Writer's Workbook: On Writing and Desperation

December 29, 2015



Author of The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in a letter to his daughter,

Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter--as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

Here's American poet Charles Bukowski on the same topic.

Writers are desperate people and when they stop being desperate they stop being writers.

 This is a quote from Australian author Helen Garner.

I suppose there must be idiots who dream of signing deals with publishers while fulling intending to drink martinis in cool bars or ride around on skateboards. But the actual writers I know are experts in neurotic self-torture. Every page of writing is the result of a thousand tiny decisions and desperate acts of will.

I signed my first contract for a book in January 2015. This past year, I experienced the publication of my first novella and my first novel in print. I saw my book in a local bookstore. These are massive milestones in the life of an author. Without a doubt, this has been a year of wonders.

But the quotes above, from three disparate authors, talk about writing not as an act of wonder, but one of desperation.

Desperation...a state of profound despair, a state which inspires rash behavior.

In general, the world does not look kindly on the desperate. But why not? Circumstances--internal or external--force an individual to seek change so passionately that he or she cannot see any alternatives. Failure, rejection, alienation, humiliation--none of these things matter in the face of desperation. That's what desperation is to me. By this definition, I have become a desperate author.

What else but desperation could explain why I started writing in the first place? Two years ago, I was a schoolteacher, fresh to the romance genre. I knew no one in the publishing industry. I had a shitty NaNoWriMo manuscript and enough ignorance and egotism to think it would make a good book. I felt trapped by my day job. I wanted change so desperately, I submitted that manuscript even though I had no idea what I was doing. I resubmitted it when the inevitable rejections came. Despairing further, I rewrote it and resubmitted it, again and again, becoming more desperate with each new rejection. I was so desperate, I wrote another book and sent that one out, too. Now I had two golden retrievers I'd accidentally trained to bring back rejection letters instead of dead ducks. Undeterred, I got started on a third manuscript.

Who else but a desperate author would do this? And continue to write stories with no guarantee that they'd ever be published or find readers or sell copies?

Some writers talk about inspiration. To me, inspiration is unreliable. Inspiration sits down, sips its tea, and moves on to the next social engagement. Desperation, on the other hand, is a houseguest who refuses to leave. It slouches in the middle of my house and stares at me. It's not attractive, but it's reliable because it won't budge. It makes me write when I don't feel like it. It eats all the food in my fridge and dries its socks on my towel rack. It never leaves.

I learned in 2015 to rely on desperation much more than inspiration. Inspiration brings a million different possibilities. Desperation brings a single inevitability, and that is to write. I have to keep writing. I can't stop. And in the dead of night, in the early morning, looking at a bad review or another rejection letter, I know the truth...desperation is running this show now. And desperation is telling me to get back to work.

Here's to more acts of desperation in 2016. I can't wait.