On Being an Ambivalent Writer

         Okay, I’ll admit it:  I’m an ambivalent writer.  And the chances are—if you are reading this, if you aspire to write, if you want to “be” a writer, if you are attracted to “the writer’s life” but feel that, for whatever reason, you haven’t fulfilled your potential and agonize over mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about your writing—you also are an ambivalent writer.

            “Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? . . . Do you begin sentences in your head . . . so crisp and suggestive that they make perfect story or novel openers, only you never manage to write them down? . . . Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers, or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? . . . Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? . . . Do you fear that you will someday wonder where the years went?

            “If you can relate to the above, you certainly have the obsessive qualities—along with the self-aggrandizement and concurrent feelings of worthlessness—that are part of the writer’s basic makeup.  However, you also have so many conflicting thoughts and feelings about writing and about yourself as a writer you are unable to choose one idea and see it through. . . Just as you settle on one idea, another voice pops into your head.  Or just as you sit down to write, you suddenly and inexplicably fall asleep.  You are what I call the ambivalent writer.”  Betsy Lerner

         Cheer up!  One of the first steps out of this morass is to recognize and acknowledge the state of your ambivalence and draw comfort from realizing that you are not alone.  Many, if not most writers suffer from a similar predicament. And the fact of the matter is that writing is just damn hard work!   No wonder we avoid it.

         Thankfully, we have a great ally in Betsy Lerner, who has written a wonderful and insightful book: “The Forest for the Trees; An Editor’s Advice to Writers.”  Betsy is educated as a writer, has worked many years for a major publishing house and is now a literary agent and author.  She really understands the writer’s state of mind and offers practical and encouraging advice for those of us who—despite the push-pull of ambivalence—recurrently feel compelled to follow the path of writing.

         Betsy’s advice is encouraging and empathetic:

         “. . . the only real difference that I have been able to quantify between those who ultimately make their way as writers and those who quit is that the former were able to contain their ambivalence long enough to commit to a single idea and see it through.”

            “Chances are you want to write because you are a haunted individual, or a bothered individual, because the world does not sit right with you, or you with it. . . The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers who are unafraid to present stories that speak emotional truth . . . I suggest you stalk your demons.  Embrace them.  If you are a writer, especially one who has been unable to make your work count or stick, you must grab your demons by the neck and face them down.  And whatever you do, don’t censor yourself.  There’s always time and editors for that.”

         Yet also blunt and coolly realistic:

         “Writing demands that you keep at bay the demons insisting that you are not worthy or that your ideas are idiotic or that your command of the language is insufficient . . . this is my advice to you: stop altogether and see how long you can go without writing . . . Writing is a calling, and if the call subsides, so be it. . . I assure you, you will never make yourself write.”

 Forest for the Trees        I’ll be doing more posts inspired by ideas from Betsy’s book but I strongly urge investing in “The Forest for the Trees.”  We need all the allies we can gather!  Best wishes for your writing.