Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the best writers on the web right now, using his Atlantic.com blog and other venues to discuss race, culture, history, and a myriad of other topics. He writes long, thoughtful pieces, and even his commenters can be dauntingly erudite.
He's currently debating New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait on whether there's a "culture of poverty" in U.S. black communities, and while the debate is definitely worth checking out for its main points, I glommed onto this statement by Coates:
Let's talk about that.
There is no shortage of grandiose or martial metaphors for writing and other creative work, and no shortage of assertions that suffering and isolation are the natural realms of the artist.
You'll find these ideas in both pop culture and high art. Here's a long list of examples.
Then there's the "Sanguinary Trifecta": Red Smith (to write, “sit down at a typewriter and open a vein”), Gene Fowler (“Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.") and Hemingway ("There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.")
And let's not forget William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:
(From all accounts, by the way, Faulkner was a loyal and devoted son.)
I'm not about to criticize whatever mindset a writer successfully uses to get words down. What I do know, however, is that, for many writers and other creators, aggression, pain, and deprivation lead not to productivity, but a block. (And they also make you a misery to be around.)
I also know many people who are awesome fighters in the public sphere, but who struggle with their writing:
I know activist-writers, for instance, who will take on any societal oppressor, the more powerful the better. But they can still stall on their writing.
I know athlete-writers who excel on the track or tennis court, but falter when confronted with the blank page.
And I even know a writer who is a burlesque dancer. She takes her clothes off on stage--something I and presumably most people reading this would find absolutely daunting. And yet, she struggles to reveal herself on paper.
Clearly, the act of writing requires a different type of toughness than that required to take on an "external" enemy or obstacle--namely, the ability to sit quietly with your thoughts and practice what for many people is a challenging level of self-acceptance, even when (especially when) the work isn't going well.
The ability not to attack, in other words.
There are other requisite skills, of course, including the ability to manage critical inputs, and all the myriad skills that go into managing a successful career. And they're also founded on nonaggression! You can't bully or beat your way into productivity and success.
I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent.
No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all, and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. Nice counterexamples are:
I am currently reading, and being hugely inspired by, Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which convincingly claims that humans as a species have become less violent over time, and are continuing to become so. It's perhaps the most inspiring message around--and I urge you to apply it to your own life and work.