Ditches Worth Digging

I get peeved at writers, (especially the ones already lucky enough to have made a name for themselves) say things like, “if, in your wildest imagination, you can even for a minute see yourself doing anything else in the world other than writing, go do that thing. Writing is not for you.”

I don’t protest the idea that some people feel they were meant to be writers, or even that some people are gifted writers. No, it’s this writer as cosmic conduit or prophet that I disdain. It’s a quite common sentiment in interviews and blog posts and tweets, yet the concept is as damaging as it is irritating. It discourages people from exploring writing, and it’s an insult to those who do so while pursuing other things at the same time.

To begin with, though it’s often couched as sage advice about how much persistence is required to even have a chance of surviving the difficult and exhausting world of writing, what it’s actually saying is, “I finally became aware that I am a very special type of human being on this planet, unlike most of you.  I’ve been set aside by my genetics and by heaven to make a living doing this sort of thing. Now that I am making money for doing so, I discourage you from doing it as well if you are not also tapped on the shoulder by all of the gods at once and asked to do this. Because if you’ve not been called, as I have been, you need to forget it.”

Okay. Do I genuflect in front of the table at your book signing, or is a simple bowing of the head sufficient, given that the line is getting long?

I’m a writer. No secret there. But here’s a shocker; I’m also an actor. A sometime journalist. I spend a lot of time taking pictures as well. My political analysis skills are fairly sharp and I have a TV/radio presence more solid than lots of professionals, so I’ve been told. I’m not merely listing hobbies here, folks. I’m saying, in fact declaring here and now that I could easily see myself doing any and all of these things as a career. Luck, money, location and circumstances have prevented me from achieving high career status in any of those endeavors in that list as much as they have for writing, but not only can I see myself doing any of them, I can see myself happily doing any of them. Thus by definition, I am not qualified to be a true writer?

My being a writer is only part “destiny” in that I have a talent for it, and of course I’ve sought to make use of it. But it’s also something I have chosen to do for any number of reasons. It’s portable, for example. It’s easier to find places to do it than it is to find places to act, or broadcast. I often get high praise for doing it. It’s free. I can be as old and as homely as possible and still do it; the work speaks for itself, not my image or my fashion sense or my weight any given year.  And not to put too fine an edge on it, but it’s one of the few things I have been given the chance to do by a society that has done a fairly decent job in not allowing someone like me to achieve what he wants.

I’m not where I want to be with my writing career at present, but I have options that I built for myself. I have some control. You can’t say that about a lot of fields, editors notwithstanding.

Plus, words get to the heart of people in ways that other media can’t. It may take longer for them to take effect or to reach the proper audience in this day and age of smart phone streaming content,  but when words hit the mark, they hit it like few other experiences can. I appreciate the power that words still have to touch people, and I want to know at the end of my life that I did something that touched as many people as possible. So I choose writing.

I don’t think I’ve chosen by writing, however. When did the pursuit of writing take on this almost supernatural exclusivity? You either want to do it at any given time, or you do not. I’ll even go so far as to say you either have talent for it or you do not. But when we say, “if you can picture yourself doing anything other than writing, choose something else to do with you life,” what are we saying about the “something else?” Are we saying that “something else” is less noble? Less important? Requires less divine inspiration?

I’ll always write something, but if I had the chance to change lives and touch people through a career that was not based on writing, yes I would do it. I’d be an actor or a radio presenter tomorrow if I had the chance to do so. Not because I view writing with any less esteem than other things, but because I view service to people through communication of stories and truths as paramount. And by whatever means I do that, I hope to not be crammed with so much hubris as to suggest that you can only do what I am doing if you are positive you can’t do anything else.

Similar though somewhat less elitist are those who say that from the moment they wake up in the morning until they drift off to a fitful, dream-filled sleep at night, their compulsion is to write. Pages and pages, thousands of words. So consumed by the need to produce words that  before they know it nine hours have gone by and they’ve allowed the dog to shit on the floor twice. That’s fantastic if this is you.  What I won’t accept is the notion that this is what makes you a writer, because sometimes writing for me is like digging ditches.

You get to the site in the morning, and you’re not at all consumed with an unquenchable desire to shovel dirt for the next 8 hours. You take a look at the tools laying around and see all of the ditches yet to be dug. You rub the crink in your back one more time as you say, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do any of this. I’d rather be doing just about anything else today.” Then you summon the stamina to grab the tools, break the first few inches of dirt with a grunt, and let inertia take over. It’s grueling, dirty, sweaty, back-breaking work but you do it, because you dig ditches, and something of social value will eventually be built over top of or because of your ditches.

Then at the end of the day you crawl out of your last ditch, your back aching, exhausted, and you take a look at all the dirt you’ve moved that day. And you think, “these are ditches worth digging. And I dug them.” And if anyone tells you that you shouldn’t be digging these ditches or working with your hands if for a moment you can imagine doing anything else, you’re tempted to shove them into one of your ditches and leave them there.

Taken as a whole, writing is hard, people. Writing worth reading, (and yes, you actually do want people to read it, don’t pretend otherwise) can sap you any given day or any given week. You want to not have to do it anymore. You want a job sometimes in an office where you file folders in alphabetical order all day. Or you want to try your hand at landscaping, where nobody tries to tell you your work has to be more commercial. Or you wonder if you could have been better than the kooks on TV now had just one person who marveled at your broadcast presence had given you the chance to be a part of their team. You tell yourself that you’d jump at the chance to do radio even today if it revealed itself. And you assure yourself that none of these thoughts you have, and none of the alternatives you keep your eyes open for makes you any less of writer, because most days you’re still out there exhausting yourself doing it. By choice, not Providence.  And sometimes the end product is a post, a story, a novel that you find worth reading, and that other may find reading as well.

And if they do, and tell you about it? They were pages worth writing, despite everything else. Ditches worth digging.


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