Ever submitted something to a writing contest? Did you lose? Yeah…me, too. Below is a piece I wrote for the Surrey International Writers Conference, about being addicted to writing. It didn’t win, place or show — but it improved my writing skills and it spurred me to write a blog post for Quips and Tips for Successful Writers! That article is called 7 Things to Do When You Didn’t Win the Writing Contest.
When you get rejected by editors or don’t win writing contests, remember Beckett’s classic quotation about failure:
“Ever tried, ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett.
I love it! All writers must snuggle up to failure and rejection (we have to be adventurous that way! Resilient! Bounceback-able!).
Here’s my entry for the writing contest — it’s a letter to my husband Bruce. The theme? being addicted to writing. The hook? wonderful quotations from published authors about the writer’s life…
But Honey, All Real Writers Do It!
I promise, I’m coming to bed right away – my Reader’s Digest article is almost edited – but first I have to tell you what I found. It’ll finally settle our argument! Since you’re probably sawing logs by now (I can’t believe it’s already 2 a.m.), I’m jotting it down so I don’t forget.
You claim I’m “addicted” to writing. Well, I was surfing Alice’s website (she’s the addictions counselor we met at the Anderson’s, remember? The tall brunette married to the undercover narc) and I found a list of characteristics that describe addictive behavior. It proves I’m not addicted to writing. I’m simply tenacious, as all freelancers must be. I have dedicated myself to my craft, as all real writers must do.
On Alice’s list, it says, “The person is struggling with substance dependence if at least three of the following five behaviors are evident.”
Prepare to eat some humble pie, darling husband…because none of these apply to me…
1. The person recognizes excessive use of the substance, and may have tried to reduce it but was unable to do so.
Okay, writing 12 hours a day may seem slightly excessive to outsiders – but I can stop anytime. Bruce, I can hear you already. “But you don’t stop, Laurie! You work on weekends, in the evenings when we’re watching a movie, and when we go on vacation. You write at Christmas when we’re visiting my parents, and you sneak away to work when we have overnight guests.”
I’m not saying I do stop anytime. I’m saying I could stop anytime. Remember our wedding day? I didn’t write a word.
You should be thankful I’m not like Annie Dillard. Talk about addicted to writing! “Let the grass die,” she said. “I let almost all my indoor plants die from neglect while I was writing the book. There are all kinds of ways to live…You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.”
Honey, if you didn’t keep the house tidy and water the plants, I most certainly would.
2. The person has given up or reduced many activities (socializing, recreation, work, etc.) because of substance use.
Sorry, but this characteristic doesn’t apply to real writers because we have to give up or cut back on superfluous activities. That’s the nature of the beast.
Listen to Jessamyn West: “Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.”
See? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not declaring war at home and I haven’t targeted you as my enemy (though I was admittedly a little hostile when I discovered you eating Cheetos while using my laptop). I’m just saying that giving up certain activities is part of a real writer’s life. Plus, visiting the dentist and your parents every six months are highly overrated activities.
Natalie Goldberg said that writers have to stick to their schedules.
“I hear people say they’re going to write. I ask, when? They give me vague statements,” said Goldberg. “Indefinite plans get dubious results. When we’re concrete about our writing time, it alleviates that thin constant feeling of anxiety that writers have – we’re barbecuing hot dogs, riding a bike, sailing out in the bay, shopping for shoes, even helping a sick friend, but somewhere nervously at the periphery of our perception we know we belong somewhere else – at our desk!”
Though you say my schedule is too rigid, Goldberg recommends discipline. But listen – I do it all for you! You want to retire early, don’t you? That’s why I work so hard. One day we’ll be living off my online revenues and book royalties (that reminds me, I still haven’t found a publisher for See Jane Soar – I better send out another round of proposals this week). I’m not addicted to writing; I’m simply securing our future together because I love you so much.
At least I’m not as unyielding as Erica Jong. She said, “The most important thing for a writer is to be locked in a study.”
I don’t even have a study. (Sweetie, do you think we should consider adding on a library/study if we renovate the house? All real writers have them, you know).
3. The person shows signs of tolerance, indicated by (a) larger doses of the substance needed to produce the desired effect, and (b) the effects of the drug becoming markedly less if only the usual amount is taken.
Yes, Bruce, I recall that when we were first married I wrote for only seven or eight hours a day. But we were newlyweds. Now that we’re established, I work 12 hours a day because we don’t need to spend quite so much time together. Plus, it’s not the quantity of hours that matter, it’s the quality, right?
It’s not like I write in the dark like Henry David Thoreau did…
“I put a piece of paper under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark,” he said.
…or in the moonlight with bleeding fingers…
“All good writing is built one good line at a time,” said Kate Braverman. “You build a novel the same way you do a pyramid. One word, one stone at a time, underneath a full moon while the fingers bleed.”
See my fingers? Clean.
4. Withdrawal symptoms develop when the person stops taking the substance or reduces the amount. The person may also use the substance to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Alice said that addicts need drugs to function and cope with daily life, especially when they’re going through withdrawal. Honey, please don’t remind me yet again of when I compared writing to mainlining crack cocaine. I was kidding. Before I eat breakfast, I don’t need to write two hundred words, edit yesterday’s work, research story ideas, update my website, scan my blog stats, send two new pitches, and check my emails. That’s simply my morning ritual – and all real writers have rituals. It has nothing to do with withdrawal or the fact that I haven’t written a word all night and I’m scared of losing momentum and turning 90 years old without seeing my writing or book dreams come true.
Need I remind you once again that I didn’t write on our wedding day? And I didn’t write the day after that either, when we flew to St. Maarten. But I had to write on our honeymoon because of Ray Bradbury.
He said, “If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy or both – you must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
See how important it is for me to write every day? Otherwise I’d be drowning in physical and psychological toxins…can you imagine if I didn’t write? (By the way, you can forget about using the “drunk on writing” part to argue that writing is addictive or mood altering. I’m way ahead of you…)
5. The person continues using the substance despite psychological or physical problems caused or made worse by the drug.
This last characteristic just doesn’t apply to writers at all. Words aren’t drugs. They don’t control you or affect you physically or make you feel any particular way. Words don’t captivate or mesmerize or take you to different worlds….okay fine yes they do all those things. But still, words aren’t drugs.
When Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind,” he wasn’t referring to the effect they have on writers. He meant readers. Maybe poets. Perhaps even novelists or essayists, but definitely not freelancers.
Finally, we agree: I’m not addicted to writing.
Hey, that gives me a great idea for an article! “How to Recognize When Your Spouse is Addicted.” I only wish I thought of it before, so you could’ve seen the truth years ago and we wouldn’t have wasted so much time arguing. I better outline a query right now. I think Heidi at Woman’s Day would be interested, and I want to email her first thing in the morning.
I’m coming to bed as soon as I finish writing this pitch, honey. I promise.