Cover Photo by Blair Speed
“Working? You mean writing?”
Someone near and dear to me asked me this when I said I would be working the next morning. I was so shocked by the mocking tone of his voice that I didn’t say anything in return.
I began calling my writing time “work” for simplicity’s sake a few years ago. When you tell people you’re working, they seem to ask fewer questions. Strangely enough, the vague, amorphous word “work” seems to be easier to understand than the specific act of writing.
Calling writing “work” helped me create a firm boundary between my craft and all the distractions available to impede the process. That one word—work—seemed to erect a fortress around the writing time.
And yet this fortress isn’t impenetrable: maintaining its strength requires ample self-belief. This self-belief can be subject to the words and attitudes of the people in our lives, as evident in that interaction.
A month later another loved one also scoffed when I called writing work.
“But writing is a hobby.”
I can see what she meant. Writing is a hobby for many people. If work were solely how we make money, then unpaid writing would, by definition, not be work. It’d be a hobby.
But for those of us who have to write, who would be lost without it, writing is so much more than a hobby. It’s even more than work. It’s work with a capital W—the inner work. Perseverance through doubt. Facing the shadow self in hours of solitude. Choosing to continue even when it feels like we have every reason to quit.
Besides, work isn’t solely how we make money. That’s only one definition of the word, and the secondary definition at that. The first definition of work reads, “an activity involving mental or physical effort to achieve a purpose or result.”
Writing requires mental effort—this truth is irrefutable. The purpose or result will vary per writer, but the action of writing is, by definition, work.
Unfortunately I didn’t think to consult my dictionary in these interactions. Instead, I said nothing. I went home from both wondering why the people who are supposed to love me most don’t value what I love to do most.
On a basic level, it’s a lack of understanding. Not everyone was born with the need to write. We all seem to enter this world with natural inclinations. We become healers, farmers, teachers, artists, scientists, actors—all depending on our innate gifts, learned talents, and unique circumstances.
Whether or not a person chooses to see the value in another’s calling has little to do with the actual work in question, and everything to do with the viewer.
Fortifying the fortress around my writing—in both its verb and noun forms—requires I maintain a sense of self-worth and love. This partly requires a diligent practice of self-care, and partly requires deflecting projections capable of eroding the belief and value I hold in my identity as a writer.
Writing a book and overcoming personal insecurities thus braids together until it’s impossible to untangle the process of creating from the process of becoming.
My friend recently gave me Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. As a dancer, she understands “the perils and rewards of artmaking,” as the subtitle reads. I can’t recommend this book enough if you, too, sometimes struggle to keep a fortress of self-belief erect.
“In large measure,” the authors write, “becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.”
Some days I feel safe and secure in the fortress I’ve created around my work and my self-image. Some days an entire wall crumbles down and I spend the next month putting the cobbles back together. I cry about being a talentless fraud. I grind my teeth over the inevitable rejection waiting at the end of the slog. I drink beer and watch Netflix on the couch.
And then a loved one picks me up, hands me a glass of water, and places a few of the cobblestones back into the wall.
Bayles and Orland write, “The only people who will really care about your work [before you’re famous] are those who care about you personally. Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your wellbeing. They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours—and that is something to be genuinely thankful for.”
Creating a fortress around my writing began with recognizing the process as Work. Maintaining the integrity of this fortress requires I renew faith in myself. Every. Damn. Day.
Sometimes I can do this on my own. More often then not, I need the help of loved ones.
We all do. So if you’re struggling to keep the walls of your fortress erect, reach out to one of those people who understand how “the work is essential to your wellbeing."
We may write alone, but we don’t have to survive writing alone.
On the other side of the coin, if a loved one projects his or her own fears and insecurities onto your Work, I recommend practicing compassion for this person. Hurtful comments are almost always the work of an injured ego or soul.
Above all, I’ve discovered one of the best techniques to maintain self-belief in the process is to practice compassion for myself. Some days the work flows. Some days doubt and hesitation impede the process.
As I’m imperfect, the Work is imperfect. Yet as Bayles and Orland warn, “Believing that artwork should be perfect, you gradually have convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit.”
Maintaining a fortress of self-belief asks me to release ideas of perfection, embrace compassion and patience, and know when someone is projecting his or her own hurt onto my work. Writing happens with this space we create for our work—a space where we can feel safe to make mistakes, take our time, and grow as both writers and humans.
The worksheet for this Salt & Ink is available here for subscribers to my monthly newsletter.