You either write or live

This is something Jonathan Fisher says in The Writer. In certain ways, this particular statement holds a lot of truth. You have to take a step back, see things for what they are, and then write about them. You have to become an observer, you have to put your life on hold. You have to spend a lot of time inside your head, a lot of time all by yourself, in your living room, scribbling down one word after another.

Simply put, writing is a solitary job. And the inexorable truth is that solitude transforms you. When you sit down at your desk, you’re on your own.

There’s only one question that matters: are you willing to pay the price?

Are you willing to become a shadow?

I’m just now realizing how much I want to live. You know, to see the world, to do stuff. How much I need to fall in love. I spent a lot of time just writing. Because, to be honest, there wasn’t anything else for me to do. It’s sad, I know, but it’s the truth.

If writing were as simple as putting pen to paper, we’d have lots of brilliant writers. But it’s not as easy as it seems. It’s not just about perseverance and hard work, about dedication and ambition. It’s not about some x-factor, impossible to define. Some God-given gift.

“The more you write, the less you feel alive,” says Jonathan Fisher.

This is something few people really talk about. It doesn’t help you sell books, it doesn’t inspire you to write more. Or better.

Of course, some would say that you need to find a balance, between work and life, just like any other job. But the point is that you spend a lot of time being a writer, far more than you spend writing. You create stories, play around in a world that doesn’t exist. While driving, while in the bus, in the shower, while cooking, you get ideas. You write inside your head… you think about this or that plot twist.

Or sometimes something happens. You see something, you hear something… and time stops. The world freezes just so you can analyze and understand what’s going on. A moment so powerful, rich, filled with inspiration, that you don’t want it to stop.

And you spend a lot of time, long after the moment has dissipated, replaying it, over and over again, wondering about what exactly resonated with you on such a deep level. What is it that makes this moment so special?

Rarely you get a chance to intervene. To do something other than observe. For you, it’s enough just to witness, to be there.

Just alive enough so you can see and hear and smell the world around you, but never quite alive enough to actually live.

There are those who won’t agree with me. Or Jonathan Fisher. And I respect that. So, all I ask is that you respect this opinion. My opinion.

“You either write or live. And every writer is bound to find that out someday.”

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40 comments on “You either write or live

  1. At 66 I’ve managed to survive and i both write, create art, live, laugh and love. BUT it’s taken a lifetime of working on not being fanatical and learning to live in balance so that I don’t become a cranky, dried-up old prune hunched over a computer cackling like a hyena. It’s hard – I love writing and I love art, but I do love life and I’m working every day on achieving a balance so I remain a human being and not a machine. Your words have made me aware of how much I need to do every day to remain balanced and it’s damned hard work, lol!

  2. Ann Koplow says:

    Beautiful post, Cristian. Thank you.

  3. Malena says:

    Hi Christian, your piece of writing is thought provoking, thank you. To me, writing is living, without it my life would have no meaning. I guess for different people, living has different meaning. A writer does feel like an outsider, and so I understand what you mean. It’s like having a gift, a special way of seeing and I can’t help but create every single moment of the day to preserve it and how it makes me feel. (By the way, did I already post this comment? Please edit it out if I have already done so. :) )

  4. I love this idea that we spend a lot more time ‘being writers’ than actually writing – I really identify with that.
    I was told once by a playwright that a lot of people ask her how she finds the motivation to write, the drive. She said to us, ‘If you have to ask yourself that question, then you probably aren’t a writer’. Sometimes it feels like being a writer is something you can’t escape, because it’s as much a part of you as breathing or eating your breakfast, it just seems natural. But at the same time, it can be frustrating and overwhelmingly solitary.
    Thanks very much for sharing!

  5. I have to disagree. I stopped writing for various reasons after a lifetime of it being so tightly connected to who I was that I always thought of myself first as a writer above anything. I kept lamenting that I didn’t feel like me .. that I didn’t feel alive without writing. There were no inspired moments, there was no expression of myself. Thus, I disappeared. I did write book reviews, but those are rarely personal or creative enough to get the job done. But in the last couple of months I’ve come alive again through writing. I’m no longer a walking shell. I’ve been writing blog posts again, short stories, IMing, etc. I’m alive again. My thesis would have to be the opposite of what you’re saying here: take the pen away from a writer and they will die inside.

  6. kakubjaya says:

    There’s a truth to this. Only…

    There’s a seduction, especially to an introvert, to being a shadow. Almost a weird romance about disconnection. Its a perverse pleasure, this emptiness inside, but the siren call of the freedom to not be does beckon. Its the freedom of the monk’s cell, granted, not the freedom of flying sparrow.

    Like a game of existential chicken, there’s even a sick thrill to see how far you can disengage before you hit the point of no return. People who talk about “Balance” and other such drivel are talking nonsense and you and I (and Jonathan Fisher, apparently) both know it.

    Or that might just be me…

  7. Tonia says:

    Yes, I agree completely, and this is why I take a hiatus twice a year. it becomes my whole life when I enter the writing mode.

    Perhaps we vacillate between introversion and extroversion…like phases of the moon pulling us inward to writing and outward to living.

    I hope you find love, travel and hobbies; they really are more rewarding than writing, in my opinion.

  8. flapoet555 says:

    Hi Cristian,

    Interesting point, but a little pessimistic. Life and writing are not dichotomous, but interdependent. I wrote a post this past summer presenting the flip-side of Mr. Fisher’s observations, citing John Dewey and other critical theorists:

    http://poetjohndavisjr.com/2013/07/16/experiential-education-for-writers/

    I’m sure Mr. Fisher’s experiences have led him to the conclusion you cite here, and while I respect his voice, his path is divergent from mine and other writers’ who balance parenting, career, marriage, and the other goodies of life that inspire literature. As a younger writer, I echoed your sentiments, but with passing decades, I have undergone an evolution of sorts:

    Neither life nor writing are absolutes. When we attempt to segregate the elements of our existence, it is our humanity trying to cope with sometimes overwhelming forces.It is possible to be both witness to and participant in living, and it is vital that we as writers do both if we expect to engage an audience. Just one guy’s thoughts…like you said, feel free to disagree.

  9. muggleinconverse says:

    I think writers have to both observe and experience. The key is in the analysis.

  10. Todd Pate says:

    It’s helped me to think of my writing simply as a tool to articulate the living that I do…big life with lots of people and adventure means a lot to write about. But it is quite hard, sometimes, to back off the writing, put the pin down and float through a day or week or whatever, as the tank fills back up.

  11. a priestly says:

    Thought provoking!
    I think living fuels your inspiration for writing. And writing fuels your soul. Personally I am an artist. And I couldn’t live without my art. Art is my life. Doing art is what makes me happy, so I am a bit of a hermit. I don’t want to go out to shop or the cinema or on vacation. Because those things would take me away from drawing. When I am at the shops I am not alive. :-)

  12. Beautifully put. Sometimes I find myself wanting to participate but I know I should observe instead. It’s a battle.

  13. balroop2013 says:

    Hi Cristian,
    How True! Solitude transforms you! I couldn’t agree more with you. This post is a piece of poetry to me!

    But you can definitely write as well as live. A writer’s mind is extremely sensitive. It responds so well to little emotions, tiny comments…the fall seems romantic and the snow can show strange images! all people can’t be writers Cristian! Your words speak for you! Keep writing! Life unfolds itself spontaneously.

  14. I get where your coming from even though I ‘m not a writer as such, rather a blogger, I’ve constantly got part of my brain analysing “will this make a good photograph… Oh I should blog about this… Ooh I should ask them if I can quote them (my loved one’s)… Ha that will be funny to recount in a tweet etc. etc. This is why I quite often deliberately leave the house without my camera & notepad and iPod just so I can be in the moment and not off in my head. Do you do this?

  15. Tolu O says:

    I often find myself observing momentous occasions, processing them in my head, understanding what deeper meanings they hold without personally diving in like everyone else around.

  16. masterbias says:

    Maybe it’s not all or nothing. Write a little less, live a little more. Or maybe there is another solution. :-). Be well.

  17. I find that writing IS living…don’t you?

  18. Mark Hahn says:

    I don’t agree in the sense that when you are driving, cooking, observing and thinking about what you’re creating in your mind that you are actually participating in life! Feelings are what we have that let us know that we are alive…

  19. Hmm…I feel like for us writers to be able to write something, I think it’s not choosing writing over living, but more like experiencing life so that we can write something. All these stories that we write…it’s always based on something that happened in real life…something that we knew and/or experienced.

  20. zephyrseas says:

    I agree with you one hundred percent. Things I see and hear every day might fit into a story and some resonate like you said and then I have to turn it over in my head, make notes, mental or written. So even that part of my life on that day working or resting was about writing. I don’t think I really live completely if I don’t write so it isn’t a matter of either or. When I can’t write I feel frustrated, cheated and missing part of who I am. Right now I’m on a 24/7 job, so exhausted when I get home that all I can do is crash. I feel frustrated because so much of interest to write about is passing me by. I worry that when this part of my life is past will I be able to go back in my head and recapture what I’ve seen and heard with the same impact it had when I observed it. Thank you for reminding me of what is important.

    • emvita15 says:

      “I worry that when this part of my life is past will I be able to go back in my head and recapture what I’ve seen and heart with the same impact it had when I observed it.” I have this same thought everyday.

  21. tokyoaaron says:

    Yes, remember how, after a long day home alone and writing stories, I would still be distracted after my partner got home. It was like I was living not just with her, but with the characters in my head/on paper. Much to my “real” partner’s annoyance! Nowadays I’m writing more nonfiction, and so I interact much more with the world around me – and that can include my (new!) partner. Much to her, I hope, happiness…

  22. Ma-Li says:

    Let’s me get this right. 143 likes and not a single comment. Ok, I admit we’re all busy, but even so, I for myself at least, like to try to leave comments when and where I can.

    Anyway, I’m glad that I don’t have to agree with your or Mr. Fisher’s take on writing in order to ‘like’ this post, which, by the way, I happen to –

  23. FlyTrapMan says:

    Cristian – I know what you mean. I’ve come to this same realization, as well. Seems like I’ve been in a cave the last seven years. Reminds me of Stephen King’s quote: “Get bust living or get busy dying.”

  24. bookstomark says:

    This resonates so much with me. I am not sure I agree with the statement that the more you write, the more you feel alive (maybe I just have not figured this out yet), but I think what it means to be alive is a very personal thing. But when you talk about that feeling of writing inside your head or the world freezing so that you can analyze something, about being alone, but wanting to live… I get that. Thank you for this post (and really every post, yours is one of my favorite blogs).

  25. Wow, beautifully written!! I can relate so much to this!! Now to get my hubby to read and he will totally understand me. (Hopefully lol)

  26. Khal Sagan says:

    I respect your opinion, but I would recommend reading about Hemingway. I think it’s good to challenge one’s views, and his life is probably the best dissenting argument I can think of.

  27. I love this nugget and I really appreciate your honesty but I wonder why you see such a chasm between life and writing. The act of creation is living, isn’t it? Or perhaps you are talking about that prescribed “life”? that externally made up list of to dos that you have to complete before you die, or else you haven’t “lived”.
    Or is the difference something to do with writing being solitary where as “life” is done with others and that makes it more real?

    Anyway, you got me thinking so thanks.

  28. A writer once said to me many years ago that because a writer’s work is solitary, they’re often the ones found dancing on table tops at the end of the writing day. I think you can do both writing and living – definitely. I have never found myself having to choose. If life takes over for a little while, that’s OK. I note things down though, and think, “That’ll work in a story one day.” When I was younger I consciously chose to experience things just so I could write about them. To me, being a writer just fits in with all the other roles in my life. Maybe some would say I’m not really a writer because I don’t make time to do it everyday. But what I do is enough for me, so I think the writing/living balance is a personal thing.

  29. joshuadragon says:

    Writing is worthy, when we are filled up, with experiences, emotions, thoughts, spiritual guidance – than everyday life can be “put” away for a while. And the work, to make every word precious, unique and resonant can begin. After completion, emptiness occurs, so, practical life needs to come to first place…

    If we are not in there, our every cells are not invested, if we do not reborn, than we are not ready to write.

    Among trees, the highest is seen first…

  30. emvita15 says:

    Paul Eluard once said “There is another world, but it is inside this one.” Writing down the bones of our careful observances is joyful to me because the only organ I have to process this world is my pen. I think many others would agree that being a writer is extracurricular to living.. it’s the only way we satisfactorily digest life.

  31. I see your point, but think about all those people we are giving life to by our work. And when this thought hits us we are inspired, inspired to write more. I suppose it is true that we aren’t living in the sense of going out an doing things, but I think we are at peace with ourselves when we write, and there is a life growing in our soul because we are doing what we are meant to do. To take it further, those writers who say they are living in the world and not writing, they are really not living because they are not doing what they were meant to do. They are really “dead men walking.” I know it’s lonely being a writer, but we don’t have to write all the time. I don’t. Anyway, thanks for a the article. I enjoyed reading it.

  32. Cristian, this is a great peace. I was just telling myself about the dedication of being a writer and not just putting “pen to paper” or “fingers to keyboard”.

  33. marit31 says:

    how could this be an “either or?” isn’t doing (i.e. writing) living, with quality of life being a matter of opinion?

  34. bwdell says:

    I see the truth of this when I think of the choice a writer makes: write or do something else. I see the limit of this idea when I consider how life informs writing. Jack London would be another writer whose life enlarged his writing.

  35. This is beautifully written. I have found myself thinking something along those lines often enough. I always have stories running around my head, and sometimes, I find myself simply looking, watching a moment unravel rather than become a part of it. I think about the words I would use for that moment, I analyse every bit of it. It is easier for me to simply watch, and I have to force myself to participate. I feel happier in my head, basking in the beauty of the moment, and holding it close, molding it with my words. But then, I miss out on living those moments.
    When I write, I am not a part of the world around me. It is just me, sitting there, tapping away, and I wouldn’t know, or even prefer to know, if the world ended around me.
    For me, I can’t do both. Its either one or the other, and I don’t know yet which one I want more.

  36. Very nice. I really enjoyed your colorful description, and outlook.

  37. cardamone5 says:

    Wonderful post.

    I find that writing makes me appreciate the spontaneous moments more. It pushes me to not just let the moment pass, but to observe and take in all the details, maybe to write about later, but mostly just for me, for inspiration when life is less sparkly.

    I am an introvert, and when I finally had the courage to start writing, it was as if my soul said “yes, this is exactly what you should be doing.” I love the feeling of resonance. It’s what keeps us writers going when the ideas dry up and simple words elude us.

    Best regards,
    Elizabeth

  38. tenrihycinth says:

    @Cris, If your mindset about it is just a job, you’ll surely find it tiresome and sometimes boring. Honestly, I’ve been in that situation last 6 months. I felt writing was just a boring job and I can’t feel any excitement and spark anymore. And my bad vibes towards writing had worsened when the company where I worked before had decided to close last July. There were lots of unexplainable feeling playing in my heart and mind. I lost my drive to write again and even my self-esteem.

    My only enemy here was myself. She’s the only one who was whispering me that I can’t write anymore like before. I struggled with depression for about 4 months. Am not sure if the reason was my postpartum or just sh*t happens in the same time. However, my depression became my stepping stone to bring back my drive in writing. I can’t believe until today that despite of lack of knowledge in technical writing and SEO, my honesty brought me up high among the applicants.

    Sometimes, in the middle of our confusion, the ones that will help you survive from drowning are your tears and honesty. Once you have the balls to tell yourself what your situation is, you can find the goal that you really desire.

    @elizabeth, I am also an introvert. Usually, when I write blogs for both personal and office jobs, I always take a lot of time to observe, read, and even listen to music because if I am relaxed, there are tons of ideas playing in my mind.

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