It was my wife—God bless her—who said I was insane. And not only was I insane, but probably all the people in the world who called themselves writers were too. Certifiable. In need of round the clock psychological care and Thorazine milkshakes.
It was the pens, you see. She was going to the store, and I asked her to pick me up some pens. In my wife’s defense, I didn’t specify what sort of pens. And in my defense, I didn’t think I had to. We’ve been married for fifteen years. She’s seen me write before.
But she brought home black pens. I thought it was a joke at first. I even laughed. My wife didn’t call me insane then, but I bet the thought had crossed her mind.
Blue pens, I told her. I needed blue pens. Because blue ink produced the best words and black ink undermined creativity and the flow of artistic expression. How could anyone not know that? That’s when the insane comment was voiced. Jokingly, of course. Maybe half-jokingly. Which was followed by this:
“The problem isn’t black pens, it’s that you can’t tell the difference between what you want and what you need.”
Of course I disagreed. It’s a pride thing. But as the day wore on and I kept staring at my pack of black pens, I began to see she was right. As a writer, I don’t really have needs and wants. I just have needs.In the beginning there is rarely confusion between the two. When we decide we want to be writers, we just want to write. Life is simple because what we want is exactly what we need. We’re like babies then. And like babies, we believe the world to be both magical and ours.
But then we grow up and decide to get serious about writing. That’s when we realize the world isn’t ours to have as much as it is ours to borrow, and what was once magical can often become downright scary.
Trust me. I was there. Still am, too.
It starts out with needing to tell a story and then evolves into wanting to be published. Then from wanting to be published to needing an agent. It wasn’t that long ago that I told myself if I could only catch Rachelle Gardner’s attention, if she would only be my agent, then I would be a writer. That’s what I needed.
When that happened, I thought I needed a publisher, and when that happened I thought I needed a multi-book contract, and when that happened I thought I needed a bigger multi-book contract, and then somewhere in there my wife called me insane. Because as it turns out, those weren’t needs at all.
There are lessons that can be learned by heeding the experiences of others and lessons that can only be learned through one’s own failure. I’m pretty sure what I’m about to say falls under the latter, but I’m going to say it anyway:
If you are a writer and if you are reading this, you already have the essentials of success. The great secret is that the agents and the publishers and the book deals are just wants. Sure, you should go for them. Shoot for the moon. Dream big. Have faith. But know that being denied a want isn’t nearly as bad as failing to meet a need. Thankfully, as writers our needs are few.
We need a story to tell and a longing to tell that story in the best way possible. We need someone to tell that story to. And we need a determination to get up just one more time than we fall down.
That’s it. Meet those needs, and the wants will come. That’s not to say we’ll never be called insane, even if black ink makes the same words as blue ink. We’re writers after all. We don’t have to make sense all the time. Our hearts are bowed toward the hidden lands.
What do you want? What do you need?
“I dont’ ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out ‘Is he as crazy as I am?’ I don’t need that question answered.” — Philip Roth