Writing Costs What It Costs

The fashion of creativity is sentimentally visualized as berets and professorial attire against the backdrop of a bar. For those creating, it is every earned bit of hard hats and stained overalls and calloused hands carrying the fragments of ideas.

Legend has it, Kafka invented the hard hat.

Writing is an act of endurance.

No wonder why so many people quit — or never start.

It is why I have a job. In my experience, the people who are most convinced content writing doesn’t work are those who tried it. But they didn’t commit to it. Scroll their blog or website and you find long gaps between posts or work that hasn’t been updated in years.

That isn’t a sign of the writing not working. Rather, it is a sign of a lack of consistency, of discipline, of commitment to work.

Writing — especially in marketing — is an act of commitment as much as a creative pursuit.

Some derive meaning out of the struggle. In effect, if the writing is hard then the idea must not be good, and vice versa. If you have a good idea, you will have no trouble committing to it.

But that is not true always. How many great works were easy?

While writing The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck kept a journal as a tool to stay focused and overcome self-doubt.

He writes:

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.

And he expresses his internal struggle:

My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.

But he also lays bare his commitment:

This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted — slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.

Those who succeed at writing and those who don’t all share the same fears. The difference is in who keeps going. Sometimes is takes an external motivation, like a journal, a deadline or loved one.

Consider how Morgan Housel describes to Barry Ritholtz on Masters in Business the writing process for his new (great!) book, The Psychology of Money. He didn’t write it in an initial burst of creativity but in a concentrated flow as the deadline approached:

…I gave myself one year to write it and after nine months, I think I had written one chapter. It was just so easy to procrastinate and delay and delay and delay.

And then my wife one day kind of gave me some crap about how little progress I was making. She kind of expressed that she was disappointed in how little progress I was making. So, then I cleared everything off my calendar and I wrote the majority of the book over about a four-week period last December.

Still, motivational tools are only as good as your commitment to them. Deadlines, for example, give people as much allowance to procrastinate as they do pressure to finish.

Ultimately, the writing is going to take as long as it needs to take.

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.


Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address over the following months after the battle, not quickly on the back of an envelope as mythologized.

It took J.D. Salinger a decade to finish Catcher in the Rye.

In one of his blog posts (which partly inspired this one), Ryan Holiday writes about the Stoic concept called the art of acquiescence.

As Holiday explains it:

Reality is indifferent to our preferences. There is no such thing as a fair price. Stuff—life—costs what it costs. You either pay it or you don’t

An excellent financial writing example comes from Jason Zweig recounting his time working with Daniel Kahneman on the pivotal book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Essentially, Kahneman had no reservations working through night destroying the day’s work and starting from scratch.

Zweig writes:

The first time this happened, I was thunderstruck.  How did he do that? How could anybody do that?  When I asked Danny how he could start again as if we had never written an earlier draft, he said the words I’ve never forgotten: “I have no sunk costs.”

I came to appreciate this price of admission to writing when my first short story was published. It took about half a year of late nights and 4 a.m. writing sessions before the baby woke.

That story was only 350 words.

There are no sunk costs in writing. In the end, it costs what it costs. You can accept the price or quit or move on.

Friday Five

Writing during quarantine

Let go or get dragged. It’s healthy and realistic to have a consistent practice but I’ve also learned that every piece of work has its own particular rhythms that you’d do well to honor.

Jesmyn Ward writing through grief

My loss was a tender second skin. I shrugged against it as I wrote, haltingly, about this woman who speaks to spirits and fights her way across rivers.

Jennifer Risher discusses her new book, We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth

“Wealth doesn’t look anything like what Hollywood is selling us,” Ms. Risher said. “I want to demystify wealth — an experience millions of people have but can’t talk about. There’s a normalcy to it when all your friends are similarly wealthy.”

Story in motion: Jim Walmsley’s Hardrock 100 attempt

Friday Fiction: Mary Oliver

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

3 thoughts on “Writing Costs What It Costs

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