How Writing is Like Getting Lost on the Way to Work


Friends of mine recently asked me how I felt about my writing. I found myself describing how and why I thought I was getting better, why I felt I was able to sit down and write with little hesitation, and how this was profoundly different than the way I approached my writing just a few years ago. I cast about for a good analogy to describe the feeling and this is what I came up with.

When you decide to become a writer, it’s like getting a new job out of school that you haven’t trained for and have only the barest education. Which is to say, nearly any job. The position, unfortunately, is all the way on the other side of the city, but you’re young and you’re eager and you’re dirt poor, so you take it.

Problem is, you’re also terrible with directions and your car is old and you can’t afford a GPS, so every day you get lost on the way to work. The first few times, it’s because you just don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going. Other times, the traffic is lousy, and you think you’ll discover a short cut or you follow a bunch of other cars only to find that the shortcut leads to a brick wall, or a loading dock, or the other cars were actually going to the hospital and not to the freeway.

When you finally find your way and get to work, you’re late and rushed. You feel like you spend most of your day simply trying to keep your head above water. Co-workers who seem to know what they’re doing look at you with a mixture of pity, understanding, and irritation. When you ask for their help, they tell you to get up earlier, or go to a conference, or enroll in classes. All of which seem smart, but don’t completely solve the problem.

The most frustrating advice is when they just shrug and tell you to tough it out, because some day it’ll “just come to you.”

Eventually, you nail the commute. You know the best route to work. Traffic no longer gets to you. You snicker as other drivers veer off on tangents, looking for the magic carpet ride that doesn’t exist (secretly, you wonder if they’ve found it). When you get to your office, though, you find that the work is still frustrating. You might be getting there on time, but you’re still no expert. Colleagues give you some grudging respect—you’re no longer the liability you were when you started—but no one’s turning to you as the resident authority. The consolation: by this point you know that the long haul is what counts and if you keep at it, and put the time in, you’re going to produce quality work.

A few years go by. The commute is a piece of cake. Work is comfortable and familiar, like an old shoe: the challenge isn’t in getting the shoe on, it’s where you go afterward. And when you’re working, you’re not scrambling for answers or hoping to come up with something good by accident, you’re working: you expect results based on the effort you’re putting in. Some days are good, some might be bad, but generally speaking, the job—from the commute to the actual work–isn’t a crap shoot any more.

That’s where the analogy ends for me, as I think I’ve only just entered the “old shoe” phase. I don’t sit down and wonder how to write, I sit down and write. I make mistakes all the time, but I recognize the mistakes for what they are and move to fix them, instead of feeling, as I did not so long ago, that the whole writing rug had been pulled out from under me.

I guess the question is: what awaits? Promotion to vice president? President? CEO? It’ll be nice if that happens but, for now, I’m just happy being middle-management. And not getting lost on the way to work.

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Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Craft, Deep Thoughts

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