Why We Shouldn’t Romanticize the Writing Life (for the sake of our students)

A writer friend of mine recently shared this quote on his Facebook page and wrote that he was humbled by it: “Don’t romanticize your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is that you leave it on the page.” -Zadie Smith

It got me thinking about my own consideration of my vocation as a writer.

I used to romanticize the writing life. Then I began writing.

It’s easy to do, romanticizing a so-called writer’s life. While we do seem to celebrate the poor, tortured, brooding, alcoholic writer because it appeals the dark side in many of us, it’s sentimental nonsense. Writers like to think we know something that others don’t or that we somehow live within a deeper understanding of the human condition than, say, the guy who fixes our plumbing. In reality, a vocation is a vocation is a vocation. We writers like to say we must write, that it’s the air we breathe and the food we eat. That there is no way around the nourishment it brings. We like to think that without it, we’d be dead (if not physically, then intellectually and perhaps spiritually). While there is a grain of truth here, this is no less true for those who must build or preach or design or fix. Or those who must help, feed, decorate, farm, teach, paint, sing, procreate, cook. The difference might be that those with these vocations tend to do their work without all of the dramatic sighs and suicidal tendencies.

Christian sage Eugene Peterson wrote a book called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction about growing spiritually along the Way of Christ that I think can be related to one’s vocation as well. As is any worthwhile spiritual pursuit, our vocations are apprenticeships that guide us toward being journeymen and, finally, master craftsmen. If we look at the writing life as an apprenticeship, we realize that deep sighs and wearing black are merely a nod toward the vain and self-important accoutrements of the writer’s life. The clothes you wear, the alcohol you drink, the suicidal thoughts you have, don’t make you a writer.

Writing makes you a writer.

When we insist on romanticizing the writing life, we tell our apprentices that what makes them writers is merely the desire to write rather than the actual practice of it. It’s like saying you’re a carpenter because you own a hammer. When our students leave their apprenticeships and venture into their own writing lives, which are often lonely, what we’ve given them dismantles like a floor whose planks were never nailed together—then comes the brooding and the despair. Of course we cannot promise that just because they write they will publish or that they’ll be accepted more often than they’re rejected. But we can promise them that if they simply brood and never write, then they were really never writers to begin with and we never really helped them at all.

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2 responses to “Why We Shouldn’t Romanticize the Writing Life (for the sake of our students)

  1. Pingback: Writing Versus “The Writer” - Shaggin the Muse

  2. Pingback: Another Case for the Memoir | jennifer ochstein

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