. I didn’t have much to say until I was in my forties, by which time I’d been beaten-up by life a bit, and had formed some opinions. It was in my forties that I found myself wanting to show complete strangers what the world looked like to me. I was a writer before that, but living is what gave me material. 

This push for measurable productivity threatened to ruin writing for me. A few years ago, I was trying to write a scene wherein my protagonist was at the beach on Coney Island. I spent hours on it, trying to make it work, and it just kept coming out false and flat and lifeless. Finally, I sat back and thought about what I was trying to do. I realized the scene was not working because this character was inherently shy and would never go to the beach or take his shirt off in front of anyone. I cut the scene. 

If I used word count as the only metric to measure whether the time spent on that scene was successful, I would have to have called it a failure. But that dead-end, and many similar ones that I faced as a memoirist later, was one of the best things that could have happened. Because I tried a scene and failed, I learned something critical about my character – that he was shy. The discovery told me to write the character’s story rather than impose a story on him. It was the moment in which I finally understood what it meant for a story to be character-driven. Cranking out a couple thousand words and then deleting them was, it turned out, very fruitful indeed, even though I ended that day with fewer pages than when I’d begun it.   

This doesn’t mean that I’m a lazy writer, either, or that I’m easy on myself. I work hard, and am open to feedback. I quite often revise a piece more than fifty times before I’ll let anyone see it. Dissatisfaction with the work is allowable. The kind of despair that leads to quitting is not. 

We have all racked up our share of rejections and negative reviews. The public can be cruel, unforgiving, and judgmental, and it is a given that we will never be enough to appease a sullen world. So I don’t try. I commit to art, and because of that commitment, anyone or anything that makes me want to quit is banished. The world might pile on, but I refuse to. It feels like the least I can do.  

____

N. West Moss has published a collection of short stories, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, and a memoir, Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, & Creating a Bountiful Life. She has a middle grade novel, Birdy, forthcoming from Little, Brown. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Saturday Evening Post, etc. Find her on Twitter: @scoutandhuck

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§ 29 Responses to Happy Writing

  • Thank you! “Dissatisfaction with the work is allowable. The kind of despair that leads to quitting is not.” I am still writing, just not sharing… at least for a time. Still plugging away at a story that matters, if only to me.

    • N. West Moss, author says:

      I find that there are times when I need to retreat with my own writing to a place where I can hide and love the work again. All we have as writers are the stories that matter to us. 🙂

  • Morgan Baker says:

    Thank you for this reminder.

  • Ingrid T says:

    “Staring at the ceiling is also writing, as is revising, as is research, as is just plain old living.” Love this! Also count reading inspirational pieces like this one. 🙂

  • sandrah says:

    This hits home as I am in the “staring at the ceiling” phase of writing today. Thanks for the reminder!

  • lindawis says:

    Yes, I can relate! Word counts are self-defeating for me. I work best when I am happy writing what I want to say. Even if only to myself. What a good pep talk this is! Thank you.

  • lgrizzo says:

    Thank you. I needed to read this today, a day with little room for writing.

    • N. West Moss, author says:

      I am sure that you are thinking about your writing, and even if you aren’t, your experiences today will end up in your work in some way eventually. To me, it is all writing. 🙂

  • How wonderfully written! You made fresh what I have found true, and just thinking about it via your own process made a needed positive impact.

    I write three times a week for a few hours but lately have begun to consider submitting pieces once more. I stopped when it became a competition with myslef and nameless others “out there”. Now I may be ready to begin again. Why? I wonder. I believe it’s to share my writing with a wider readership. But I will figure it out later.

    For now, I am writing, thinking about writing, dreaming it, and writing more as I have since childhood. Nothing can be lost by creating with language (or being a humble conduit for imagination with its elucidation), and everything is to be gained. Like you noted in various ways, it is my joy and a sure comittment–and ’til death do us part…

    • N. West Moss, author says:

      I kind of feel like publishing and writing are two different muscles, and each has its own, discrete rewards. If you’re enjoying the writing, well that’s the important thing to me. If it also gets published, well that’s a whole other thing. I do my best not to confuse the two, which can be hard

  • Vickie says:

    Yes, yes, yes. You’ve captured what writing means to me and how I feel about it. After three years of writing, I still love it, and it’s part of me. But I decide on any given day what that looks like. I write things that will never go anywhere and don’t work once I’ve written them, and I write things that I labor over and finally like or sometimes love when I’m done with them. I’m still learning to trust my voice and what I have to say. These are two things that were not encouraged when I was young. Your essay is beautifully written with a wonderful message.

    • N. West Moss, author says:

      I think it was Salinger who asked, “If you were never to be published, would you still write?” I think of that often, and realized decades ago, well before I was ever published (I was first published in my late 40s btw) that I have always written, and will always write, publications or not

  • Saqib says:

    Hi! an awesome blog. please share your guest blogger journey with me. Because I want to become guest blogger.
    Regards

  • If I printed this out, I would have to underline almost every sentence. It has the sheen of great writing: a thought that strikes me as obvious and true, and yet I’ve never read it before. Why AM I beating myself up? If I am writing, we’re good. And it’s all writing. Love this: “I don’t beat myself up if weeks go by without finding time to write, and I don’t beat myself up if I write something great and no one wants to publish it. Writing is the great passion of my life, and because of that, I protect it, even from myself.” I often (unconsciously) beat myself up for writing something no one wants to publish. Like I didn’t write it. But I did! THANK YOU!

    • N. West Moss, author says:

      I get that. Publishing (as I wrote above in a response to another comment) is a whole different world than the writing part is. If I love it, am obsessed with it, care about it deeply, then it usually means someone will publish it eventually, but whether they do or not, 99% of the joy for me is from the writing part anyway. Ironically, I think, the less we think about publishing as we write, the more likely we are to be published if we want to

  • Thank you for this. So few people (nonwriters?) seem to understand that writing can be its own reward. I do want my words to be read—to connect with readers, but that can. E slow in coming

  • Sorry! Typos!! And when publication is sparse, engaging with the words and ideas buoys me.

  • camilla sanderson says:

    Yes! writers cannot hear this enough! thank you for writing it 👏🏻🎉💗✨⭐️💫

  • Ed Markovich says:

    “Ars gratia artis”, you inspire me!

  • allenorajames says:

    Your write up is so relatable. Being an owner of blogging page, I can literally feel the line ‘We have all racked up our share of rejections and negative reviews’.

  • N. West Moss, author says:

    Reblogged this on N. West Moss.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. This makes me feel so much better about the whole writing process.

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