Calling Bullshit on a Writer’s Top 10 Excuses for Not Writing


1. No one will want to read it.

Yeah, that’s probably true. It’ll get better, probably, eventually. First, you’ll show your mama, and she’ll tell you it’s good. This does not actually mean it’s good, quite yet. Then, your friends will tell you the next one is good. They might be wrong or right, depending on how honest they are. Finally, strangers will tell you it’s good. And last, people will actually pay to read your writing, because they want to read it. This process can take anywhere between a few months to several decades. Good luck!


 2. I don’t have time.

I may be wrong, but I suspect your problem is that you have a life. Do away with that. Like, adios to yoga and the gym, plus stop jogging, and Pinteresting, sky-diving, stamp-collecting and so on. Facebook and other social media are cool in moderation, I think, but just keep the writing document open and it’ll glare at you angrily the whole time. Or write longhand. It sounds weird to youngsters, but it’s actually really good; most of the best stuff I’ve written started longhand. I guess a lot of the bad stuff I’ve written was done longhand, too.

Most relationships are overrated, or they don’t have to be so time consuming at least, so do the bare minimum (or less), to maintain civil relations with the people who you value the most. TV’s out, of course, unless it’s late and you’re really comatose after a lot of work, in which case you’re not good for much anyway.

Guess what? You’ve got time! Isn’t that nice? Like Lorrie Moore said: “Now you have time like warts on your hands. Slowly copy all of your friends’ addresses into a new address book. Vacuum. Chew cough drops.”

Boredom is fine. Read a lot of stuff that is impossibly good, maybe stuff you meant to read but never did. Take long walks with great music in your ears. Just don’t do anything that’s very distracting or engaging. Let your thoughts about writing take over crazy amounts of real estate in your mind. It’s a love affair, a very dangerous love affair.


3. I’ve got writer’s block!

Many writers use alcohol, but you can try Adderall if you prefer. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You don’t even need to get intoxicated, most writers that I know don’t. End of the day, you need to sit there and write sentences. Sentences tend to self-propagate through asexual reproduction like amoebas, so try writing a very bad sentence. Then another. Then another. Keep going until they’re not bad. Once they’re not bad, try to keep them that way. Finally, if writing is really that un-fun for you, you should quit and become a tax accountant. The world is in desperate need of tax accountants. The world does not need writers.


4. At (your age here), I’m too old to start now.

That Irish guy who wrote Angela’s Ashes? Super old when he got on the horse the first time, like a hundred. Or 60. Annie Proulx didn’t really start writing fiction until she was in her forties, and things worked out pretty well for her. Deborah Eisenberg also started writing fiction in her late thirties and is crazily accomplished. She might also be immortal, however, because she’s classy and ravishing and looks solidly middle-aged in person, but she’s been publishing for decades, so . . . I’m just trying to do the math on this. Yeah, she’s probably undead. Other examples abound. That fella Ben Fountain published his first novel recently, and he’s a fossil. Margaret Atwood published her first novel at age 30, which isn’t that old, and actually she’d been an aspiring writer for half her life by then, but still . . .


5. My writing sucks.

That might be true. Welcome to the club! My first novel didn’t sell, alas. No takers. I also didn’t sell my second novel. Sent it around, but no takers. The reason they didn’t sell was that they were fucking awful. I wrote revised, and polished about 25-30 short stories, too, before I turned 30. Also finished first those two novels by then. By the time of my 30th birthday, I had not received a single acceptance letter. Nada. Not one. The 1000 consecutive rejections I had received are in two boxes in my office.

At some point, my writing actually started improving. Maybe it was inevitable with that much practice. But I remember the moment it happened—there was a sharp line, before and after that moment. It was August 2005 on a beach in Ecuador and I was broke, had gone there because I knew a place that only charged $2 a night and I had a lot of air miles, so the ticket was free, and it was a whole lot cheaper than remaining in Seattle. These were meager times. I ate a lot of bread sandwiches. I was 29 and a catastrophic failure in all things—or at least all the things I had so far attempted in life. But I started writing a story, and it was actually good, not in the fake way that I’d accidentally sneezed out a couple nice paragraphs before. This was actually good, the whole thing, it was like it was written by a real writer, like I was actually in control of these paragraphs. It was interesting, and vivid, and I was aware that there was a reader somewhere out there who would actually be interested in reading this. The reader might even pay to read it.

That was when I finally started to accept that readers don’t inherently like you, they’re not inclined to care about you and your goddamned life, and as a writer you must try to win them over with every single sentence. They’re trying to go watch Breaking Bad, which is understandable, and you’re trying to convince them to stay and read the next sentence. It’s a tug of war. You’ve got to try really hard, obviously. I fail all the time, still, in fact I fail most of the time, but since I figured that out the vast majority of what I’ve written has found its way to publication.




6. Writing? I have a day job, so maybe when I retire.

No, actually there’s a bus somewhere not far from you right now, and in fifteen months it’s going to run you over. Sorry! It’ll be really, really sad.

In any case, you have until then. Go get ‘em, tiger!


7. But I have kids/a dog/plant to take care of.

Yeah, dogs are not a good idea at all. Way too demanding. Very few writers have dogs, and very few writers have tattoos. It’s a thing, I’ve got a complex theory about it that I’m going to write an essay about one day. Go to a writers’ conference and ask around, you’ll see what I mean—sure some writers do have tattoos and dogs, just not very many. Get a cat. They won’t need you so badly, and will at least look skeptical when you read aloud to them, just like a real editor.

Plants are fine, but get cheap ones so you won’t feel bad when they die.

Kids are a problem, for sure. The gender expectations here are pretty bleak, favoring male autonomy (of course). But whatever your gender, it’s kind of a motherfucking difficult thing. In the end, this is a big problem for writers, hence the divorce rate.


7. Choosing which or that? Everyone will laugh at my grammar/spelling.

Editors who acquire for publishing companies or magazines will not give more than one or, at most, two shits about your grammar/spelling. They’ll like the way you write, what you have to say, or they won’t. Once you’re in, there are people on staff who can make you sound like you actually attended school.

8. My friends/literary community will mock my shit writing.

Probably not. If they do, they’re assholes and you should make it your life’s mission to destroy them and make them feel small. Hatred is one of the most invigorating emotions for an aspiring writer. Probably the best short story I’ve ever written was an attempt to “show them” in the most petty and childish way possible. I know it’s not attractive! Sorry!! The story was published and anthologized. Later, a reader told me that she’d read it several times and it brought them to tears every time. I didn’t ruin the moment by saying that I wrote the thing in a fit of vengeance toward people who’d doubted me.


9. I sent something in once and it was rejected.

Ha! That’s so funny.

If a piece is rejected 30-40 times, maybe it should be sent to the special place where failed pieces of writing go, called Literature Valhalla, which is home to an extraordinary number of very good, even very, very good pieces of writing. Or you could just try again? Or you could re-write it and put a new title on it and try another 30-40 places.

It’s a cliché, but it’s very true: Each failure is a step in the right direction.

As with most writers I know, I’ve had a piece rejected by a publication somewhere and then, years later, I tried the same thing with the same place and it was accepted. Oops! Who knows why this happens? I have theories, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think about it too much, it doesn’t do anything for you to think about it. In any case, the horse awaits you. Get back on that bastard and ride.




10. My friends or family will recognize themselves in the piece and sue/get mad at me.

Okay, here’s my dubious advice on this score, please take it with a grain of salt. I think that only once the piece has been accepted for publication should you begin to think about this problem. You have some options:

a. Do nothing. Adios, motherfuckers! Personally, I’ve made quite a few enemies this way. It’s sad for a while. Then it’s not as sad anymore. Weigh the importance of the relationship against how much you want the piece to be in the world in the way that publication offers. Obviously, never admit that you did this.

b. If it’s someone you like a lot, try begging forgiveness and/or insist that the piece is actually full of subtextual flattery. “Baby, it’s about how awesome you are. I adore your honking laugh!”

c. If they’re old, or the publication is regional, or if it’s a literary magazine, try not showing it to the person in question. They will probably never hear about it.

d. No matter what, change names.

e. If it’s worse than really bad, change names and ask an editor if they’ll let you be anonymous. If not, maybe the piece gets mothballed until that person who might be offended dies or becomes less important to you and you decide to cycle back to step “a” above.


11. All the Great Books have been written, there are no new stories out there.

In his loopy Paris Review interview, a presumably shitfaced William Faulkner said a lot of crazy and funny stuff. Some of it was also pretty astute, like how working as a landlord of a brothel is the ideal day job for an aspiring writer. But for the purpose of this question, I’ll offer another nugget of wisdom from the same interview: “All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible . . . [An artist] believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide. I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”


12. I’ll start working on it as soon as I finish reading this book/article on writing.

Books and articles about the writing life – including this one – mainly serve to reassure fellow writers that they are not alone. Writing is pretty fucking lonely, and it’s easy to go crazy.

Writing about writing exists to say: “Buck up, chum, you’re not so alone!” And: “If it’s not working yet, just keep at it!” Sometimes it’s a drill sergeant giving the advice, and sometimes the person is super smart, like Charles Baxter. But either way, that’s what this is. It’s like aspirin for the headache of years of struggling alone with sentences and the mountain of hard work without any reward. You’re not going to learn how to write from reading these things. If you want to know how to be a better writer, go back to step one in this list.



About Peter Mountford

Peter Mountford's debut novel A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism won a 2012 Washington State Book Award, and his second novel The Dismal Science, out in 2014 from Tin House Books, was a New York Times editor's choice. His work has appeared in Boston Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Southern Review, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, and elsewhere. He's currently on faculty at Sierra Nevada College's MFA program, and he's the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle's writing center.
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6 Responses to Calling Bullshit on a Writer’s Top 10 Excuses for Not Writing

  1. Pingback: Calling Bullshit on a Writer’s Top 10 Excuses for Not Writing - Christi Krug

  2. Mandy says:

    Writers write. Wanna-bes talk about it.

  3. Jessica says:

    What beach? I always wonder why I don’t know you, from our sibling prep schools or the ruta de sol in Ecuador! Anyway, loved this article, and a young man’s guide- I am very much looking forward to number 2? Or number 4, in real life, I suppose? I would really like to read number one, truth be told. I am curious about the evolution. Is it about a tortured young man?

  4. Pingback: Calling Bullshit on a Writer’s Top 10 Excuses for Not Writing | Author Amanda Kimberley

  5. Pingback: Anonymous

  6. I know it is, or seems, a peculiarity of US language, but a writer IS far below an author. Not just in typical payment. It is like programmers labeling themselves ‘code-whores’ just because the job which pays them includes a boring routine. Self-Pity is a spoiler on everything adult, except maybe therapy, skip that!

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