A Sisyphean Task

Zoë Donovan, Writing Consultant

There is a quote from the Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods by Neil Gaiman in the introduction that at the time I first read it in 2016 seemed trivial, unimportant and just a bit pretentious.

“I remember when it [American Gods] was all done in first draft telling Gene Wolfe, who is the wisest writer I know and has written more excellent novels than any man I’ve met, that I thought I had now learned how to write a novel. Gene looked at me, and smiled kindly. “You never learn how to write a novel,” he told me. “You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”He was right. I’d learned to write the novel I was writing, and nothing more.” – Neil Gaiman American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

Since reading those words I have written an innumerable amount of novellas, short stories, poems, audio dramas, plays, and of course essays. Looking back, I’ve found that in every piece of writing, no matter how similar the subject material it may be to other previous works, this statement stands true.

                And yet, every time I finished a project I would find myself in the same line of thinking that Gaiman had at the end of the first draft. “I’ve finally figured out how to write!” And yet, every time I’d start a new project I would crumple into an agonizing state of imposter syndrome. Suddenly, it’s hard again and the words don’t fit right, the flow is off, my characters are stock image facsimiles of how I imagined, the page is blank, erased over and over again or scratched out ,and I can’t shut off the never ending rant telling me I’ve been deluding myself the entire time. I would find myself asking, how can I even consider myself a writer if it’s always this difficult for me.

                Since then, I have come to believe that it is a myth that someone can be a good writer or a bad writer. Throughout my experience I have found that Gaiman and Wolfe, in true fashion of their profession, stated something fundamental to the writing process. I only really grasped the weight of what this meant to me as a writer upon a reread of the book in 2020. We learn to write the things that we are working on. We learn to hone it into something that the intended audience will understand. No project will ever be the same, and you don’t ever really learn how to “Write”.

 Writing is a Sisyphean task. It is a grueling process that can at times be quite enjoyable, but at other times can feel like walking across broken glass. With the start of every new project, the boulder has rolled back down the hill and you find yourself cursing the writing gods for your own hubris. I say it’s a myth to be a good writer but a caveat is needed. The only thing that I believe separates a good writer and a bad writer is perseverance. Whether that perseverance looks like 100 words a day or 5,000 words a day, putting pen to paper is what matters, whether a project takes you ten hours or ten years, when it is finished you will have learned how to write that piece. No project will ever be the same as the last. You can bring in existing knowledge and skills, but at the end of the day you won’t know how to write that paper until you’ve already written it. 

                You will never know where to begin, where to end, and what exactly happens in between until you actually the piece. There will be tears, frustration and so much revision. But these stages help you, and you take something onto the next project that you didn’t know before, though as writers we are always growing, and it will never be exactly the same process.

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