For the last three months my buddy Kirk has sequestered himself in a rented cabin deep in the Blue Ridge mountains. As far as I can tell, he took with him only the barest of essentials to complete his stated purpose—a dozen bags of deer jerky, four cases of MREs (that’s Meal, Ready to Eat for you non-military folks), three cases of beer, and two dozen protein bars. That should get him through, he says. If not, he’ll just go hunting.
Get him through for what, you ask? Well, now there’s a story.
Kirk is an old high school classmate and friend. Back then he was awkward and shy and always had his head in a book—three characteristics that guaranteed he’d have a tough time until after his senior year. But he sat in front of me in freshman English and, well, some friendships are born of compatibility and others location.
Even then Kirk wanted to be a writer. A published one. But as both his talent and his confidence were lacking, he always qualified “I want to be an author” with “Probably won’t, though.”
Like a lot of high school friends, Kirk and I lost contact after graduation. But then I ran into him at the mall three months ago.. Well, not him. Not the Kirk I knew. This was New and Improved Kirk, and version 2.0 was quite different.
He had found a cure for all that awkward shyness.
Kirk had become a Ranger in the U.S. Army.
Now that he was out, he was back to pursuing his goal of writing a book. And in the spirit of his down-and-dirty Ranger training, he was locking himself in a cabin in the middle of the wilderness to do it.
And you know what? I bet he will. I can almost guarantee it.
There were a lot of reasons why Kirk wasn’t ready to be a writer in high school. You have to grow some and learn some and fail some and hurt a lot first. But more than that, you have to be trained. Kirk told me he’d had his training now. He was a Ranger.
I’d never considered special forces training and training to be a writer to be one and the same, but he was adamant. They’re exactly alike, he said. Both are a process that tests you, then breaks you down, and then shows you whom you truly are.
But to Kirk, his Ranger training gave him one very big advantage—he’d been taught how to be comfortable in misery. He knew how to embrace the thirst and the hunger. How to endure the cold and the heat. And above all, he knew he was being readied for war and that war was hell, which is why his drill instructors trained him to, in his words, “Get the damn job done. Regardless.”
I think he’s onto something.
Because you can (and should) read all the books you can about the craft of writing. You can learn about plot and character and point of view, learn to kill your darling adverbs and adjectives, and speak in present instead passive voice. But until you learn to be comfortable in misery, you will not succeed. Ever.
There are times when sitting down to write is an invitation to pure bliss, when the words leap from your fingers virgin and perfect and you know without doubt they come from the very best part of you. Enjoy those times. They will be few.
Because for the most part, it’s just the opposite. The writing life is not bliss. It’s roaming through the desert of one submission after another, searching for whatever scrap of food or drip of water you can beg, borrow and steal in order to stay alive. It’s enduring the cold of having nothing to say and the heat of knowing you must write anyway.
And above all, writing is war.
It is a war fought not against agents and publishers, but against yourself. It is a war in which the enemy isn’t acceptance, it’s surrender. And yes, it is hell. No doubt about it. But you know what? A writer, a real one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
I haven’t seen Kirk since. For all I know, he’s still up in the mountains writing his book. I like to think he is. I like to think he’s pounding away at those keys and fighting his war.
That he’s getting the damn job done. Regardless.
I like to think that’s what you’re doing, too.