In “The Cat Who Walks through Walls,” Robert A. Heinlein’s 1985 sci-fi classic (or yarn, depending on how you feel about his canon), protagonist Richard Ames (who just so happens to be a writer) explains his raison d’être.
He writes “because it hurts less to write than it does not to write.”
This morsel of wisdom from Heinlein’s surrogate encapsulates what writing has become for me. Writing isn’t merely a craft, a meditation, a monastic retreat, an invocation of the muses or some other poetic metaphor.
Writing is a physical necessity. I write because it hurts less than not writing.
But it wasn’t always that way.
While the quote stuck with me after I first read “The Cat Who Walks through Walls” in my early 20s, I didn’t truly understand it. Nor was I ready to accept its implications.
I knew at the time that I wanted to write for a living, but I lacked both the discipline and the habit to make it a reality. I suffered from the same inner turmoil and condescending little voices in my head that I’m certain dozens (if not, hundreds) of young, aspiring writers contend with on a regular basis.
I struggled with imposter syndrome. I spent days stuck in never-ending loops of self-doubt. I edited too much. I wound rewriting the same passage over and over, wrestling my prose into literal oblivion. I ended up believing all my ideas were trash, my characters jejune. I hated the way my voice read on paper. And worse, I could never truly finish a story.
So, I stopped writing for years.
During that cold, dark interregnum, I applied myself to other pursuits. I returned to University. I completed a Qualifying Program, and then a Master’s Degree, and then began a Ph.D. I started my own business as a professional editor, going over other people’s words with the yellow highlighter and notation tools in Microsoft Word.
Looking back, I now know that I applied myself so thoroughly to these pursuits not because I was ambitious, but because I desperately wanted to prove to myself that I could be happy doing other things; that I didn’t have to be a writer, that I was perfectly qualified as either an editor or a lecturer. I wanted desperately to believe that my life could hold meaning and bring me happiness without writing.
But I was only lying to myself and postponing the inevitable.
In the winter of my thirtieth year, I finally understood what Heinlein was talking about.
The hurt became unbearable.
The yearning to re-engage my craft, to dive into other worlds, and develop my storytelling, clawed at the edges of my being. At first, it was just a slight abrasion, an itch, and not enough to really bother me. But that itch became a burn, and that burn a raging inferno that threatened to consume me.
I remember the day I decided to (scratch that, had to) put the fire out. I sat myself down at my desk one winter afternoon. It was during a snowstorm, and the streets outside were buried under two feet of fresh, white snow. I started typing, intending just to put a few words to paper concerning the image outside my window. But once I began I didn’t stop, not until the piece was completed early the following morning. When it was over, I sat back in my chair considering what I had just accomplished. As I did, an uneasy but incredibly welcoming feeling washed over me.
Relief. Vindication. Relaxation. That knot that had been tangling itself in my chest all those years finally unwound.
I knew what it meant to hurt less.
With that barrier out of the way, and the hurdle of accepting my fate behind me, I know now that I won’t be able to stop; not again, and not even if I wanted to. No matter how many rejection letters I receive or how many times I read “it was great, but not what this publication is looking for” I can never put an end to this madness or deny who I am.
Writing has become a physical necessity. I write because it hurts too much not to write.