On the Importance of Being Grumpy if You Write Fiction


I'm a grumpy guy. Sometimes I don't email people back right away. Sometimes not at all. Sometimes I will email them back immediately and let them know exactly what I think, and hit send before I know what I think. Sometimes I will only email them back if I know it will make them mad, and if I think it will make them madder to not email them back, I'll do that.

But that's just email. And usually being grumpy around email only harms you and others around you. If you're a grumpy guy like me, you should just not check your email. For awhile. Until you're less grumpy.

So what about fiction? Writing fiction makes people grumpy. If it doesn't make you grumpy at some point, you're not doing it well. Or you're not doing it right. The best writers I know get really grumpy about their fiction. They say it's not going well, they just want it to be over, they hate it. They're done with writing. It's driving them nuts. The middle sucks. The ending needs to be rewritten. It's because it's hard work a lot of the time, and when it gets hard it's never more important to stick with it, and good writers know this. Good writers are grumpy self-critics. Chipper writers put things down on the page and think they look great, right off the bat. Then they expect to hear great praise, and when they don't, they write somethng new. Grumpy writers interrogate every word as if they're a grumpy old magistrate. They get praised and then they hate everything again and try to make it better. Ultimately, their grumpiness has nothing to do with what other people say about the writing, and everything they feel.

Nothing is a more terrible feeling—well, there are plenty of more terrible feelings—but it really feels like nothing could be worse than completing the 37th draft of something, after fine-toothing every single word and bit of punctuation--than to realize that you've gotten something horribly genetically wrong, that the animal in front of you, while it appears to be healthy on the surface, is an abomination. The forest for the trees syndrome. This happens a lot, and it feels awful. You're a bad, capricious, dimwitted demigod, and you hate yourself for it. But what's even more awful to feel is that if you want this thing to see the light of day, you must do a TOTAL REWRITE. You know you may end up throwing out some of the best, most overwrought parts of it. You will even have to WRITE MORE ORIGINAL MATERIAL. The thought of this is enough to make you despondent enough to just give up, and yet good writers know they can't give up. And that's even harder still, to know you are going to keep going whether you want to or not.

You desperately seek help. Every writer need some outside guidance. You say to someone you trust—what do you think of this thing? What can I do about it? In that situation, it's pretty common for those people to not return your emails. Whether it's because you did it to them or it’s something about the work you showed them, you'll never know. You start to wonder if that stuff about that one L. Ron Hubbard book was true—that half the people who read it went insane, and the other half killed themselves. You wonder if your work is like that. Occasionally you will get a friend, usually another writer, to tell you what you might try with it, to try his best to let you down easy. But it's never easy.

So this brings us to an important question. What about a sunny disposition? Would a sunny disposition, a beaming countenance, a chipper outlook, help these grumpy writers? Can such a thing be learned, or can such a thing be latent, innate but hidden, and coaxed out through behavioral therapy or maybe shock treatment?

The answer is no. If you are that person, you're not even reading this, because you really don't care if you ever write anything good. Maybe you write out of sheer joy. That's fine if you do, but probably no one will want to read that. Maybe you write therapeutically, and that's fine too. But no one will want to read that—AND you should really hate yourself for doing it. Keep doing it, by all means, but it's only normal to be grumpy about it. In fact, a writer with the right disposition is so self-critical that any change in disposition at all is cause for complaint. I was in a great mood, and now this. It was all going just horribly, and now suddenly I don't care. I thought this was awful and felt very secure knowing that, but now people are telling me it's good. Change sucks. But if you're going to have any kind of constant attitudinal barometer, it's better to be on the grumpy side. You may never enjoy anything, but you might please a lot of other people.