Being a writer occupies a very special place within our society, indeed within any society. Artists in general are placed outside the boundaries of "normal" society and viewed with a mixture of jealousy and awe. An 18 hour session of painting can be excruciating, as frustrating as anything one can encounter in a human life, and ultimately fruitless but according to the norms of our culture it is very rarely considered work. Artists are often seen as channeling forces that rage within them and bringing them into the light for others to view. Sometimes they are seen as executing meticulously constructed plans and imbuing images or words with hidden intellectual meaning and "subtext." They are very rarely seen as slaving away fruitlessly in a task just as thankless as anything one can find in corporate America or the blue collar workforce. We can all sympathize with the white collar work who spends days filling out required reports that will end up hidden away from human site in a file cabinet for six years and then recycled into more pointless reports for some other corporate drone to fill out because that's what it says to do in the company manual. We do not accord the same sort of sympathy to the writer who learns one month into starting work on his masterpiece that the beginning he constructed simply will not work and the whole thing needs to be scrapped and begun again, with no guarantee that this new direction will yield anything worthwhile or that, should he be exceptionally lucky and find that all the pieces fall into place, anyone will care. The white collar drone knows that short of the disastrous he will find a paycheck at the end of his long hard slog. The artist knows nothing of the sort. Even genius does not guarantee any kind of reward outside the work itself. Van Gogh, Kafka, and dozens of other acknowledged masters who were completely neglected in their own time serve as proof of this. How many other geniuses lie discarded in the dustbin of history, their paintings covered over with another's paints due to the cost of canvas, or their books long since out of print and available only in the dusty stacks of a few libraries, glanced at only a few times every decade and never paid their due?
The young artist does not think this way when he starts his journey. He has a vision in his head, a belief in his ability to express it, and usually the glint of the pot of gold we award the chosen few in whatever field he selects. He sets forth to show the world his genius, standing over his medium of choices with fingertips poised and ready to work their magic.
It is here that he first learns about the work portion of the program that nobody mentioned back when he was just a self-appraised genius with a dream. As it turns out the stone does not carve itself, the paints remain strikingly inanimate upon the pallet and cling unevenly and unfairly to the brush, and the mountains of prose he has worked out in his head do not come rushing out on to the page by osmosis in a torrent of unquestionable brilliance. This is the initial betrayal and one that it takes a certain amount of time to get over. Of course there are some who are exceedingly lucky or gifted or both and who do not find themselves blocked but rather produce inestimable brilliance with insignificant effort, and others who when faced with the gulf between their capacities and their achievements chose to ignore them and view whatever does get created in those first creaky attempts as greatness. This is not the experience of the majority. Instead most find that they underestimated the labor intensiveness of the process and they are faced with two choices, retreat or adapt. There are many would-be artists and writers selling shoes and insurance policies across this great nation of ours. For the adapters the results are, of course, varied. Some never manage to put it all together and shuffle from this mortal coil with their brilliant dreams still represented by nothing more than fleeting visions within their own heads. Some learn the necessary skills to match their vision and bloom, early or late. Some learn the beauties of compromise and channel their visions into ready made vessels like the advertising field or the 'craft over art' disciplines of journalism and television.
Every journey is different, for sure, but as I begin mine in earnest I am constantly reminded of the gulf between potential and achievement and the difficulties one encounters in attempting to cross it. Something can shine like a diamond in the mind but unless it is carefully set in a well-worked ring it is useless there. The labor is difficult to get used to but very necessary.
I didn't write this as a complaint, more of a mission statement and an attempt at understanding. Writers and artists often like to pretend their craft is a gift of their inspiration, or muses, or a dozen other wellsprings of insight and beauty, but the truth is that while sometimes it is that easy most of the times it is not. Writing is, in many ways, like being a subcontractor. Your brain gives you an idea and a few notes on what the structure should be and then you have to go out and gather the materials and actually build the damn thing. It's the sort of job that jolts you from a post-orgasmic haze at 1:30 AM at night because something's gone wrong or something's come to you and it won't wait until morning. Van Gogh cut off his ear and mailed it to a woman who probably would have preferred flowers or a nice bunt cake. Ernest Hemingway shot himself. It's not as easy as most people think.
P.S. I know Van Gogh did not cut off his ear and give it to a woman, he merely cut it off because he was nuts. But he did kill himself so he counts. I just didn't want to list two suicides because that's less interesting.