Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Trying Too Hard and Not At All

This could’ve been one of the Duel Upon the Razor’s Edge topics, but frankly I don’t like to overuse that serial. It’s one of my better pieces of titling goofballery, and it also has this unfortunate implication that I will take two sides of something and diametrically oppose them. Diametric opposition is easy. Saying it’s bad is also easy. You know what’s hard? Knowing how hard something is supposed to be.

There’s a common statement in Creative Writing courses that the author’s best work, insofar as their readership is concerned, is the work that comes most easily. In my own experience, there’s some truth to that; the harder I try to make something work, the lower the odds are that it will. The sneaky part of it, naturally, is that ‘most’ tomfoolery. If everything I do involves a tremendous amount of effort, then saying that something was the most easy for me to write doesn’t mean all that much.Equally, if I just don’t give a damn and decide to write a Romance novel aimed at teen or young adult women, my easiest work isn’t all that much easier than the rest. Look, you find me a skillfully executed Romance novel that forces me to take that back, and I will actually  commission a Literary Service Cross for you. It’ll be very cheap because I have less money than I’m strictly comfortable with, but I’ll have it done (DISCLAIMER: I probably won’t). In the meantime, my point is this: difficulty is extremely subjective.

Writing a paragraph about myself is easy for me, because firstly I’m a writer and secondly I absolutely adore everything about myself. For ironic reasons, you see. For someone else to write that paragraph would be very difficult, because most people don’t know me very well (That’s from real empirical data! Add up my page views, I don’t have many readers! SCIENCE!) So right from the start, we encounter a problem as to how hard writing is actually supposed to be for the hypothetical great novelist in question. Heck, what constitutes ‘best work’ anyway? The most critically acclaimed or the most popular? The most immediately successful (god, I hope not!) or the most enduring? Things that were considered masterpieces in their own time may grow into total irrelevancy when you dust a few more years over them. Heck, I dislike The Sun Also Rises primarily because Hemingway was addressing a mindset and worldview with which I never had any connection. Well, that and I just don’t like his whole Iceberg thing.

That’s a huge mess, and I’m not going to dig into the whole of it right now. What I am going to do is address that first part: how will you know when you’ve worked hard enough on a story? The answer is that you won’t ever know. If you get published and receive rave reviews and are buried in dozens of offers for movie deals and other ways to sell out your filthy art-betraying swine-like soul to the demon lords of modern capitalist entertainment, you won’t ever be completely sure that you couldn’t have earned the opportunity to sell out even harder. Side note: in all seriousness, if people want to pay you lots of money for your writing, that’s between you and them. I don’t blame anyone who would rather not be a glorious martyr/fertility offering/deathless posterchild for the noble sacrifice of art. That whole deal kinda sucks. And alternatively, if you bomb horribly, you can never be sure whether the fault lies with your work ethic, or the mercurial whims of an uncaring free market.

Seriously, why is the free market such a breeding ground for anti-empathic skullduggery? You’d think people with more money would be more inclined to sling it around, wouldn’t you? Or, er, sling it at other people rather than their 17th consecutive incrementally-superior chrome-plated Jetyacht (I guarantee you that they will exist one day!) Moving right along, you can’t really depend on anything as a writer. That’s what Art really is (DISCLAIMER: To me)- no set rules, no clearly defined path, just exploring and hoping other people like what you find. Even if, admittedly, half of it is cobbled together from a poorly-translated Thing-like gobbledegook of other artist’s ideas that you sort of remember liking when you read their books six years ago. So don’t worry quite so much about whether you’re working hard enough. That’s a giant abstract question that you won’t be able to answer effectively; it’ll just be demotivating when, for example, you spend hours of your time some days typing up things on a webpage, and people either don’t notice or are too disgusted to even say that they’re disgusted. (I reserve the right to gripe indirectly. FEEL MY MINOR PAIN AND CONFIDENCE ISSUES!)

Instead you should concentrate on what you’re writing. Immerse yourself in the details of the work, big and small, and forget about the idea of the work as a whole. When you focus on writing a good story with good characters and stop worrying about whether you’re meeting the cosmic prerequisites for loss of vision and crippling stress headaches, you’ll do much better. Is success guaranteed then? Be truthful with me, if you’re still asking that at this point, it’s because you skipped right to the end. Nothing in life is 100% guaranteed. Art is for people who either don’t care about certainty or are just such infuriating optimists that nothing will ever make them realize that existence is a bleak, futile scrabble against our inevitable end, only to wind up with bleeding fingers and empty bellies and a last shrieking, “Where’s my damn movie deal!?!” to the heavens as we choke our souls out unto the void!

Hm? Sorry, what? Well, no, no I don’t believe that. It just seemed like a good idea to snidely play up the stereotype of the miserable author. I am definitely one of those optimists who is going to die hungry while yammering excitedly about how valuable my work will become posthumously.

That’s only a paradox if you think about it. I know I didn’t.

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