Learning to Write: On Being Ruthless

“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”   —William Faulkner, 1956


Margaret Mitchell said she would be invited out to dinner and decline because she knew she needed to stay home and write something called Gone With the Wind. Her friends didn’t understand this startling behavior. Why was she locking herself up in her house all the time? Didn’t she, you know, want to have fun? Isaac Asimov once claimed if he were forced to choose writing over family he would choose writing and never think about the decision again.

These stories, and others like them, may be apocryphal. I don’t know. But they showcase something a writer needs to develop which is a sense of ruthlessness and an unwillingness to compromise ourselves when it comes to our work.

My writing buddy and I have talked about this over many cups of coffee. I’ve discussed it with other writers and they agree. Ruthlessness, and a cultivation of same, is an important tool in our cabinet.

It’s not because we as writers are special. Trust me, we’re not. We ‘re no better than malandered mongrels pursued by our own set of scrabbling, inner demons. No, this doesn’t have anything to do with us. Writers, though part of the equation, are ultimately unimportant. Because if you don’t write that story someone else will.

It’s all about sacrifice to the story. The story is all. Writers are but Delphic Sibyls even at our best. Melville didn’t find Moby-Dick. That story found him.

Ruthlessness. I call it being a bastard which, many argue, is not a far step for me. I won’t belabor the point. Faulkner described it as a sense of ruthlessness. It’s the same thing.

Look, no one is going to understand you as a writer. Especially if they themselves are not writers. The only people who understand writers are other writers. Not because we’re so special, but because the only people who understand our demons are the people who carry the same demons.

So I argue don’t knock yourself out trying to make yourself understood to people who are unable to understand what drives you. You’re going to be disappointed and frustrated, and so are they when you are unable to find common ground.

Margaret Mitchell
Margaret Mitchell

I view this as damn near an inviolable commandment for writers, if any such exists. People will sometimes get in your way. Events in your life will happen that impinge on your writing. These things happen and we have no control over them. But we do have control over our writing and in that regard we must be ruthless and never compromise.

If we must tote up the board with old ladies, then so be it. No one else understands you. No one else gives a damn about your writing and they certainly aren’t going to write that story for you. The only person that matters when it comes to your writing is you. The only person who sets standards and goals when it comes to your writing is you.

Yes, you have to be ruthless. And that means you also must be ruthless with yourself. Other people may get in your way. If they do, push them aside, albeit gently. Their concerns and inability to understand what you are about, what drives you, pale in comparison to the art you are trying to create.

Push them aside. And while you’re at it, push aside the doubts and barriers within yourself that keep you from writing that story.

Compared to the story itself, and its need for life, writers, and everything else, are but motes.

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