Jason Gurley

By day, I'm a user experience designer; by evenings/weekends, I write novels from my home in Scappoose, Ore. My newest is Awake in the World, published February 2019 by Roaring Brook Press; my previous novel, Eleanor, was published by Crown in 2016 and has since been translated into German, Portuguese, and Turkish. I’m currently working on a new project.

Balance and permission

Recently I had two conversations with writers I know. One shared with me their heartbreaking experience with writing communities, and how some very toxic behavior had made them feel unworthy to call themselves a writer; the other drew a picture of the awful burden expected of indie writers: publish often, publish fast, game the rankings and the algorithms, make money, money, money. The former had the voices of detractors and self-appointed gatekeepers in their head as they tried to write; the latter felt nothing they did was enough to keep up with the demand or expectations they felt. 

I can relate to both of these things. I've experienced the terrible vitriol of writers who believe that the act of writing is a holy calling, and that most people are not called to take part, or shouldn't dare try; I've attempted to keep up with the frantic pace to market and publish new work on a monthly basis, regardless of quality. Both are poisonous, unhealthy aspects of being a writer. Neither has to be true of any writer's experience. 

So, a few things I've learned, especially in the last few years:

1. Anyone can write.

Many will make the argument that not all should write, but that's just noise. If you can read, you can write. You may not be very good in the beginning, but that's okay; nobody is, and everybody who can write can learn how to write better. If you want to write, write. You don't require anyone's permission. You don't need an MFA, or to graduate from that workshop, or to know the right people. Writing is as much your right as anyone's. 

2. Writers are not inherently special.

When I was eighteen-ish, I wrote my first novel. It was terrible, but I was too young to know that. All I knew was what the world told me: that writers were minor deities. That writing a book was a cataclysmic act, one that would make the world sit up and notice me. That isn't true, and it's not healthy to build up such a vision of what writing is. The belief that writers are somehow called to write, that the act of writing is somehow holy and a gift not bestowed on mortals, only leads to people telling other people who is allowed to write and who isn't. See point #1: Anyone who wants to can do this.

3. Writing is work.

And it isn't always fun work, either. At the moment, I'm awaiting my editor's feedback on the first draft of a new project. First drafts are often the faintest imitation of a finished book, hanging together by a thread. If anything marks a writer as special, it's the sheer force of will and determination required to take a clunky draft and refine it, many times over, into something worth reading. And even so...

4. Nobody asked you to do this.

Jane Smiley wrote of a note she saw taped to a friend's wall: Nobody asked you to write that novel. This quote hangs on my wall now, and it's both liberating—Nobody is holding a gun to my head, demanding I write exactly the way they wish—and sobering—Even if I write this, perhaps nobody will care. This note gives me permission to write what I care about, and demands that I find satisfaction in the work, not the things that follow the work, or lie peripheral to the work. 

5. Writing doesn't have to own you, or make you a shithead.

There are so many myths around writing that need to be brought down. I wrote about one a little while back, this notion that writers are terrible parents, that they're expected to fail their families in service of their art. Fuck that. Family comes first. What else?

This one: Writing a novel, or aspiring to write many novels, does not need to be the sole focus of your existence. It is possible—it is healthy—for writing to be a part of one's life, and not the axis of it. In fact, when your writing doesn't have to bear the burden of paying your bills, or making the mortgage, it can be quite freeing. A day job can be your patron, supporting your art—but it can also be something you love of its own accord, and continue to do regardless of the success you find in writing. I work as a user experience and interface designer, and I love that work. It's challenging and rewarding, and often much harder than making up stories, and if I were to give it up to write full-time, I legitimately believe I'd be miserable. Writing is a thing I do; it is not the only thing I do, nor the only thing I wish to do. 

6. Communities are useful unless they aren't. 

Substitute 'communities' with any other outlet that vacillates between useful and wildly poisonous: social media, writers groups, individual writers, writing instructors, conventions, etc. One of the most important things I did for myself was withdraw from anything that wasn't making me happy, or fueling the work. I left social media (mostly) this year; I participate a little bit in an online writers community, but not much; I don't spend much time hanging out around other writers in the real world. That works for me, but that doesn't mean you have to do the same. For me, those decisions make it easier for me to care for my introvert self, to remove distractions, to ignore toxic behavior. These were similar reasons to my decision to never play multiplayer games online anymore. Though those things were sometimes fun, they were mostly filled with assholes shouting asshole things. As a result, I'm more productive, and I'm happier

You have this fantasy when you’re young of existing at the beating heart of a literary community. Then I grew up and I started to go to readings and actually meeting the literary people, and I was like, Oh, no. I just want to be in my room.
— Patricia Lockwood, author of Priestdaddy

I have a few close writer friends, and they encourage me and I do the same for them; we share drafts with one another, and offer help and support. Writers don't have to be shits to one another; they don't have to self-select into categories of gods and mortals. For the most part, though—for me, and maybe for you—it's best to do the work, and not get caught up in the scene. The scene isn't real. The work is

7. Take care of yourself.

Because nobody else is going to. Set the boundaries that work for you. Work at the pace that works for you. Ask yourself repeatedly: Will doing x make me a better writer? Will it make me happier? Will it teach me something I don't know? Will it make it possible for me to write when or what I want to write? If so, then sure, do that thing. If it won't, then don't do it. Eat well. Sleep lots. Give yourself time away from the page. Not only is all of this okay—it's essential.

8. Find your balance.

You can be a parent, have a career, coach Little League, have a game night, fritter away weeks without writing, binge on Atlanta, and still write. You can exist in the world without demanding the world pay attention to you because you write. You can work early or late, or on lunch breaks or on the bus. The myths around writers are pervasive; every movie about a writer adds to the myth. It's possible to spend decades trying to have a writing life that doesn't work for you. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen. I'm going to be forty next month. For all but the last couple years, I believed the opposite of everything I've just written here. You can be a full person and a writer. In fact, it's better than simply being A Writer. 

Everything I believed about writing was wrong, but that doesn't mean those myths are dead. Writers everywhere continue to perpetuate them. The sooner we knock that off, the better we'll all be for it, I think. 

Hearing voices

Writing, or not writing