All the World’s A Page: The 9 Woes of the Writing Life

At work in the world, on the world of the page.

At work  on the world of the page.

Recently at the end of a creative nonfiction class I taught, a student came to me with a helpless shrug of her shoulders. “I want to write. I want to be a writer. That’s what I want to do with my life.” I felt a gush of pride that I had managed a convert, but pity came next, then fear:  What had I done? I immediately knew I needed to fill in what I left out from the class script, the off-stage notes that turn out to be the most important. To her and to any other aspiring writers, I offer the cheerful remainder here (to be read in a sonorous voice, because the warnings are real):

 Woe #1: You will see too much.

You will no longer be able to ignore the woman in El Salvador sitting among the garbage, the man carrying a sink onto a bus, the arguing couple behind you in the restaurant. A writer is charged with keeping attention, with bringing words to the invisible, the unspoken, the troubling, the ridiculous. But even as you take note, do take note: the best words you find will not be enough.

Woe #2: You’ll lose a lot of sleep.

You will welcome nightly visitations of the muse, inviting her with an open notebook beside your bed. You will be so hungry for words you will gladly trade your necessary rest for a single cutting sentence, a vivid metaphor, a line of pretty poetry. You will be tired often because of it and you won’t always be happy.

Woe #3:  You will gradually be divested of your most cherished stereotypes and grudges.

Your entrance into others’ lives and stories whether actual or fictional will bring a disconcerting complexity and humanness to the unlikeliest and unloveliest people. If you’re not careful, you may even be tempted to forgive.

 Woe #4:  You’ll give away your privacy.

All the world’s a page. To keep both of yours turning (world and page) you’ll need to appear on every platform you can beg, borrow and thieve, telling and giving all at any hour of night or day, without modesty or reserve. You will give most of yourself away. A special woe to those tempted to write memoir.

 Woe #5: You will read for pleasure less and you will like fewer books.

Once you take language and books seriously you will be unable to turn off your writer and editor’s eye. Writing that once offered distraction and escape will seldom survive the mental red pen, shrinking your list of favorites. You will give up on bestsellers. You will feel culturally stranded.

 Woe #6: You will spend far more money than you make.

For every writing project you undertake, you will buy a shelf or two of books and you’ll subscribe to literary journals and magazines as if they kept you warm and fed. Which they will, but the metaphor breaks down when the temperature drops below freezing and you’re eating oatmeal for dinner and the bills are past due.

 Woe #7: You will not be content to live in the present only.

In your pursuit of what is real and true, you will excavate the past as eagerly as the present, breaking down closet doors, piecing skeletons together, retrieving abandoned diaries. You will find nuance and revolution that disturbs the status quo. Others will be annoyed and will try to keep you quiet. You may not be invited for Christmas dinner.

Woe #8: You will no longer be satisfied in writing for yourself.

Once you find an audience, however small, you’ll write by an open window instead of a mirror. You’ll carry your readers with you. You’ll care too much about the truth for their sake. You’ll want to heal and help. You’ll see how small you are. You’ll keep writing anyway.

When I began a tentative writing life thirty years ago, I was never formally wooed nor “woe-d.”  If I had, would I have continued? I know the answer. It comes as the final “woe” and I write it now to my student, who is still watching me with undimmed eyes:

Woe#9: Woe to those who hear, who touch and who see, yet who drop the pen and turn away from the open half-written pages of a world still waiting to be finished. Many stories will be lost. Yours will not end as it should. This woe is far worse than the others.  

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49 thoughts on “All the World’s A Page: The 9 Woes of the Writing Life

  1. Woe #4: You’ll give away your privacy. All the world’s a page.

    So true, Leslie. Being a textbook introvert, this is the hardest part of writing for me. And yet, I still share from the heart. I just can’t help myself. 🙂

  2. Wow, all true. My window staring has concerned my husband a bit I think. He has learned to ask, “Are you writing in your head again?”

  3. I see a lot of the things you have written in myself, and have been there since early childhood. Maybe I was born to be a writer…
    At any rate, all except the “spending more money than I make”, I have turned most of the “woes” into plusses.

  4. Brilliant.
    Number 9 is a cautionary tale I need. There is a project I itch to write, yet refuse to even begin. I needed to remember: walking away would be the greatest woe of all.

    Just a thought… you should have someone talented at graphics turn this into an image. (Every word of it. Much like an infographic, but in paragraph form.) Then ask to share it on other widely-read sites about writing. At the least, add it to Pinterest. I really think it’d spread like wildfire in the writing world.

    If you do it, make sure your name is on the image!

      • I second Rachel’s suggestion, Leslie, about making it into an image. It would go everywhere and that kind of promotion is priceless! (Sorry, I’m made to market, I guess, but this list is just so poetic, truth-telling, and wise, I want to see it in every writer’s hand and heart! It’s already a work of art, Leslie.)

  5. Leslie, I loved the one about sleeplessness. Now, do more of we sleep-challenged folks become writers (say, out of boredom in the middle of the night?) or does being a writer cause the sleep deprivation in those with otherwise perfectly normal sleeping habits? Or perhaps, the muse deigns to interrupt slumber because when I “go away” to that place without facebook, details-of-daily living, and assorted “good things” that gorge on writing time I am, for those short magical moments between sleep and the real world, able to see clearly from whence I came?

    • David–I think the second is right. In truth, we’d all give up sleep for good words–and the Muse knows our hierarchy of values, so she freely, without compunction, interrupts!! (Yes, also that our bodies are still—finally!—and all we’ve been suppressing and gathering thunders upon us. I’ll take it, though–whatever comes! (Thanks for visiting here, David!!)

  6. Very inspiring post and I value the pros and cons you mention. I have been wrestling with some of my writing projects and have been awakened in the early hours of morning with vivid scenes that must be written down. It has been difficult to realize that these images can be transcribed, despite my desire to gain more sleep, in order to make sense of the plot for my novel. Thank you for your candid assessment of the writing life.

  7. Woe #5 – so, so true! Last night my book club discussed _The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood_. I had read it twice before, and loved it. This time, only made it a third the way through. I started picking apart her language and tension and point of view… Argh.

    Great post; thanks.

  8. This is so timely for me Leslie. I woke up this morning determined to shut down my blog and walk away from the little book I am struggling to write. I feel so unqualified to aspire to such things, but it seems I can’ t quite let it go
    #4 is a difficult one for me.
    Thank you for this. You are fast becoming one of my favorite writers.

  9. Leslie, I love everything you write, and you’ve done it again! I laughed and cried my way through your list. Woe is me! It is all true! But we can do no other. It is who we are. We must heed the final woe, mindful that God has crafted us to be the eyes and the ears, recording it all, pouring it all out, uncovering our very selves, even if we end up eating our oatmeal for dinner in the dark and are no longer invited for Christmas dinner.

    • Thank you Melinda!! You are most generous! Indeed, these very things have happened to me—and likely to you. Amazing how we are yet sustained, as you say, by knowing that God is the one who compels us to words and this life. I am so very grateful I get to write—and that a few others want to read what is written. Blessings in all your writing adventures, Melinda!

  10. At times I’ve doubted that I’m truly a “writer” – But your post removed all doubt – How painfully, but joyfully, I relate!! 🙂

    • Glenda—glad you’re in my company! It’s good to know we really do have a tribe out there—and that we’re, somehow, strangely normal (for a writer, that is.) Thanks for reading!

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  14. One of my woes is that I will write with no intention of publishing the stuff. My writing may be the best, but if it doesn’t make it to the reading world, it’s just sitting in a file waiting for its cue to come on stage. God help those of us who write but do not publish.
    I listen to other’s conversations and often feel obligated to interrupt and offer hope if it’s needed. Then, ideas for articles come and I’m writing again.

    • John—you’re right. This is indeed a woe! I’ve experienced the same: some writing that I think is good still doesn’t find publication, a readership at all. That is indeed very hard . … But amazing, you are still writing and offering encouragement to others!! Have you considered starting a blog? Or guest writing for others’ blogs? That’s a good way to get started publishing. Thanks for sharing your experience. May you keep finding worthy ideas and words!

      • Dear Leslie,
        I started blogging several years ago, but I ran out of gas. Is there a filling station for bloggers who either can’t decide what to share or don’t keep a schedule? Some bloggers write something helpful everyday, others blog once a week, others fizzle out. What’s your formula for keeping a blog going?

      • John, I’m not a good one to ask. I’ve only been doing a blog for a year. But here’s my main advice. Don’t write unless you have something compelling to say. A daily blog is too much—for readers as well as writers. A once weekly is good. I often miss a week though (as I have this week since I’m traveling). If you can write out of joy and the overflow of your life, your blog will be successful. If you write out of obligation and dread, then it will die out—-as it should. That’s all I got!!

      • Thank you, Leslie! That’s great advice. God continue to bless and embrace His bloggers.

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  17. So true, Leslie! But your ninth woe made me cringe! I pray that I don’t miss the opportunities to tell the stories that matter most. I’ve been very convicted about that very truth lately; so, I’m making the necessary adjustments in my life. And I’m passing that word along to others, whether they’re writers or not. I believe it’s part of our spiritual legacies. What could be more valuable to the next generation?

    • Karen–I agree. It IS part of our legacy to our friends and family. But I did NOT want to inflict guilt!! (Thanks to some very kind advice from fellow Wordservers, I’m turning this into a graphic on Pinterest. ) It IS a kind of counting-of-the-cost, but the cost cuts two ways, doesn’t it?? Thanks for reading and writing back Karen!

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