An open letter to artists (I’m sorry, but it’s for your own good)

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“Throes of Creation” – Leonid Pasternak

Dear writers,

I love you. You are my people. But please, please – stop whining about writing.

I recently read the introduction to a book that started with the author going on for eight pages about how hard it is to write a book. At the end of it, I felt like telling her – good God, don’t write a book then! Go knit a sweater or paint something or join a soccer team! Do something that makes you happy! Why do I want to participate in something that you call a misery?

But this seems to be a trend with writers.

“Writing is hard work and bad for the health.”

 – E.B. White

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than other people.”

– Thomas Mann

“There is nothing to writing. All you do it sit at a typewriter and bleed.”

– Ernest Hemingway

I don’t mean to be calling bullshit on Hemingway, but let’s face it – no one complains like writers. No one can translate suffering into such beautiful prose.

But I have a problem with it. It perpetuates the myth of artists as fundamentally tortured and mentally unhealthy. Personally, I want the world’s artists to be okay, to stay alive and vibrant and pour their joy into their work. I don’t want to think that the book I hold in my hands nearly sent you over the edge. And I certainly don’t want my own life’s work to be the death of me.

Why don’t we see contractors or veterinarians flinging themselves to the proverbial fainting couch over their vocations? Why are there no quotes about scuba diving instructors torturing themselves for their work?

I have a theory. I think it’s because as writers we worry that we need to earn our place in the world. If we tell everyone how hard writing is, we can justify the importance of our work. We think that suffering means we are serious.

It’s time we let go of that.

There is nothing glorious in pain. Let’s stop inflicting artistic misery on the world and thinking that makes our work seem vital.

Our work is vital.

Art is vital.

You know how I know this? Because the first evidence of humans making art is forty thousand years old. The first evidence of any sort of agriculture is only ten thousand years old. This means, as a species, we thought about making beautiful, essentially purposeless things thirty thousand years before we thought about coming up with a reliable way to feed ourselves.*

Yes, writing can be hard. It is emotionally engaging in ways that can be uncomfortable. It makes you dig deep into your own stuff, finding harsh truths and accessing universal struggles. You are inventing entire worlds. But it is also among the most cushy jobs on the planet. You’re not tending to leprosy victims in a rural clinic or calling the parents of a car crash victim. You are not picking strawberries for twelve hours in the blazing sun.

The world will not have a greater appreciation for our work if they think we are dragging our souls through the mud for it. We don’t have to be martyrs to do impactful work. Scars are not badges of honor.

Everyone has a voice. How amazing is that? So, let’s use it. Proudly. Let’s enjoy the work that we chose to do. Let’s sit down to our work and pour our love and enthusiasm and passion on to the pages. Let’s ooze delight all over the keyboard. Let’s ditch the insecurity and believe that we earned the right to tell our story, just because we are alive. Let’s not contribute to the negativity of the world – the tortured writer is such a cliché. It’s boring.

And if writing is really that painful for you, if the vulnerability of creative expression really does send you to bed, paralyzed with endless writer’s block and shivering with agonizing self-doubt…maybe it’s time to close the Word document do something else.

There are plenty of other jobs available that are filled with rejection and pay next-to-nothing.

*for more on this, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic

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43 thoughts on “An open letter to artists (I’m sorry, but it’s for your own good)

  1. I also believe any artist: painter, dancer, musician, writer, having once created something recognized by the world as “worthy”, has doubts as to whether they will be able to do it again. I remember Michael Jackson after having created “Thriller”, not creating anything for quite a while, because, he once said when interviewed, he wasn’t sure he could ever equal that. I also remember the author of “The Bridges of Madison County” experiencing similar doubt, after “Bridges” earned international acclaim. Could this also be why some creative people agonize so much over their craft?

    • Oh Lisa, I love this post. You’re so write. Of course writing is hard if one measures oneself against Shakespeare or the like but let’s be honest, most of us aren’t or at least shouldn’t be. Everything is hard and painful if you are if that mindset. Think growing and caring for a lawn is easy… Tell that to the staff of centre court on Wimbkedon.

      Getting people to buy our work or even be one aware if it is hard work. Writing itself though is rather a piece of cake. I hate baking and I’m not very good at it, also I don’t enjoy it and instead do something that is work but enjoyably so, writing.

      I just write a poetry book and feel bad I have to bend the truth a little… It wasn’t hard, it took a few afternoons and I enjoyed it. When I hear people say it takes them weeks or longer per poem then I think to myself, that would be me learning to plaster a ceiling or dance the Tango.

      Surviving on royalties… Now that can be difficult 🙂

  2. Just started reading “You’ve Got a Book in You” by Elizabeth Sims, and I think within the first three or four pages, she starts off with the opposite (actually she says it’s easy on page 2 – just checked). I think she’s a rare gem. She starts off talking about how easy and fun it can be and that she is here to help make the process that way, and I’m looking forward to diving in.
    I think you hit it spot on. There’s a stigma that authors are just people who want to sit at a desk, not go to a “job”, artists, that sort of lot, so many of them feel they have to toughen up their life to make people have some empathy.
    Who cares? If you found a job that’s easy for you and fun, I say, good on you!

  3. Too funny. I just finished reading The Milagro Beanfield War. It’s an edition published some time after the book was first published and includes an Afterword from the author in which he basically complains about the horrible things the success of the book brought to him. What little appreciation I had for the book while I read it was completely destroyed by his whining afterword.

  4. Thank you!! I’m a writer and I love my work! I love that I can make words work for me. I love that I can quit work in the middle of the day to take my kids to the movies. I love that my words can touch someone right down in the depths of their soul. I agree with you. If writing is so painfully difficult, find another profession and stop torturing yourself.

  5. I love this. The reality most of us exist in is one where we do things we don’t like out of necessity. We turn to art, including literature, as an escape from that reality. If we confront that familiar feeling of discontentment and frustration in the very art we turn to for an escape, where does that leave us?

      • I wish I had the writer’s gift for explaining pre-history and how humans made purposeless art and ate whatever. “Because the first evidence of humans making art is forty thousand years old. The first evidence of any sort of agriculture is only ten thousand years old. This means, as a species, we thought about making beautiful, essentially purposeless things thirty thousand years before we thought about coming up with a reliable way to feed ourselves.*” I really enjoyed this. Thank You.

  6. Actually it’s a known fact that as many as 70% of writers face some kind of mental challenges, many requiring medication.

    I do agree about not wallowing in it, however. A creative mind might come with… quirks, but there are ways to live a fulfilling, healthy life. We just need to make our mental health as big a priority as our physical health and look after ourselves accordingly. Yes, writing’s hard, but it’s harder if you don’t face your personal reality head-on and with practicality.

    • I do think that a lot of sensitive people are drawn to creative pursuits. I have struggled with anxiety and panic attacks my entire life. But I’m not talking about clinical depression. I’m talking about the stigma of needing to be dark and tortured to be an artist. I think that is really dangerous. It means that we fear getting help for our issues because we worry our talent will disappear, and I totally agree with you – you need to face reality head on.

  7. Unlike Scuba instructors who help people to experience the physical wonders of an underwater world, writers are trying to convey an idea out of nothing but their imagination, words, and thin air. So I think the torture comes from the frustration and the need to dig into our own pasts and experiences in order to convey the emotions we write about with the same depth that we feel them in every day life. While difficult and frustrating and overwhelming, writing for many writers is also cathartic and necessary.

    • Totally agree!! The desire to use and write words needs a subject… In my personal story the deeper I connect yet freer I get the flow of thought, words and then writing takes a life of its own… When it’s not happening there’s a disconnect somewhere…writing is not hard it’s living an authentic life that’s hard!!

    • I agree with you – but I find digging into the past to be something that I’m honored to do. It’s an emotional job, but so rewarding.

  8. Yes! This whining about how hard writing is–epecially for writers?!–strikes me as humble-bragging at its worst. You’ve nailed it, Lisa!

  9. This post left me laughing pretty good. Oh, the insecurities of being a writer. Why was I rejected? Who do those publishers think they are? I can’t afford a literary agent. I’ve been working on this piece for five years, and still they want me to change this and that! I’ve read Rowling, I’m better than her! Oh crap, I just spilled Starbucks all over my keyboard, and now I’ll have to get up and clean it—well there goes my flow of thought. Why is my family banging on my office door? Sure, it’s nailed shut, but how else do you put up plywood to soundproof a room? But honey, I saw you and the kids half a year ago, what more do you want? What do you mean I smell and haven’t changed my clothes in months? I’ve only worn these pajamas for eleven weeks…tops! Five pages in a year, and you wanna know why? Because you guys keep asking me to come out! What do you mean my brother hated it! I only asked him to read it so it would give him something to do. If I wanted a negative critique I’d have sent it to the editor! As much as I love writing, I can’t find the time for it. Guess I’ll have to go back to that manufacturing job working for minimum wage, because now I can’t think of a thing to write because you interrupted me to tell me its time to go to the bathroom! “All work and no PAY makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, what do you think? What do you mean it should read as Play? I’m the author, I’ll write it the way I want, and save your opinion until I asked for it. So you think I use too many exclamation points, huh, well what have got to whine about, I’M THE WRITER! Good job, Lisa. 😀

  10. Yes yes yes! Love it.
    “Poor me” seems to be the natural default with many of us. Reading your essay was so refreshing.
    At 68, years old I have decided I want to write. Currently transfixed at the edge of the pool anticipating the cold shock to the system but excited by the sure knowledge that I will love it once in and swimming.
    Inspired………. Thank you.

  11. When you do what you love, there isn’t really a desire to complain. Some days, the words just pour out of me. On other days, they don’t. When I can’t find the words or inspiration for the words, I don’t write. It’s that simple. The writing process is not always easy, but never is it something that I complain about. When I would complain is if I could not write.

  12. Catching up on older posts, I wanted to add that among the “plenty of other jobs available that are filled with rejection and pay next-to-nothing” there are the expected musicians but the less expected scientists. As one of each, an amateur former and a professional latter, I’ve been told by a motivated professional musician friend that he would’ve quit long ago if he had to face anything like my rate of rejection for proposed creativity. Yet when funding and validation comes through, when I get the opportunity to enjoy full creative latitude with tools I wield best for what I want to explore, there’s nothing like it. I have to write for my living in order to communicate the results of that work, and it’s very codified, but I’ve encountered much frustrating writers’ block at that level. Nonetheless, once I can buckle down and remember that I am lucky enough to do what I want to do, that I’ve assumed the responsibility for exchanging a fatter paycheck for liberty of conscience, I keep my complaining for among other scientists 😉 Writers’ block is real, but it is definitely also in the head of the person experiencing it, and can be surmounted as can much else that lies in our own heads. Sometimes it takes encouragement and help. Much appreciating for your providing it for others, Lisa.

  13. Uh oh. I’m here to defend the whinging writers!! Most writers are avid readers and researchers. They love writing and they love language and all the little intricacies. Today we have been afforded the privilege that everybody can become a writer. The internet has provided a platform for us. And that is truly great! The problem is there is no longer the same esteem held to the word ‘writer’. It’s not the same prestige to be a writer nowadays because of the gross volume of bad writing littering the internet. But that is the world. It evolves and things change. But you need to understand where these people are coming from. It may have been their craft; like carpentry or acting. They spent their lives devoted to honing their skills to be the best they can be. And then internet shows up and people with poor grammar, who are not always well informed take over. It is just that bit debilitating.

    “Writing is hard work and bad for the health.”

    – E.B. White

    If writing isn’t stressful then you cannot be a serious writer. Sometimes it can take weeks to perfect a sentence. To perfect its syntax, its rhetoric, its rhythm!

    “There is nothing to writing. All you do it sit at a typewriter and bleed.”

    – Ernest Hemingway

    I think Hemingway meant ‘bleed’ as in pour your emotions into your words. That sitting at the typewriter was his catharsis. Purging those emotions can only be a great thing.

    Thanks for listening to my opinion!

  14. I don’t find the writing hard, I find the editing and showing other people hard. Maybe this is what writers really mean when they say writing is painful. The fact you have to bare part of your soul to others and let them judge it and therefore, also you.

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