On the Difficulty of Writing

The most difficult thing about writing is writing something that’s true. I think that if you can write something that’s true, it will always be good, even if it’s not enjoyable. The truth is not always enjoyable. But reading a truth that you recognize has a certain redeeming quality so that even if the story is unpleasant it sticks, because you see your own experience reflected back at you.

Writing the truth is hard because it forces you to be vulnerable, and also requires that you don’t believe your own bullshit. The bullshit I speak of is not comprised of overt lies. Rather, it is the collection of little half-truths we tell ourselves in order to get through each day. I’m not that lonely. There’s still time. The spinach is tasty.

These half-truths are needed to keep from going crazy in a world where the good guys don’t always win, and bad things happen to all sorts of people, and the rules are different depending on how many zeroes there are on your bank balance. They help you to put two feet on the floor each morning, shave, and wear pants when you might prefer to grow your mane long, flip the table, and donkey-kick the guy who’s texting when he should be paying attention to the traffic light.

The half-truths help you to live a civilized life. Hell, they may even help you live a good life, help you hang on long enough to cut yourself a better slice of the pie. But they will not help you to write.

That is why writing is so hard. Because the mindset needed to write honestly is fundamentally different from the one needed to be a card-carrying member of the civilized world. So writers tend to be recluses, the good ones at least. And the better you’ve done at society’s game, the more difficult it is to recognize truths and put them on the page.

That doesn’t mean your writing has to be unpleasant. There is a beauty to truth. When Hemingway writes about winters in Schruns, about skiing in the high mountain country, and about the hillside farms and the warm farm houses with their great stoves and huge wood piles in the snow, it is beauty itself; words of a true admirer, written by someone who knows.

Hemingway’s truth will not be the same as Neil Gaiman’s truth. For Gaiman, the world is full of ghosts and gargoyles, witches and warlocks. Magic exists, and it finds its way onto every page. Hemingway finds magic in an elk hunt at sunrise, but stays well away (certainly outside shooting distance) of anything mystical.

If you don’t believe in dragons, you will not be able to write about them convincingly, no matter how attractive the market-size for fantasy thrillers. So you must know the true truth of the world, as well as the truth of the world as you see it, and you must avoid believing your own lies, and if you can do all that and clear a few hours a day to put words to paper, maybe then you can write something worth reading.