Dear Mr. Keillor: Let the Writers Whine

Confession: in college I was a closet Keillorite. Prairie Home Companion inspired me to write radio dramas for The Waterpipe TheaterThe Book of Guys had me dashing off (very bad) short stories, and cousin Kate was one of my earliest literary crushes. But today I stumbled upon Garrison’s  2006 Salon piece, “Writers, Quit Whining.” I’m not sure how I feel about this:

“OK, let me say this once and get it off my chest and never mention it again. I have had it with writers who talk about how painful and harrowing and exhausting and almost impossible it is for them to put words on paper and how they pace a hole in the carpet, anguish writ large on their marshmallow faces, and feel lucky to have written an entire sentence or two by the end of the day.

It’s the purest form of arrogance: Lest you don’t notice what a brilliant artist I am, let me tell you how I agonize over my work. To which I say: Get a job. Try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class, from September to June, and then tell us about suffering.”

Fair enough.

I’m with Garrison that any job is harrowing, and compared to teaching unruly 13-year-olds, juggling Samurai swords, and cleaning the inside of sceptic tanks, writing is a cakewalk. Those of us fortunate enough to do what we love and get paid for it especially ought not bemoan our fates. I also agree that complaining in order to illustrate your brilliance is distasteful, and simply ineffective (You’re such a great writer because you can’t, um, write?).

However, the anguish of writing is particular. Writing is, of course, HARD. It requires a phenomenally complex skill set beyond correct grammar and good spelling. I don’t buy the adage “If you can speak, you can write.” If you can speak in syntactically perfect sentences shot through with triple meanings, okay, maybe. But there’s a reason the best orators write down their speeches. Speaking does not make you a writer any more than plunking Twinkle Twinkle makes you Mozart.

But I’m getting off topic (See? This stuff ain’t easy…)

Writing belongs to a category of vocations (teaching is on this list, too), that certain folks must do. Put them on a desert island, and they’ll do that one thing until they’re dry bones. Without it, they feel incomplete, inhuman, terminal as a brain deprived of oxygen. That must, combined with the grind of daily labor, the uncertainty of success, and the pervasive fear of not being good enough, warrants a little grousing, doesn’t it?

I believe in *treating* writing like a job, sitting down every day at the same time, working at it even when you don’t want to. But writing is more a religion, whose followers, no matter how devoted, often experience the sneaking suspicion they do not deserve salvation, that none of their good works will ever earn eternal bliss, and that the smart, responsible thing to do is commit apostasy and “get a real job.” That’s a special kind of torture, I think. Bearable? Sure. But not inconsequent.

So I hope y’all will tolerate occasional whining from your local writer, same as you would from an investment banker, wandering philosopher, or professional sky diver. Making money is hard- but so is passion.