J.D. Salinger once wrote (in Seymour: An Introduction), “Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished […] I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions.’ Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined.”
Overall, I believe this is some of the best writing advice ever written. But I’d like to analyze the hell out of this paragraph, and tell you what I think about writing being either a profession or a religion.
First of all, writing is both at the same time. It has to be, if one wishes to be productive at this.
Now, that we’ve settled this, let me tell you about the religious side of writing. You have to approach your desk, your computer, your pen with humility. There’s no place for arrogance. You have to be humble about the words you put on paper, you have to constantly ask yourself if what you’re doing is the right thing. Did you say what you wanted to say or something else?
Then, I think that for most of us the simple act of writing becomes religion. We don’t understand it very well, we don’t understand why some days we’re good and some days we’re not, and to paraphrase Stephen King, we don’t understand why it’s good when it’s good and why it’s not when it’s bad. We develop certain habits, a crazy routine. We need our time and space.
Ever been inside an empty church? It feels as if it’s just you and God. You’re alone, but you don’t feel that way. Solitude and silence are not burdens. Not really.
Writing feels the same way.
Also, we like to believe that we’re doing more than just words. We like to believe in a higher calling, in destiny, in the fact that we’re changing something. We’re altering the world, giving it new meaning. We’re the only ones capable of writing our stories the way we write them.
We give the world everything we have, everything we are, and it might happen that the world will never give us anything in return.
Almost always, making art (as is religion) is about sacrifice. More than just time and energy, so it’s a lot more than just a profession.
But writing is (and should always be) also a profession.
Whether you want it or not, you have to show up at your desk. You have to write. Good stuff, bad stuff, it doesn’t matter. You have to finish stuff. You have to set realistic goals. You have work hard. You need to be patient.
Most famous writers write every day for as long as they can. It’s like a nine to five job. When they don’t feel like it, they do it anyway.
Because, sadly, that’s the only way you’ll ever get better, and the only way you’ll ever produce something worth reading.
It’s incredibly difficult to do this. To keep on writing, no matter what. It’s far easier to just write in those moments of extreme clarity and inspiration, when the story seems to write itself. It’s easy to spend a lifetime waiting for a few moments of inspiration, as if writing is some sort of divine act of creation.
If writing would be just your religion, you’d spend more time waiting than writing.
And, yes, maybe all writers are readers who set out to write that one story they’d absolutely love to read. Maybe we all want to write our favorite novel.