Here is the nub or gist of Mr. McGrath’s piece:
Working hard doesn’t mean you’re doing hard work. It doesn’t even mean you’re doing good or smart work. It just means you’re expending a lot of energy and a lot of time towards the completion of some task. . . .
So what is hard work and how do you know if you’re doing it?
. . . . For me, knowing I’m doing or about to do hard work doesn’t get signaled in the brain. It’s in the kishkes — that part of your stomach that you don’t know exists until some thing is really bothering you. When your kishkes start turning, you know you’re onto something important. . . . Our kishkes are also pretty good at preventing us from doing the hard work we need to do, if we let them.
For my own purposes, I shall define ‘hard work’ and ‘working hard’ by means of examples; and since I am a conservative stick-in-the-mud of antediluvian origin, I shall humour myself by choosing examples that were fresh in the world when I was comparatively young.
By ‘working hard’, I mean doing a demanding task until you are tired and cannot do it anymore. Digging ditches for twelve hours by brute muscle power is working hard. It does not even matter to my definition whether you use a shovel; though it matters very much for other purposes, such as getting the ditch dug. But if all you do is bend your back and exert yourself until you have to rest, you have been working hard — even if you have nothing to show for it at the end of the day. A mouse could dig a ditch by working hard, but it would have to be a very long-lived mouse.
By ‘hard work’, I mean a task that cannot be accomplished by any amount of exertion or back-bending, unless aided by skill and invention. Building the Pyramids was hard work. Those limestone blocks weigh (as I was told by a foreman on the worksite, when I went round to see what all the noise was about) some two tons apiece. You could bend your back and exert yourself until the Nile ran dry, and not move one of those blocks an inch. The mouse that could dig a ditch could not even make a start on a Pyramid.
Fortunately, my old friend Imhotep (I speak imprecisely; I admired the man, but he never returned my calls) was a shrewd chap, and knew how to bridge the gap between working hard and hard work. First, he did not employ mice to build his pyramid. Second, he used pulleys and levers, and ramps and rollers, and water to reduce friction, and other such things as would give his workmen a mechanical advantage and make their hard working go. Nowadays we have improved upon these methods. We have bulldozers and cranes, backhoes and trucks, and all kinds of machines not limited by the power of human muscles; so that we can do many kinds of hard work without working hard at all. It was fashionable, during the ‘ancient astronauts’ craze of the seventies, to claim that modern industrial man could not possibly duplicate the Pyramids. This is false. In fact there is already a project afoot to build an exact duplicate of the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Washington, D.C.; construction to commence in thirty or forty years’ time, once the environmental impact study is done.
Mutatis mutandis, our minds can work hard, and they can do hard work, but there is no necessary connection between the two. The stereotype of ‘working hard’ in the Information Age is Suzie Cobol, the ‘code grinder’ who just barely squeezed through her computer science degree and spends her days laboriously tracking down bugs in reams and reams of other people’s code. (Sometimes called ‘Sammy Cobol’ in an attempt to avoid the appearance of sexism; but let’s face it, the hackers who use these terms scarcely regard COBOL programmers as human at all, regardless of sex.) The pinnacle of ‘hard work’ is the programming genius who invents a nifty new algorithm, replacing an enormous amount of brute-force calculation with about twenty lines of efficient code. Indeed, the invention of the computer itself was hard work, and it did away with a lot of working hard: ENIAC, the first Turing-complete electronic computer, was built to calculate artillery firing tables, a job previously done by sheer intellectual drudgery.
I am not a programming genius any more than I am Imhotep, but these and other cases have filled me with a lifelong respect for those who do hard work, and a sort of comparative pity for those who can only work hard. For convenience I shall call the first kind Architects, and the second kind Drudges, and capitalize the names to signalize the fact that I am using the words as terms of art and not in the usual way.
Now, this is not the same distinction as that, popular among time-management gurus, between ‘working hard’ and ‘working smart’. It is not the difference between two working methods, but the difference between a method of working and a kind of work to be done. Drudges can ‘work smart’, and often do; and their reward is that instead of exhausting themselves at their jobs, they can knock off at the end of the day with enough energy left for their families and their amusements. Frank Gilbreth, the pioneering efficiency expert, used to look for the laziest man on the job, knowing he would be just the one to ‘work smart’ for the sake of not working hard. But that did not make the lazy man able to do Gilbreth’s job, for Gilbreth’s job was hard work.
Sometimes ‘working smart’ means no more than contracting out part of the drudgery to other Drudges: as in the case of the woman who was working on a Ph.D. in Ancient Greek, and spent a year or more gathering and collating her texts, only to find that the whole corpus of Ancient Greek literature had meanwhile been published on a single CD-ROM, the Thesaurus Linguae Grecae. Whereupon, instead of mourning and cursing the Fates, she threw away her drudge-work and bought a copy of the disc. What remained to do was the original part of her thesis, which (though I have not read it) I am happy to believe was the work of an Architect.
Now, the particular art or game of writing fiction can be approached in either way: that is, it can be done by a Drudge or by an Architect. I am not here drawing a distinction between bad and good authors. There have been a great many good stories written by Drudges, and some risible flops written by Architects. Still less do I make any claim about the popularity of drudge-work vs. architecture. I am not even drawing a distinction between two separate groups of writers. A writer may work as an Architect in his prime, developing new skills and techniques that influence and are copied by generations of writers after him; and then in his senescence he may become a mere Drudge, writing book after book using his own tools and in a pastiche of his own earlier style. Hemingway was almost as famous for becoming a Drudge as for having been an Architect.
Now that I have said what I am not doing, let us get on with what I am doing. The Architects, the people doing hard work, are the writers who wrote stories that required them to invent new tools and techniques. Often these are the writers whose books remain most readable after a span of many years. They were being boldly original, which is why the existing techniques were inadequate to the stories they had to tell. Originality is a congenial quality, and boldness is nearly always fun. Certainly a boldly original story is better fun than a story that is derivative and trying timidly to conceal the fact.
Purely for my own interest (for I do not suppose many people will be interested in these ramblings of mine), here is a partial list of Architects who were, so to speak, in my own line of development — those who invented tools that I have tried to acquire for my own little kit.
The grand original, at least among authors we know of by name, is of course Homer, who invented the epic. There were aoidoi among the Greeks before him, and the epic hexameter was not a new thing; but he seems to have raised it to a new seriousness of subject-matter and intensity of poetic feeling, never seen before and seldom since equalled. The Beowulf poet applied the epic technique to the language and legend of the ancient North, and may have invented the literary device of the ‘virtuous pagan’ viewed in retrospect from a Christian moral and historical standpoint. The author or compiler of the Elder Edda seems to have been the first to combine myth and epic into an organized ‘Matter’, making explicit the connection between the ‘foreground’ legends and the ‘background’ aetiological tales. (The Silmarillion could in this light be classified as an edda.)
Shakespeare almost single-handedly fashioned Modern English into a language fit for high imaginative literature, and refocused his borrowed plots on the psychology of the comic or tragic hero. Daniel Defoe introduced the novel to English, and grounded his novels in the dense realistic detail that he had learnt to write as a pioneering journalist. Sir Walter Scott invented the key techniques of the historical novel, giving his characters the attitudes, and his settings the realia, of the eras in which they were set, instead of representing them in modern dress and with modern habits. Mark Twain cleared away the stylisms of ‘bookish’ language and told tales in the plain colloquial English of ordinary speech. William Morris contributed the pure ‘high’ fantasy milieu, what Tolkien later called the ‘Secondary World’, deliberately unconnected with ‘the fields we know’.
Hemingway, a journalist like Defoe, discovered a new literary idiom in the ‘telegraphese’ of transatlantic cables, by the use of which he put across the bare gist of a story and left the reader to infer the details from minimal clues. Heinlein applied the Hemingway method to science fiction, doing away with the detailed description of wondrous technology and describing it purely by showing its direct role in the actions of the characters. (This was a remarkable invention, by the way. Hemingway left the reader to infer things she might reasonably be expected to know from everyday life. Heinlein trusted her to infer the new and imaginary; indeed, to guess out the technological conceit that underpinned the rest of the story, what Darko Suvin calls the novum.) And of course there is Tolkien, whose innovations I have fortunately no need to recapitulate here.
Every one of these Architects left, as the evidence of his contribution to the art of fiction, one or more enduring landmarks of literature, as prominent, and to date as well-preserved, as Imhotep’s expertly piled stones. But do not suppose that a writer has to create an utterly new technique to be an Architect. All of us become Architects, in our small way, when we set ourselves to write stories beyond our skill; when we have to learn and master tools that are new to us, though they may be as old as Story itself.
It is then that we cross the line from merely working hard to attempting hard work. It is then that we move from the derivative to the original; from ringing the changes to casting new bells. I am not fond of the term ‘hack’ as applied to writers, but if it means anything, it means a writer who stays safely within the limits of his own established know-how, rearranging the bricks in his Lego set for a safe pay packet. He may be a Drudge indeed, who works virtuously long hours with his fixed and finished set of tools, but he has shut himself off from the chance of becoming more. He lives and dies by the maxim of Napoleon: ‘An army that remains within its fortifications is already beaten.’
A pernicious belief is making the rounds, encouraged by some of the great gurus of self-publishing and self-promotion. The idea is that you have to pay your dues as a writer, by writing some set quantity (some say 500,000 words, some say a million) of inferior prose, after which you will magically become a Commercial Writer, and be able to make a fine living if only you are prolific enough, and never have to learn anything again — at least about writing; you will always have more lessons about marketing to learn from the gurus. It is the Gospel according to Drudge; the fatal promise that you will never have to do hard work — that working hard is enough. But in this game, to stop learning is to repeat yourself, and to repeat yourself is to begin to die.
To write prolifically is a good thing, but it is not the best thing; it is not even the best thing for a writer as such. Be prolific for practice, be prolific to expose your work to more readers, be prolific to try out new techniques and reduce the risk that attends a failure. But for the love of all the Muses, don’t be prolific for the mere sake of commercial success; and don’t expect that writing ever-larger quantities of the same old stuff will push you over the threshold of commercial success. In the end, quantity is only a multiplier; it is quality that sells. Ten bad stories may sell ten times as much as one bad story; but one good story will outsell a thousand bad ones, and one great story will outlast all the merely good stories you could ever write.
Working hard may earn you a wage, but it will always be a poor one, because anybody can work hard. The real rewards of this game are in doing hard work. The gold is not in the twice-worked tailings, but in the hard rock that has never yet been mined. Fame is not in the twice-told tale, but in the tale that only you can discover how to tell; the tale written in the ink of your heart’s blood, for which no chemist can prescribe a substitute.
All writing advice is bad for some writers, and some of it is bad for everyone. But if I had to back one bit of advice as good for every writer, it would be this: Reach for the heavens, and stretch yourself till they come within your grasp. Don’t just work hard; do the hard work. Be a Drudge if you have to, but strive to be an Architect.