Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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Thoughts on Writing

#25: Bibliophile Heroin

by Seanan McGuire

That's a bit of a brick to the head, isn't it? It probably makes a bit more sense in context -- at least I hope it makes a bit more sense in context, or this week's essay is going to be a lot like Seanan Does Hunter S. Thompson. Here's today's expanded topic:

If you're going to be a writer, you'll be a writer, because if you're going to be a writer, you'll write. This is not a glamorous profession. This is not something people do because they want to be rich and famous and sleep with Hollywood stars. This is something people do because, at the end of the day, they can't not do it. People decide to be writers for a lot of reasons. People continue to be writers because they can't figure out how the hell to quit. Writing is bibliophile heroin, and we're all addicts over here.

What I find a bit interesting about today's thought is that it's the first thought where I've actually had someone argue with me. Not in a bad way, just in a way that made me stop and go 'huh.' Paul -- who frequently plays guitar for me, and is one of the most tolerant, reasonable men I know -- said that I don't get to claim that writing isn't a glamorous profession, because everyone thinks of writing as glamorous. The children of writers are second only to the children of firemen and policemen when it comes to looking cool on Career Day. Teenagers dream of growing up to write. Some of us even manage it. We don't get paparazzi and cereal endorsements, but we're seen as glamorous all the same.

That disconnect between vision and reality is a lot of why this thought exists. Ready to ponder? Fantastic. Let's begin.

Glamor Is In the Eye of the Beholder.

Paul's right: being a writer is awesome when you're just looking for something to brag about at parties. If you get to skip the actual economic and practical facts of the writer's life, being a writer makes you look smart, makes you seem more interesting to people who've never met a real live author before, and gives your mother something to brag about. If you asked my mother, she'd tell you that being a writer is absolutely glamorous, and by the way, I'm smarter, prettier, and more talented than anybody else you can name. From the outside, even the life of a mid-list author can look like something to be envied -- don't you get to talk to other writers, famous people who maybe wrote books other people love? Don't you get invited to conventions, get free admission to media events, and generally control your own destiny? Sure, the image of the starving writer is always there, but it tends to be very much like Christian in Moulin Rouge. The writer, popular culture assures us, only suffers in hovels because it will improve his art. Not because we're broke, and would rather buy printer ink than heat.

The practical facts of writing are very different from the perceived ideal. That's important to know. It's also important to know that the practical acts of writing are very different from the perceived ideal. There are people who truly believe that writing -- whether it be a short story, a novel, a blog post, or an essay -- is like turning on a spigot: we sit down, we decide 'I'm going to write a New York Times best-seller today,' we flex our fingers, and it happens. Some get a bit more practical, and liken it to growing an apple. We plant a seed, wander around living interesting, glamorous lives for a few months, harvest the fruit from the tree, maybe complain a bit about editing so that it'll look like we're doing real work, and bam, it's a book.

As a beginning writer, it can be difficult to get past the idea that dammit, this is supposed to be all champagne and pixie dust. It doesn't help that even as you're learning just how much work you've signed yourself up for, everyone around you is asking when you're going to be rich and start feeding them a steady diet of caviar milkshakes. There's a certain element of 'just grit your teeth and do your job' that has to come into play, especially when you're trying to get a handle on your own work.

Bibliophile Heroin.

If you look at books on writing, written by writers, you'll find that a great many of them will include references to starting to tell stories at an early age, or growing up hungry to be a writer. You'll find quite a few that refer to coming to writing late, but finding that it quickly became an all-consuming passion. That's the thing. Books about writing, when written by writers, bear an uncanny resemblance to books about living with an addiction. It's something you do because you have no choice. It's something you do because it has to be done.

People will argue that there's a difference between 'being someone who writes' and being 'a real writer.' I disagree with these people. There's a difference between being someone who writes because they feel the need to write, and someone who writes professionally, but they're both of them legitimately and validly writers. Do I think that someone who's been writing a sonnet every day to keep their hand in since they first read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin should be putting 'writer' on their tax returns? No. But I do think that when we're talking about the casual, everyday reality of things, that everyone who feels the burning need to write and keep writing will understand that 'writer' is a word that means more than just 'what it's okay to put on your business cards.'

Writers write. When writers aren't writing -- either because they can't (we'll look at writer's block in a moment), or because they're simply choosing to do something else just now -- they're probably thinking about writing. I, personally, am basically always thinking about some form of writing. This has caused me issues; I once had a boyfriend look deep into my eyes and ask what I was thinking. He didn't look very happy when I responded with 'I'm pretty sure I can navigate the end of chapter two if I'm just willing to...' The only time I'm not thinking about writing is when I actually am writing, and even then, I'll often get myself through really sticky plot twists by stopping to consider the sequence that comes after. All writers are addicts. When they ask us how much we're intending to write, there's really just one answer:

The whole thing.

Is there a way to kick the addiction? Sure there is. Just tell yourself how much you suck every day; tell yourself that your talent really should have gone to someone more deserving; read things by people who've had longer to practice, and compare yourself with great and loving care. After that, go watch some reality television. Or, y'know, do whatever else it is that you want to do instead of writing. Are you still going to think about working? Yup. Are you still going to sit around itching with the urge to write? Oh, probably. Every time I've tried to stop writing, I've wound up sitting there and just making myself miserable. But you can probably manage to do it. Good luck with that.

Writer's Blockage.

Everyone gets writer's block. Sometimes your writer's block may last for literal years. Hell, you could die while you're in the middle of a decade-long case of writer's block, thus leaving your literary estate to cobble together your final incredible masterwork from the scribbled notes you've left on your bedroom wall. In pastel crayon. In Latin. Because you had writer's block.

I cannot tell you how to cure writer's block. All I can tell you is that there's a difference between writer's block and kicking your addiction, and mistaking the one for the other may well lead to a bad case of accidental sestina. Spare your loved ones. Don't make the mistake so many have made before you.

Good News, Bad News.

The bad news is that there is no Betty Ford Clinic which treats literature addiction. ('Biblioholia,' contributes Will, who has seen writer's addiction in action all evening as I sat here being social, being chipper, and writing an essay. Truly, my problem is an advanced one.) There is no AA to which you can go; there are no sponsors; no one is going to walk you through the twelve step program that leaves you without the urge to write. Sorry.

The good news is that you can find lots and lots and lots of people who want to help you be a better addict. Books on writing! Memoirs about writing! Writer's groups, and people who want to talk about writing, and essays about writing, and and and and. Yes, you can be a better addict. Yes, we're glad to help you improve the quality of your addiction, because when you're a better addict, you're happier to help us be addicted.

My name is Seanan McGuire, and I'm a writer.

Thank you.

© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published four novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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