Pain and Adverbs, or Pinning the Butterflies

by J.D. Rhoades

Something Alex said in her post on Saturday set me to thinking. “I’m one of those authors,” she
wrote, “who really doesn’t like writing all that much. It has its moments,
sure, I’ll give you that, but I don’t skip to my computer every morning with a
smile on my face and a song in my heart.” 

I read that, and I went, “yeah.”
Because I often feel the same way. 

A commenter expressed some dismay
at Alex’s sentiment: “it’s tough to read that you really don’t like writing
that much when I would give my left toe to be able to write more!” And,
ironically, I also said ‘yeah,” to that. I’d love to have the time to write
more, and then actually do it. Even though it’s sometimes almost physically

Not everyone has this problem, or has sympathy for
it. Garrison Keillor once amusingly if unkindly wrote that, if you think writing
is hard,

Get a job. Try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35
kids in a class, from September to June, and then tell us about suffering.

The fact of the matter is that the people who struggle most with writing
are drunks. They get hammered at night and in the morning their heads are full
of pain and adverbs. Writing is hard for them, but so would golf be, or
planting alfalfa, or assembling parts in a factory.

Keillor’s right, of course.
Writing’s easier than, say, than working with hot tar on a sunny summer day in Florida. Or teaching eight grade English for that matter. But there are still days I have to drag myself to it.

So why do it? And how to explain the
contradiction of writing being both exquisitely painful and joyful at the same

Well, as I so often answer when
asked about motivation and why I write, “You can’t rule out mental illness.”
But that’s a flippant answer to a serious question, so I’ll try a little harder
to explain. 

I once read an interview with a writer (and I wish I could remember who) who
compared the act of writing to hunting butterflies. You’re out there, and it’s
a lovely day. You’re surrounded by all this beauty, and you’re amazed at some
of the things you see flying around. 

But eventually, you have to chase
one of the little buggers down with the net. And when you do, you pop it in the
killing jar and pin it to a board. Once it’s there, it’s still pretty. People
may come and look at it, and ooh and ahh, and sometimes you may get kudos for a
new and previously undiscovered butterfly. 

But it’s never the same as when it
was fluttering free.

And that’s how writing feels to me
sometimes. The things I see and hear in my head sometimes get my blood racing
and make my eyes light up. But then I have to sit down at the computer and pin
the lideas onto the board, or in my case, the page. And it’s never as
good as it was in my mind. At least to me. 

Oh, it’s getting better. I’m
getting more proficient, I hope, at getting the words to match what’s in my
imagination. And that’s one of the things that keeps me coming back to the keyboard.

The other is, if I don’t hunt them down and catch them, these damn butterflies fluttering around in my head are going to make me nuts.

Best wishes for the New Year to you all…

15 thoughts on “Pain and Adverbs, or Pinning the Butterflies

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Dusty, that’s just amazing to hear you say because you write so powerfully and completely, while at the same time never letting up on the thriller pace, that I can’t even imagine how you could be doing it better. At the same time, I know EXACTLY what you’re saying – the tragedy is it’s never going to be as good as what’s in your head.

    T.S. Eliot said it:

    “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.”

    All of us writers – at least every one I’ve ever known – lives and works in the shadow.

    I felt so bad about bumming Shannon out that I posted back and also e mailed her. I’m truly NOT trying to discourage people. I love writing. It’s not that I’m not passionate about it. I’m not just passionate, I’m obsessed with it. I’m also wildly grateful that I’m able to do it for a living and aware every day of how lucky I am.

    But having passion for something – or someone – isn’t the same thing as LIKING someone or something, right?

    I try to be honest about how I feel about the writing process because – I hope – it can help other people who want to write. For example, if you’re not writing as much as you want to be writing, maybe it’s because you’re thinking that you have to LIKE it. I’m here to say you DON’T.

    My drive to write is the enormous responsibility I feel to my characters and their stories. It’s a transcendent thing to give them the lives they deserve. Huge joy – most particularly when I’m done. That’s a whole lot more rewarding than liking writing.

    But yeah. There’s always that damn shadow.

  2. JDRhoades

    Obsession’s a good word. What is it Margaret Maron said? You write because you can’t NOT do it?

    I used to compare the mingled pain and joy with giving birth, but every time I do that, all the woman in the audience roll their eyes, so I quit.

  3. toni mcgee causey

    I have a theory that it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that once there is a book contract in place, absolutely everything about writing it sunshine and joy and kittens and rainbows. It is work, and it was a relief to me after getting a book contract and going through the terror of having to hand over a book and then knowing it was out of my hands… that other writers feel this sort of terror and angst, too. Even when they’ve had multiple books out. (I am not addressing anyone in particular here, just a general concern.)

    Writing is a series of goals. It is not “the” goal of getting published. That’s one in a sequence, sure, but writers have to look beyond that because achieving that one goal isn’t going to necessarily make a career or set a standard for quality that means the writer can just rest. Most writers I know feel frustrated at the fact that what they dream and what they write are far too different. As Dusty so aptly said, they’ve pinned the butterfly, but it’ll never be the same. And it’s important for writers to realize the descrepancy. Only when we clearly see the dream and see the difference between it and what we achieve will we see how much more we can try to do. And trying to capture the dream… that is where there’s magic.

  4. Bryon Quertermous

    I totally agree with you about chasing down the butterflies. This just happened to me with a bunch of ideas I had for ending my new book. There a ton of ideas and they all sounded so exciting in my head and it really fired me up, but when I sat down to work them out they mostly died on the table. But then after a few days seperation I was able to realize some of them actually worked and I settled into a semi-stable state of mind where I could work through them.

  5. billie

    I’m leaving in an hour for a week-long writing retreat, so this is all very fruitful today for me.

    Toni, I like the reminder that there are ongoing goals/hurdles. It’s easy to think that one particular hurdle being crossed means bliss, but in fact, there’s another one right around the curve.

    Which is why I figure if one doesn’t on some level, in some way, enjoy the process, it simply isn’t worth it.

    And I agree with Alex’s shadow statement. I do think when we’re writing from a deep, meaningful place, i.e. from the heart, we’re going to come face to face with all the monsters in our unconscious. That’s not pleasant. But it’s rewarding on many levels if we choose to take that kind of work on.

    Enough out of me – I need to finish packing and hit the road – but thanks for the good stuff to ponder on the way down!

  6. spyscribbler

    For me, the love of writing goes up and down. I’m pretty sure that most days I’d rather read and watch movies and TV all day. I’m head over heels for story, any story. But this itch to write must be satisfied, even if I end up scratching it to blood most times.

    What’s so great about an itch, anyway? That’s why mosquitoes are called pests.

  7. JT Ellison

    Dusty, I found your post especially poignant today as I struggle between the business that needs my attention and the story that’s floating in my head, desperate to be grabbed and pinned to the page.

    I read an article about my favorite author, Vladimir Nabokov, yesterday. I’m going to quote it so I don’t mess it up. From Vogue, September 2007, by James Salter:

    “[Nabokov] was a self-taught butterfly expert – he grandly called hunting butterflies the noblest sport in the world and one of the two most intense pleasures known to man, the second being writing – and a genius.”

    May I point out the obvious? Great minds think alike, whether they be literal or figurative.

  8. Dana King

    There’s a similar thread currently running on the Crimespace site, so this has been on my mind today. I enjoy writing, but I can’t say I love it. I feel compelled to do it in the same way I feel compelled to complete any unfinished task. (My version of OCD Lite, not unlike JD’s “mental illness” explanation.)

    So I can’t say writing brings me joy, or pain. What I get is a satisfaction from seeing things come together, the best I can. I don’t have a talent for painting or photography or fine woodworking; I can write. A side benefit has been a noticeable increase in my clarity of thought. Good writing leaves no room for vague images in the writer’s mind, whether it’s a novel or a blog. This pays dividends in many other aspects of life, too.

  9. Tammy Cravit

    There are a great many things I can think of that we humans love to do, but which nevertheless are painful or difficult in the execution. Writing is one. Exercising, for most of us, is probably another. I have a friend who loves to run (and, being in the military, gets lots of practice). She’s planning to enter a half-marathon later this year. For fun. And it is fun for her. But at the end of that 13 miles, she’s still going to be tired, and she’s still going to have muscles that will hurt. Why should writing be any different?

    Of course, the more cynical part of me remembers a comment I read someplace to the effect that there are vastly more people who would like to have written a book than would actually like to write one.

    But for me, the satisfaction of expressing my creative side is worth the pain that comes along with it. That’s why I write, and that’s why I’m paying an increasing percentage of the bills from photography in the meanwhile.

  10. Allison Brennan

    What an incredible and timely post. What I see in my head is so much more “perfect” than what I get down on paper and I often become frustrated because the final draft isn’t what I pictured. I wouldn’t say I LOVE writing–putting word after word to express thought and action. What I DO love is telling stories, of the feeling and action behind the words. I love when I’m writing so fast that I get lost in the story. I can clean up the typos and the adverbs and the dangling modifiers in revisions–the work part of storytelling–but while the story is coming out, that is a rush.

    And Toni, I completely agree 🙂

  11. C. Shannon

    Thank you all so much for your posts. Thanks to Alex’s nice e-mail and all of your comments here, I understand the whole Not-Liking-Writing-Very-Much concept much better now!

    As a full-time working, commuting wife and mother there are times when I am THIRSTING for time at the keyboard. The fact that I got a two hour block of time tonight to work on my new novel and check in on Murderati tonight feels like a miracle. (a miracle I owe to my parents for letting my daughter visit them for three days! Woo Hoo!)

    I suppose that because I am on a roll right now with my book I don’t feel that dread or frustration about writing. However, I’m sure I will feel that creative resistance when I hit a “plot pothole” or begin to do serious editing.

    I was so hesitant to post my reaction to Alex’s Blog, but I am glad I did. I was truly enlightened by all of your comments. Thank you.


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