What does it mean to be a writer? Well, depending on your level of expertise, skill and dedication, it can mean a few things. Generally, however, it’s the pursuit of truth… The restless desire to transcribe and explain the world for others.
Many times this thankless job is full of deep lows and fleeting highs. The moments of brilliance are swept under the years of rejection, heartache and unimportance.
The reputation that takes night after night to build, writing into the overgrown landscape of lost pages, is as fragile as the paper now rarely printed on.
Like all artistic professions, there’s a certain level of sensitivity and insecurity that builds in writers. Stripping down in front of the world, they are vulnerable and many times burned and marred by the undeserving masses.
Yet, day after day, they throw their raw, naked, bleeding bodies into the pit in hopes of finding one person. One person who will chew on their words, eating them, one by one, digesting them wholly until they are absorbed, becoming a part of them, running through their blood.
Because a writer doesn’t write for the world, he writes for just one person. One person who feels as strange, wonderful and sad as he. One person who cares about what he cares about, even if he has yet to realize it. One person who has the same passions, yearnings and bewilderments about the world around him.
This idea is encountered in Nietzsche’s “10 Rules For Writers” recently posted by Brain Pickings. In 1882, the philosopher composed a beautiful set of letters setting down the 10 stylistic rules of writing to his love and protégée, Lou Andreas-Salome.
One of the first to give a guide on what it means to be a writer, his rules are now 10 of many, as writers like Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway came up with their own commandments and insights into the unforgiving and perilous pursuit of the writer.
It’s almost impossible to encapsulate the woes and ideals of every writer, but as Hemingway put it,
A good writer should know as near everything as possible.” And though he can’t possibly know everything he must be “born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.
As we re-read over 100 years worth of advice, wisdom and rules about the life of the writer, we can only try and put them down again in our own words, transcribing the lessons of hundreds of authors, philosophers and poets into our own list.
Thanks to the collected wisdom of the greatest literary minds of the world, here are just 12 (of many) unwritten laws of being a writer.
The worse the pain, the better the writing
The best works are completed while drowned in complete sorrow, all-consuming pain and utter despair.
A good writer always writes through his pain, leaking the truths and woes that come with from real emotion. The words should cut the reader, soaking them in the very pain the writer just bled onto the page.
The greatest works of literature, music and art are bred from pain. It’s the sad, lonely, depressed, repressed, heartbroken and abused who use the paper as a cloth to soak up the blood leaking from them.
Experience everything but accept nothing
Listen, absorb and participate in the world around you, but never let it define you. Never accept what’s around you as the truth, but find your own. Be in constant struggle against everything you know.
Charles Bukowski said, “Writers are desperate people and when they stop being desperate they stop being writers.” Because writing is a constant conversion of one’s desperation into actuation.
The masses are your worst enemy
Deeply affecting one person, changing who that person is, how he looks at life and how he will define himself around your truths is much more important than appeasing the masses.
The greatest writers of the world are just looking to be understood by the right people, looking for ones who will convert their words into something more, something meaningful. Because there is no glory is acceptance, only transcendence.
Those moments you "can't" prove who really "can"
Great writing does not always pour out, sometimes it must be chiseled, prodded and scraped together. It’s not going to come day after day, night after night.
The moments when you must dig down, deep inside you and find the right words, the perfect sentences and the simplest way to express your most befuddled thoughts are what makes it a job, not just a passion.
State your truth and get out
Writers are supposed to be the honest ones of the world. They are the quiet observers who say how they feel and hold our hands in the dark. They tread the unformed paths and lead us to new insights and awakenings.
They are not politicians or salesmen, there is no hidden agenda or price to be made. There is no other purpose of writing than to tell people your truth and leave.
Fame is never first
Writing for fame is like pissing for attention… You never get the kind you want and will just end up covered in stink. A writer writes because there’s nothing else to do. It’s his greatest passion and only purpose.
He writes to share, to ease the pain of others while also healing his own. Fame is a byproduct that only those undistracted by it can achieve.
Writing is only as good as reading
Absorb the truths of others before stating your own. Like going out and filling up on experiences and personal stories, reading gives you all of that without the scars.
Writers are not jealous, but hungry. They want to read and experience the lives of others as much as they want to tell their own.
You've got to find your own style
Unlike most professions, writing does not subscribe to one system. There is no one way of writing -- one style, one formula, one proven method.
There are as many ways to write as there are words to create and mold into sentences. The liberation of the profession comes with the idea that you don’t have to follow the beat of those before you or around you.
Stop only when you can’t breathe
It’s not just a job, it’s a livelihood. It’s a purpose and a higher meaning. It’s the only bit of reality writers can trust. A true writer never runs out of things to say, because there is purpose and there is meaning in everything.
If you’re a writer, declare yourself one, no matter how good or how shy. Because writers are not defined by how many click they get or dollars per word, but by the all-consuming desires to put words on page. To stop writing isn’t to just stop working, it’s to stop living.
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