In my book Fighting to Win I describe in detail Budo, the Way of the samurai warrior that proved to be of interest to many people internationally. Just as the Way of the samurai has fascinated me for decades, there is a Way of the Writer which I have long been actively involved in that I would like to describe here as I conceive of it.
A Way is more than a discipline. It is a style of practicing a skill or art that embraces the heart, spirit, and mind of the practitioners of the Way–the beginners who devote themselves to the Way and become masters.
Developing into a Writer Following a Way
A writer begins with a talent. Talent is the raw material from which a writer’s career is shaped. Doing well what others find difficult is talent. It is not possible to describe the complete, complex structure of knowledge and skills the talented writer has acquired. The best predictor of future success isn’t just time spent writing, but the amount of time devoted to improving not just this skill or that skill, but the specific skills which are the most essential if a person is to become excellent--those ten or so necessary abilities they must possess if they hope to excel. Developing those skills is the first focus of a person on the Writer’s Way. Skills are taught–by a teacher, or a mentor, or they are self-taught. Many of the most successful and distinguished writers taught themselves.
You read about writing and famous writers and may take classes and may belong to writers’ groups. You may go to writers’ retreats and find contentment. “There is a blessed peace in a retreat that happens to suit my fraught nature…I arrive in a heaven…and I sink immediately in a sort of peace from life that I don’t seem to be able to find anywhere else” (Lynn Freed).
Someone mentors you or singles you out and offers help. You apply yourself and develop a solid foundation in the mechanics of writing, and branch out into in your specialty and learn its mechanics and then range far beyond the mechanics, becoming a proficient writer, then excellent, then superb, masterful.
You may be a natural-born novelist, or essayist, playwright, poet, or screen writer, or you may begin writing no more promising than anyone else. But at some point—it could be at the age of seven or forty or sixty five or at a bleak crisis or turning point or epiphany in your life–if you are on the first steps of the Writer’s Way, you begin to write more purposefully, mindfully, self-consciously, and ambitiously. Your goals grow higher, your future path a little less faint.
Then, possibly without being aware of how it happened, out of the act of writing more frequently, acquiring knowledge of effective writing, involving yourself in the writing world, enduring at times frustration, suffering, and pain you wouldn’t have had were you not a writer, and growing in confidence, your writer’s style and voice growing clearer, you are “taken” by the craft of writing fully and completely–unequivocally.
You find yourself a practitioner of the Way of the Writer. As a writer involved in a Way you are willing to give up other rewards for the sole experience of writing because for you writing is satisfying in a way few if any other things are. It is not so much the content of the writing you do that accounts for your pleasure, but the process of writing that brings joy in and of itself. The biographies of great artists make it clear that the creative urge often “yokes everything to the service of the work” (Carl Gustave Jung). For most serious writers, to write itself is more rewarding than the acclaim they receive.
What It Feels Like If You Are On the Way of the Writer
Writing as a Way opens up new facets of your being that you might not be aware of. You write regularly over an extended period of time–one year, five, ten, thirty, or fifty. It’s writing that you think most about and talk with other writers about and possibly bore your loved ones speaking about. Writing as a Way becomes an indispensable part of your daily and weekly life.
At times writers on a Way write night and day, revision upon revision, embellishing, reworking, cutting, shaping and reshaping, and finally deciding if the work is done and ready “to go out.” Although writing is often grueling, tedious, and not easy but difficult to master, few other things matter as much to practitioners of any of the arts as sweat and work. When you’re away from writing, you crave it. If you’re away too long, you become edgy, nervous, and irritable. The only relief is to get back to the writer’s work you adore. You try to write at least one hour every twenty-four. Gertrude Stein said that even though she had never been able to write more than a half hour a day, all day and every day she had been waiting for that half hour.
Something you find essential in the act of writing keeps you going and makes you return to it again and again in spite of the setbacks and deep disappointments every writer knows well. There is “just something about” putting words together, of experimenting with ideas, of holding them in your mind as you would analogously hold a ball in your hand, and of the emotional release of “losing” yourself in the work, of having a penchant for detail because writing is an art of detail.
When you’re writing, you’re focused. Your mind is sharp, crisp. Your thoughts don’t wander. You’re not thinking of anything else. A headache disappears. Worry about the rent dissolves. You forget about yourself, almost as though you’ve stopped existing except in the words you’re putting so carefully on the screen before you. You may be working on four, five, or six projects simultaneously, moving from one to another as the mood strikes, each project requiring different talents. When people don’t recognize the value and quality of your writing, your faith in yourself helps you persist. Poet Stephen Spender said, “It is evident that faith in their work, mystical in intensity, sustains poets.”
The joy and exhilaration you receive on the Writer’s Way even from the physical act of sitting at the computer, taking a first breath of your work day, getting ready to write, and touching the keyboard with your fingertips, or the thrill at the design of the text on the computer screen is beyond the experience and comprehension of non-writers. Those aspects of the writer’s life add up to an experience which is often as necessary to the writer’s wellbeing as loving and being loved.
The most distinguishing quality of creative people is a persistent and enthusiastic absorption in their work, in spite of any frustration and suffering they may endure. Creative talent is indistinguishable from passion and intensity. You can hardly call yourself creative without them. One reason writers who are experts are more accomplished than writers who are very good but not great is that experts are more passionate about writing and spend more hours at it, working six hours while less capable writers work two hours. The only way you could keep some people from writing would be to break their fingers.
When you are a writer on a Way, when you’re writing you are in your element and are maximally effective. You have high aspirations. You’re willing to sacrifice other pleasures and have a need to do your work without being interfered with, to be free of conflicts that impede your writing goals.
At times you live with uncertainties, doubts, and tension. But over the months or years you develop strength, confidence, and faith in your abilities and judgment. If asked, you’d define yourself as creative, inventive, determined, and enthusiastic. You’ve found that you have good insights into your capabilities and are aware of those you lack. The hardships, worries, disappointments, and stresses you encounter—if they don’t drive you away from a Writer’s Way–play a necessary part in making you stronger. There are many things you can’t do well that other people are far better at. But one thing you can do is write better than most other people.
Whatever your mood, even if grim, writing make you feel beater. Pleasure increases the more you write, partially because you work independently, isolated and self-sufficient. Since creative achievers typically engaged in solitary activities as children, you’re no stranger to working alone. “Aloneness…is not merely the effect of the circumstances in the life of creators: it is often also part of their personality–for the creator is frequently apart and withdrawn even in the presence of others, and makes a deliberate attempt to seek solitude” (R. Ochse).
The more you write, the more automatic your writing becomes. Then it is done without the interference of thought, like a bead of dew dropping simply and directly from a leaf: “My work is done at a subterranean level and as fragments come to the surface, I record them as they come up” (Katherine Anne Porter.)
Writing Is Blissful, but Painful
Virginia Woolf referred to a writer’s “rapture.” She said, “Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what, making a scene coming right, making a character come together.” That rapture is what writers often experience while writing, engaged in the Way of the Writer.
It is not unusual for writers and other artists fully absorbed in their work to be for that time in a state of ecstasy while they think, “What I am working on is essential to my fulfillment. I will be tenacious; I will persist for long periods without being diverted and try to make my work exceptional and appealing to an audience, applying all the skills of the craft I’ve labored so diligently to develop.”
But a person on a Writer’s Way is not spared emotional and physical suffering. George Orwell thought that writing a book was “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness” that writers are driven to by a demon they don’t understand but can’t resist. French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote a friend, “You have no notion what it is to sit out an entire day with your head between your hands beating your unfortunate brains for a word.” Julian Green wrote, “if only people knew what lies at the heart of my novels. What a tumult of desires these carefully written pages conceal! I sometimes have a loathing for the furious cravings that give me no peace except when I am writing.”
Following a Writers Way, You’re a Seeker and Teller of Truth.
In the arts, Anton Chekhov said, one must not lie, but must always be truthful. You’re trying to find what your truth really is and how best to express it and not deviate from it so that readers will understand it and find value in it and trust you. It is only through your writing that the truths you’ve discovered, and now believe in and strongly feel, will be expressed. How hard and how long you’ll have to work to express your truth is unimportant because every time you write it’s a coming into your own, a renewal of the best you have to offer the world.
The logical end of the Writer’s Way is to become a capital W writer, a Real Writer–to become known by your family, friends, teachers, editors, agents, and readers, and to define yourself as “someone who is very serious about writing.” Juvenal expressed the truth that “The incurable itch of writing possesses many.” Why across the world in every hemisphere and country is that true?
Through writing you’re drawing out of yourself all that is in you–all the knowledge you’ve acquired, all the experiences you’ve lived through, what your emotions are, what skills you bring, and what you aspire to become. You gain meaning in life and a better understanding of who you are through performing writing. You have the sense that you are a person who is able to reveal important things. Delving deeply, expressing to the world what treasures you have found, you are now an artist, a remarkable status you have achieved by following the Way of the Writer.
© 2021 David J. Rogers
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