J.D. Salinger once wrote, “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 You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished.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.
After all, my writing mantra has been, “Punch the damn keys.”
I say nothing about being inspired, having the time, or the planets being aligned in just the right way. I say nothing about other commitments, or chores, or the fact that you have to go grocery shopping.
I say, punch the damn keys, because, ultimately, that’s what makes you a writer. It’s as simple as that.
Or is it?
Because, at the same time, writing is, indeed, a religion. 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.
After all, even the best among us, the titans of literature, long dead, have struggled with the soul-crushing weight of an empty page. And all writers have had to discard a lot more words than they ever let someone else read.
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? 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 punching some words onto a computer. We like to believe in a higher calling, in destiny, in the fact that our words are nudging the world a bit. We’re altering the universe, giving it new meaning, new purpose. We’re the only ones capable of writing our stories the way we write them, and sometimes we are certain that we are not made of atoms, but rather of stories.
We give the world everything we have, everything we are, and it might happen that the world will never give us anything in return.
We sell our heart in order to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
Almost always, making art, just like religion, is about sacrifice. After all, passion comes from the latin root pati, which means “to suffer”.
We often suffer for our art, we suffer because our words mean too much to us, we suffer because we open the most hidden drawers of our souls, and we invite everyone to see inside them.
We suffer because the words we use could have been better placed. We suffer because no story is ever finished, only abandoned. We suffer because we have to let go of our words even when all we want to do is hold on to them.
We suffer because there’s no way to reach perfection…
But writing is, and should be, a profession as well.
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.
You need a plan of action.
You need clarity of purpose.
You need to know exactly what it is that you want your readers to do with the words you share with them.
The truly successful writers among us write every day for as long as they can. It’s like a nine to five job, maybe even more than that. When they don’t feel like it, they have to do it anyway.
They show up, again and again. They edit their words, again and again, until they hate them. They have to face the blank page not with the penitence of a sinner but rather with the self-assured smile of someone who’s there to do a job.
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 almost impossible to do this. To keep on writing, no matter what. It’s far easier to write only 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 for inspiration than you would writing.
If you approach the blank page as if it’s the only thing that can ever make you feel less alone, then you are going to fail.
If you are fearful of what we often call “the muse,” if you are not seeing the process, but some magical ritual, then you are going to fail.
The work you will produce will not be enough for history to remember you.
That’s why I believe that writing, like any other art form, is both religion and profession. It’s a process, a craft that we can understand to some degree, the same way we can describe the universe and understand its rules.
But at the same time, the same way we do not know for certain how the universe came to be in the first place, we do not know for certain all the mechanisms that allow us to create. We do not understand the things that inspire us, the stories that almost beg of us to write them into existence.
We cannot define or describe the feeling we get when we set out to write our brilliant stories, as if we’re embarking on a strange and perilous odyssey.
Who here has not written a story and felt that the characters were just as alive as anyone else in the real world? That the characters demanded a certain ending to their story, even though that was not the ending we thought they deserved?
Who here, when reading a great novel, has not felt that the world of fiction and what we call real life were so close that they could almost touch? That, somehow, some day, they could become one and the same?
We writers are strange creatures. A bunch of people fighting over the same body. The professional is well aware that the stories won’t ever, ever come true.
But, if you were to be honest with yourself, you know you wrote at least one story that you wished would somehow come true.
After all, everything we write was once real life. And there’s magic in that. Maybe the only bit of magic still left in the world.