One of my favorite movies about writing is Throw Mama from the Train, even though at the end it employs one of my least favorite tropes about the depiction of writers, it does it in a very minor way and to set up a joke. And since the movie isn’t just a comedy, it swerves into full-blown farce at many points, a joke is more important than being realistic.
If you aren’t familiar with the movie, Billy Crystal plays Larry, a writer who has been in a slump for some years because of an acrimonious divorce which included his ex-wife stealing a manuscript and becoming a bestselling author with it. Larry pays his bills by teaching creative writing at a community college, where one of his students Owen (played by Danny DeVito) might be the worst writer. Owen misinterprets some writing advice from Larry as a proposal for Owen to murder Larry’s ex-wife, in exchange for which Larry will murder Owen’s domineering mother. Trouble ensues, as they say.
Among the many fun bits in the movie are some of the scenes with Larry’s class. Several of the ridiculously bad writing ideas, personality idiosyncrasies, and other shortcomings embodied in his students and their work aren’t just hilarious, they’re all too real. Anyone who has ever interacted with aspiring writers has encountered some of those folks. Regardless of how unsuited some of them seem to be to writing, at the end of every class session Larry exhorts them all, “Remember, a writer writes, always!”
On one level that advice is a caution against falling into various procrastination traps. As tempting as it might be to spend a little more time researching for a particular piece, you need to actually sit down and write eventually. Or it may be fun to shop for pens or the perfect notebook (or if you’re me, a new word processing app), but that shopping doesn’t increase your word count. And as nice as finding just the perfect spot in your favorite coffee shop to set up with your laptop or other writing implement, you need to actually crank out some dialogue.
All of those non-writing activities may indeed help you, but at some point you need to stop prepping and get to the job of writing your story down.
One of the things that absolutely does not help you write a story is telling other people your ideas. I cannot count the number of aspiring writers I have met who spend all of their time telling anyone that will sit still long enough, their idea for their epic novel (or series of novels), or the fabulous character they have imagined and all the wonderful adventures she will have—in exquisite detail.
Sometimes I’ve met them again and again and again at sci fi conventions. They show up at writing panels or workshops or room parties, telling me the same fabulous idea that they told me at the last 20 times I ran into them. And not once in all those years have they yet sat down at a keyboard or with a notebook and actually written a single scene.
They might have notebooks full of notes and doodles and plot diagrams. They may have computer files filled with notes. But they haven’t written any of the actual story. The sad truth is, they never will. I’m not saying that to besmirch their character. I’m saying it because they have spent so much time verbally telling other people about their story, that they don’t realize they have already used up all of their motivation to tell that story. They have effectively told it, already.
I have occasionally attempted to explain this phenomenon bluntly to one of these folks. In at least one case I know it didn’t work. But I keep hoping.
So the first lesson to take from that exhortation, “A writer writes!” is to stop doing whatever it is that you keep doing which prevents you from actually writing.
There’s another lesson to be learned from it. “A writer writes, always” also means that often even when we aren’t actually writing, we are working on our story. I realize that superficially this sounds like a contradiction of the first lesson, but often the opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth.
Sometimes you do need to recharge the batteries. Sometimes you need to take a break from writing and revising to go soak in a tub, or dig in the garden, or read a good book, or walk in the rain, or sing a song, or paint a house. The raw material of stories comes from life and from the thinking and feeling and wondering we do while we’re doing other things.
So the second lesson of “A writer writes, always” is not to beat yourself up—or let other people beat you up—for living your life, taking care of yourself, taking care of loved ones, and so on.
The difficulty comes in trying to balance those two opposing truths. Ultimately, you have to figure it out. Only you can make yourself sit down and write. Only you can know when you’re banging your head against a metaphorical wall and need a break.
It’s your story. Only you can tell it.