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When Writing Isn’t Like Oxygen

Breathe Deeply

When you ask writers why they write, or how they find the motivation to keep going, you often hear an answer like this:

I’ve always written. When I was little I would sneak away from my parents and sit under a tree and just write and write. For me, writing is like oxygen. It’s like food. It nourishes my life and my waking moments. There’s never been a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. I couldn’t not write even if I wanted to.

For some aspiring writers an answer like this is inspiring, because they feel exactly the same way.

For others it’s terrifying.

If you don’t feel like this, is there any point in trying to be a writer? Do you need to wake up with story ideas swimming behind your eyes, bursting to flood out through your fingertips?

The idea used to scare the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong; I love writing, and I have from a young age. But I love a lot of other things, too. I’ve gone for years without doing much of any writing at all. Whenever I heard a writer talking about how “writing is like oxygen” and how they couldn’t live without it, my insides tensed up. Did this mean I didn’t have what it took to be a writer? Is it worth writing at all if it isn’t an all-consuming passion?

Those fears were thoroughly squashed by a panel I attended at a science fiction convention. The panel was called “Organic vs. Structured Writing,” and it was hosted by four published, successful SF novelists.

Someone asked the panelists the dreaded question, as someone always done in something like this. “Why do you write? How do you find the motivation to keep writing?”

The first answer came from a writer who was very much on the “organic writing” side of the equation. She gave the same answer I had come to expect. Writing was like breathing. She has never gone a day without writing. She has to either write or explode.

My heart sank. And then the next panelist spoke up, and changed everything.

“Writing is very difficult for me. I have to struggle to make myself write every day. When I’m between novels I can spend weeks or even months without writing, and without even thinking much about writing. It’s important to write as often as you can, but you have to be realistic. A good start is to write 500 words a day, and see where that gets you. I remember once I set myself a task where I tried to write 1000 words every day for a month, and I couldn’t do it.”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. This was a published, successful science fiction novelist. She had written half a dozen novels and right now was addressing a panel full of fans who were desperate to replicate her success.

She didn’t write every day.

She didn’t feel that if she didn’t spend every free moment writing she would explode.

She didn’t have the all-consuming passion to write at the expense of everything else in her life.

And she made it anyway.

It’s important to love writing if you want to be a writer. Passion is certainly a part of the equation. But it isn’t the whole equation, and it isn’t the only option.

Professional writers have a wide variety of personality types and approaches to their writing. You don’t need an enormous wellspring of passion. You just need enough to make you care. Enough to make you keep going. You have your own reason why writing is important enough to you for you to pursue it, despite all of the difficulties. That reason, in all its nuance and complexity, is unique to you.

Whatever it is, it’s enough.