Why Writers Don’t Write, Or, Don’t Wait Until You’re on Your Deathbed

Today, we’re going to take a time-out from grammar and such and have a pep talk. The text for today’s sermon is taken from Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

You’re probably familiar with this story. In it, a man lies dying in Africa, near Mount Kilimanjaro, while he and his wife wait in vain for a rescue plane. The pertinent aspect of the story for us is that the narrator is a writer. As he slowly dies, he regrets that he no longer writes as he used to. At one point, he thinks to himself,

Now he would never write the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.

Is this you? You know it is. We all have a writing project we’ve been thinking of for years, maybe even decades. The one that we’ve filed, the one that we return to at night when we can’t sleep. Maybe you bought a few books for research, but you haven’t opened them. Something prevents you from actually, truly starting on the project.

Maybe your reason is the same as Hemingway’s narrator. I don’t know enough, you think. I need to make enough money to travel to the area in the book, I need to learn French first, I need to gain a little more distance and wisdom. Or maybe it’s just simply, I’m not a good enough writer yet, I’ll just butcher it.

Why do we do this? Hemingway’s already told us. As long as we don’t write it, it remains perfect, unblemished. We can talk about our great novel idea, because as long as we haven’t started it, we can imagine how perfect, how beautiful our ideas are. But we know that once we do start writing it, it’ll sprout pimples and start talking back to us.

The fact is, we don’t become good at something by thinking about doing it, and we don’t learn how to write unless we actually do it. Yes, your first draft will suck. It won’t be Great Literature. It won’t even be Sorta-Passable Literature. That’s okay. Janet Burroway wrote that Great Literature never emerges in draft form for anyone, except maybe for one person she knows, and, she says, there’s no evidence God even likes that person very much.

So, you should write today. And tomorrow. And the next day. Really, just write. No fairy godmother is going to appear to make you a good writer. Not even knowing all the grammar rules I talk about on this site will make you a good writer. The only thing that makes you a good writer is writing.

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