The Writing Addiction (excerpt)

It shouldn’t be surprising that many successful writers seem to have some sort of compulsion that keeps them at it, or that compulsion seems to be a useful trait. After all, writing doesn’t make much sense economically-only a very small percentage of writers make any serious money at it, not serious as in hedge-fund serious, of course, but serious as in enough to pay the bills and maybe to summer on Cape every other year or so. And writing’s tough; most writers spend an awful lot of time staring at the blank page, waiting, perhaps praying to The Muse or to whomever for an inspiration, or at least a good idea, or any idea at all, for that matter. . .

And yet we do keep at it, and the ability to keep at it – that addiction, perhaps – seems to make all the difference. Talent’s nice, sure, but as Ted Solotaroff puts it so well in “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years,” a wonderful and wonderfully down-beat essay on the writing life and success in it, or the lack thereof:

It doesn’t appear to be a matter of the talent itself – some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is durability. For the gifted writer, durability seems to be directly connected to how one deals with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without, and how effectively one incorporates them into the creative process itself…

But whence the durability? The drive? The compulsion?


ALLAN GURGANUS — You know what they say about heroin: the first hit is always free, because the dealer wants to hook you. And I think the same is true of writing, for the chosen ones, and by chosen, maybe I mean singled out for special abuse . . .

DON WALLACE — The turning point for me was my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. It was a pass/fail program, but still, I almost flunked out. I hated it. I especially hated the English classes. The approach was all wrong. I went to my advisor and asked him what I should do, and he got me into a fiction class taught by Page Stegner.

I was a singer in a rock band, too, so I wrote and played rock and roll. But I did see a notice for a college poetry contest, and I entered some poems. I didn’t win, but I did tie for second with Lawrence Weschler, who was the senior god of lit on campus at the time, and as I walked up to get the prize (which was a very Oxford bottle of sherry) I could see them all thinking: Who is this little punk? Now Weschler has his own institute at New York University. And I’m still a punk, I guess, still an outlier. . .

ROBIN GREEN — I got hooked on the idea of being a writer in high school when the teacher read a funny essay I wrote to the class and everyone laughed. I think I was just better at writing than anyone in my small class, and so I thought of myself that way. Same thing with art class; I was good at it. . . I got a full scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, but went to Brown instead.

At Brown, in my junior year, I got into John Hawkes’ fiction class with something I’d written. He loved some things I wrote, was critical of others. But the good short stories were very good. I wrote as if taking dictation then, in a blessed sort of state, in a beam. When I tried to write it wasn’t any good. Mostly I copied Hemingway; he was my favorite. He probably still is.

When I was still at Brown, I remember some big-shot editor from The New Yorker had come to visit, and he picked out a story I’d written and he read it in front of 300 people. I was overwhelmed. There I was, having something I’d written being read in front of 300 Christians with blond hair!


SANDRA CISNEROS — . . . I liked to write, but I didn’t know you could be a writer; I knew there were writers, but I hadn’t a clue how they got that way. . . I never knew anyone who was actually a writer. I was a young Mexican-American with no models in my life. I was inventing myself. . .


JANE SMILEY — I didn’t start writing until college, my senior year. I started a novel about the Dostoyevskian lives of Yale students. There was even a tragic automobile accident in it. . . I truly enjoyed writing the novel. I thought I could do this the rest of my life. . . My senior advisor liked it, thought it was impressive for what it was, but he didn’t offer to help me get it published, which turned out to be a good thing, and anyway, the very idea of publishing it was almost incomprehensible to me. Finishing it was enough. I got my degree and I knew what I wanted. I wanted to write.


ALLAN GURGANUS — . . . It seemed that Literature, like sexuality, was a coded language that only I spoke. My goal was finding a conversational partner. And I think Literature provided just that in a way… it felt like there was someone on the other side of the net. Literature itself could create Community even for a man alone. I hollered. Its echo rolled back to me. And when at last I found someone who could really talk Books for hours on end, it literally felt like being saved.

3 responses to “The Writing Addiction (excerpt)”

  1. Lyndzi Haskins

    For me, I have been writing all my life, as soon as I could. In grade school, I was constantly drawing and writing short stories under the desk while the teachers lectured, and in high school, I ended up carrying around a completely separate binder just for all the short stories and poems I was doing during class. I never failed a class, my marks were excellent, but it was all because I was writing. I started to write more than just short stories until one day, I was writing entire worlds. Worlds of never ending imagination and feats no mortal could achieve, but I was achieving them. I am addicted to writing, and one day, I hope to have my novels published, just like my mother Debbi had hers published. To me, its not about failure or success, but about showing everyone else what I see, from my perspective, when I see the world. And to me, the world is full of strange creatures, warriors, battles bigger than what this world has seen, and terrains more magnificent than National Geographic could ever show. So much more than a moderate paying job and a small town thats falling apart. Maybe one day you too will all see what I see. One day…

  2. Ciara

    I’ve been writing my whole life. I’ve been keeping journals from as young as 7 when my grandparents bought me my first one. I was always addicted to reading, and getting lost in a story as soon as I could read. I was always begging someone to read to me or curling up quietly with a book. My real creative turning point was the 5th grade; we were learning about poetry and encouraged to write our own children’s book. From there I started writing my own poems, short stories, articles. Then at 13 I found my way into the world of story based RPG games where I would feed off of and react to the writings of others. By 15 I was working on my own novel, which I trashed, but eventually that lead me to my current journey. I know this is where I want to be, what I want to do.

    1. Eric

      You’re certainly headed in the right direction, Ciara. You’ve given yourself a public outlet for your writing with your blog and you seem to understand the importance of butt-in-chair time, writing every day. Are you in a writing group? Virtually everyone I interviewed in We Wanted to Be Writers emphasized the importance of being part of a community of writers. If you aren’t in a metropolitan area, there are hundreds of online writing groups for all levels. Keep crankin’ out those words, and let us know how it’s going. Trust your creative process.
      Good luck to you.

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