Writing is Hard to Love (Confessions of a Composition Junkie)
Philbert Dy’s tweet made me think a bit. See, there’s something about “loving writing.”
Ten years ago, I’d probably say that Mr. Dy is right. After all, I was a young man of 22, as eager as any impressionable young writer would have been. Now, it just doesn’t seem that way anymore. I write every once in a while, but most of my writing now takes the form of outlines and presentation slides, and perhaps the occasional piece of work I ask from a harried copywriter just to keep myself busy. Writing—the kind that passes for the “serious” kind—comes by way of things passed on to me by acquaintances and friends who could use a hand. Months ago, I’ve still harbored a little bit of an ambition to write—and to “make my mark” on magazines—until a certain jadedness took over.
When it comes to loving writing, writing itself is hard to love.
This much I agree with: writing is a massive privilege. Not too many people make a living out of stringing words together. Not everyone has the technical skill or the creative flair to not only succeed in writing professionally, but also to find meaning in every single piece of work. But there’s an undercurrent to all of that: writing is not an easy way to make a living.
To write well, you have to be inspired; your body and soul must be intact, precisely because good writing demands pieces of that. There are exceptions to this, of course, but for the most part you have to be comfortable in order to write well. Writing requires a piece of your body in the way of a few hours of sleep, and fragments of your soul in the way of thinking deeper and working deeper. However, it’s not exactly a lucrative profession. There are those who make it big with contracts and book sales, but think of how many writers are paid: per article, per word, and heaven forbid by column inch. A lot of them don’t have a fallback plan, either. The massive privilege that comes with stringing words together comes with the massive privilege of starving: unpaid bills, missed time with friends, the little bits of self-care you can’t afford for yourself until you’re able to finish what you committed to. When you’re busy with trying to support yourself and/or your family on the small sums that are payable to you—often delayed—it’s hard to be inspired.
For the most part, the most successful writers I’ve known—and people who write admirable pieces—always have something on the side. Perhaps a business, a day job, a teaching post. Those who support themselves purely by writing often take on writing tasks that aren’t exactly “literary.” There are the SEO articles on fixing air conditioners, where the writer has to paraphrase a YouTube video to gain some form of knowledge on it. Or the articles on great beaches in the Caribbean, sourced from Wikipedia. It all defeats “write what you know,” but that, too, is writing. It’s as writerly as writing Palanca-bound manuscripts or a collection of poems that will one day find their way to Tumblr-poetry fame. It’s as writerly as influencers and bloggers… we can probably talk about that next time. But somehow—whether deep inside, or way outside—it never is.
And a passion for the craft doesn’t cut it all the time, either: sometimes, what you’re passionate about—or what you’ve worked so hard for—doesn’t sell. Things that don’t sell often don’t have places in a cutthroat world where publishers and publications also have a bottom line to think about. I’d like to think that even the most accommodating editors have to, at some point, accommodate the ghastliest advertorials and such to pay their writers. And talented writers have to write these very things for the sake of a byline, a way in, to make rent. There is no pain more piercing than for your passion to be rejected: “I like your work, but it’s not something we can use now.” And there’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for feedback. Or for the fragile heart in all of us, the recognition of writing something. Meaning. Purpose.
Even if writers do what they do for the sake of love, writing doesn’t always love you back. Take this guy who probably put heart and soul into his Instagram poems, only to be derided and ridiculed by people who didn’t think his poetry was up to par. Or amazing young Filipino writers making great pieces worthy of our reading, but they have yet to get the rub from the literary community. And then there are those who have given up: found themselves in other places, in work that rarely evokes literary passion and recognition, but fulfills them in ways that they would never have gotten if they just pursued their Muses.
Some call it “just ego.” Others pour their hearts and whole selves into the commitment of something permanent. The hurt is real. I should know: if there’s any one person I can name who fits into everything I just described, it’s me. I’ve starved, I’ve missed payments, I agonized and suffered for a craft I love. I’ve seen my work crumpled by people who can’t tell the difference between “its” and “it’s.” I’ve scoured back issues of magazines for articles and pieces that I believed were meant to be there, but were never there in the first place. The oldest file in my computer is a piece I can never seem to finish.
Heck, this is my first blog entry in months.
(I’ve witnessed writing—the compulsion to write, the obsession to be accepted into whatever imagined inner circle there is—turn me into a person I can’t stand looking at in the mirror. Maybe I’ll write more about that when I feel like it.)
I don’t “hate” writing: my self-destructive love of it only when I learned—slowly, in a very hard way—that writing is a means and not an end. It’s the jaded wisdom that comes with knowing that there are many things about it to hate. You’ll hate the waiting. The small sum you’re paid. The things you have to write about, but do not like. The things you can’t afford. The mistakes. The missed opportunities. The heartache. The disappointment. But most of all, the waiting. For someone to edit, for someone to read, for someone to react.
All of which coalesce into the unexplainable agony that makes the writer the most tortured artist of them all: of how the writer loves, but loves from a distance.
I guess what I learned is that there are many things to love outside of writing, and writing’s proper place is to be an expression of that love. You don’t love writing: you love what empowers and enables you to write. You love the people you write about: be it love letters, or a report on those without voices, your family. You love the places that you write about: the food, the journey, the interesting things to do and to see. You love the values and ideas that you write about: freedom, nationalism, faith, romance, being. The craft itself is borne out of your love for those things. If you love them enough, it shows in what and how you write.
Writers—those privileged enough to “string words for a living” (or for that matter, anyone who found their “calling” in their profession)—often say that you should love your work. But for me, loving your work comes with working your love: to know when to hold on, when to let go, and when to quit running after the tail of your kite. Working your love means knowing that writing’s place is not to be at the center of your universe, but a way to express the truth of what is truly at the center of your universe.
When it comes to loving writing, writing itself is hard to love. But the purpose of why we write—the reason why we work our love—is something worth a second glance.
But that’s another story.
(Image is “Throes of Creation,” by Leonid Pasternak. Inspired by the original Twitter long-ass thread, here.)