Turning Points: Guest Post by Sean Ferrell (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Sean Ferrell reveals how he stopped making excuses and came to write his debut novel. This post kicks me in the pants and gets me writing! Hope it does for you, too…

The Writer never arrives.

You haven’t written anything for a long time. So long you forget how to end a… You don’t have enough time. There are socks and underwear to be washed. There are dishes, oh the dishes you have. There is a spouse or someone demanding to be one or fighting to not be. There are children or the whispers and worries asking for them. There is there is there is. Mostly there’s the problem that The Writer hasn’t shown up. You’ve checked your email, peeked out the door, nosed about the windows, listened for the phone. No sign of him on Twitter. Facebook. All your days are made of things that cast shadows, things that stand between you and a figment that isn’t even an idea yet: the book, the story, the poem, the, the, the. You need The Writer to show up because he’ll have the time, the perfect place, the writing pen, the right pen, the right, the rite. You need The Writer to show up, wine whiskey coffee in hand, unlit cigarette—he quit smoking more than a decade ago but symbols are crutches as easily as crutches are symbols—behind an ear. You need his attitude, his slouch, his far-away-stare, you need his ease in his body, his roaming mind, you need need need most of all that one thing that you’ll never have even if you pasted all his other attributes to you like a homemade Halloween costume. You need The Writer to show up because he knows what to say.

Here’s a terrible secret: The Writer never shows up.

After graduate school I had an MFA and no idea what to write. I moved from Boston to Brooklyn, worked in publishing long enough to witness 9-to-5 work beat my desire to write nearly to death and leave it shaking in an alley between East Village bars. I thought, “When I have time to write ha ha ha I’ll get to work on it.” It. That’s what I called my writing. It. All I lacked was the “sh.” I envisioned a writer showing up who knew not only how to say something, but what to say. I was lost in a mush of conflicting ideas, images, and oddities I didn’t know how to handle. I was supposed to have something to say, right? That’s what writers do. They say things. They get the words out in the right order and they mean things. I couldn’t do that. I could only distract myself until he showed up. Thank God for Xbox, comic books, and cartoons.

Maybe the writer was lurking in a writing group. I joined one. I spent a good deal of time fretting about what to take to the group, what of my “it” they would respond well to. Swallowing criticism tasted like a mouthful of batteries. I already knew the stories I submitted were terrible. Did I need a group to remind me? The others in the group were writers. Two of them were published. What was I? I scrambled—between work and distractions and the serious business of trying to finish Halo—to gather words into piles big enough to trick the group into thinking I was actually like them, that I could write, that I had something to say. Mainly I did this by taking old pieces, things long critiqued into lexicons I no longer understood, work that no longer felt like mine. The pressure to please my readers had hobbled me.

One week I had nothing. The night before the group was to meet I went through a stack of work and had nothing that felt worth taking. I was paying to attend this group and so I wasn’t going to simply skip it, or go empty-handed. Even though I knew that if The Writer showed up he’d need a better place to write, and better material to work with, and a clear idea of what he was trying to say, I stayed up late and cobbled together something new. It felt a little like a last hurrah, flaming out in tremendous fashion, and maybe it was the exhaustion or the pressure to take a certain number of pages, but I didn’t censor myself as I usually did, I didn’t worry about the dearth of ideas, didn’t worry about the fact that what was tumbling out was, in a word, weird. I’d read weird before, and I knew many very talented writers worked in weird the way bakers do flour, but they were writers, they had a point. I was simply me, and my weird was leaving me with question marks all around. When I finally stopped I had fifteen pages of who-knew-what, but there was a certain storyishness to the words, not as much it-acity, and I resolved to not tinker or even read it before attending the group. I would simply hold my nose and swallow.

The Writer never arrived. I did. I stopped waiting for the moment when I would know what to say. I realized later that I’m not supposed to know what to say. I’m writing to find out what needs to be written. And not only in my fiction. This post, my tweets, marginalia, revision notes, who knows what any of them are supposed to do or be, but they get done, and not by some writer. It’s just me. Me, with the holes in my socks and the laundry in the washer and a pile of Legos between my feet. Do I still long for a Writer to show up and start chiseling some of the barnacles off for me to make the sailing a little smoother? Of course. But do I expect it?

That thing I cobbled together the night before my writing group was a turning point, an end to waiting for The Writer to show up, a beginning to taking care of the work myself. And a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral pyre. The piece got very positive and constructive feedback. The only negative response was a reader saying he didn’t see how I could have the narrator enter a lion’s cage so early in what felt like a longer work. “Don’t know how you’re going to get him out of there.” I didn’t know either, and that was okay. I didn’t know how he’d get out of the cage any more than I knew what it “meant” or what I was trying to say. All I knew was that this was the thing I needed to work on. This was “it.”

After some tussling and no-holds-barred editing, that piece became my first novel, Numb.

The Writer still hasn’t shown up. At this point, he doesn’t need to.


—Sean Ferrell

Sean Ferrell’s fiction has appeared in journals such as Electric Literature’s “The Outlet” and The Adirondack Review. His short story “Building an Elephant” won The Fulton Prize. His debut novel, Numb, was published by Harper Perennial in 2010. His second novel, The Man in the Empty Suit, will be published in 2012 by Soho Press.

He lives and works, in no particular order, in New York City.

Visit Sean at seanferrell.com.

Follow @byseanferrell on Twitter.


All commenters on this post were entered to win a signed copy of Sean Ferrell’s debut novel Numb. And a winner has been randomly chosen…

Congrats, ElyssaJK! I will be emailing you soon for your mailing address. And thank you again, Sean, for donating the book for this giveaway!

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

And look for more open giveaways on the giveaways page so you can win some books! 

Series images by Robert Roxby.

51 responses to “Turning Points: Guest Post by Sean Ferrell (+Giveaway)”

  1. Sean, this is…raw, brilliant, and so encouraging. Because I, too, have holes in my socks and dishes in the sink. I, too, have spent too much time playing xbox (Thief is my favorite game ever), while waiting for The Writer to make an appearance. I, too, have distracted myself into oblivion and a certain lack of confidence. Until the moment where you say, “Screw it,” and do SOMETHING. (Reference to your blog entry of the same name not intended, but still awesome.)

    Writing, for me, is half idea and half discipline. It’s writing, even when I feel like it’s all crap. Even when my confidence is in the crapper, swirling around like a mocking mess of festering nonsense. It wasn’t until I finished my current WIP (draft-wise) that I realized that.

    I found such comfort and reassurance in this post, because it resonated with me. It’s encouragement and wisdom rolled into a witty series of paragraphs. Again, Sean — thank you. For saying what you say, and writing what you write.

    (Nova — I love this series so much.)


  2. Very good post, Sean. I agree wholeheartedly. When you try to say something with you’re writing, that’s when you most often wind up with writer’s block or just hating to do it at all. When you let go and just let the words come out, then something seems to coalesce. Something wonderful happens and you wind up with something that makes you wonder, where are the characters taking me? What will they do next. That’s when it all becomes more than “it”.

    No worries about making a statement, just follow where the characters take you. After the journey you can make it into something polished.


  3. Sean, this is the first piece about the writing experience that has actually resonated with me. I’m a post-grad from a Creative Writing and English Literature BA and I have to tell you, each experience that you described has pretty much felt like mine. To the tee. Or, rather to the pen. I’ve read a lot of advice before from “published, established” writers, but none as honest, intelligent, and funny as this. But you probably already know that.

    I’ve heard, “Oh, just keep at it. It’ll come…” or “…don’t worry, the words are all there inside of you.” Yeah, okay. Now, what??

    Just wanted to send you my personal kudos for discovering “yourself” in and apart of “the writer” that we all expect. Perhaps reading your blog piece has sprinkled a little, favourable dust on me, too, and I’ll be able to let go of the waiting.

    I’m a bit of a contest giveaway junkie especially when it comes to books, but in this case, I am truly interested in what you’ve written, now that I know a little of its origin and your experience with it that seems to mimic my own.

    Best wishes to us both—for continual writing success and a chance for me, too, to snag your book.

    Thanks for this. Really.

    On Twitter: @ZaraAlexis


  4. This is exactly the encouragement I needed. I have been waiting a couple of years for the Writer to arrive in my life – it’s just my own excuse for NOT writing anything or forcing myself to write a certain type of way. This post has just served as a reminder of what I hope to accomplish this 2012: to become the Writer I want to be.


  5. Thank you for this post, Sean. So much. Last night I was staring at my computer screen, thinking, “I want to write something beautiful. Something meaningful.” I wasn’t listening to myself, I was listening to what others want from me. Or what I think they want from me.


  6. So if I quit doing laundry and leave Legos lying around, the Sean will show up? That sounds terribly entertaining. For real, though, I know exactly what you mean. There is no writer, just as there is no perfect time to write. There just is.


  7. As usual, a gorgeous post, Sean! I found myself nodding along with most of your points. The dishes, the laundry (I dress in the basement from the three baskets of never-folded clothes, the relatives who constantly tell me how I disappoint them on a daily basis, and so on…

    But for me, it was never a matter of The Writer not showing up. She writes. All the time. But she is a vicious, nasty biddy whose only facial expression is a sneer and whose only feedback is a terse, “This sucks.”

    Getting her to shut the hell up has been my turning point 🙂

    Nova, thanks for another great post in an awesome series.


  8. I enjoyed reading your post and looking for The Writer takes time and effort for all who are made of that passion. It does mean that you put off or even ignore the things that can be delayed… it means making your writing the most important thing to you because that is what will make it important to everyone else around you. I found that I need to focus on the fact that I embrace my journey as a writer and publisher and that is what I am here to do… yes, I still have to work at this point, but that is slowly being filtered out as I make the complete changeover. My muse holds me to my course. Happy writing!


  9. Also, Nova – please EXEMPT me from the giveaway. I have NUMB, in fact, I’ve read it about four times now and each time, find something beautiful I missed the time before. Increase the odds for others who haven’t experienced Sean’s brilliance yet.


  10. I think the Legos reproduce by mitosis. Also possibly the laundry. Thank you for this, Sean. I try too hard, sometimes, to make my writing something it’s not, and by doing this, I shackle it. I needed to read this, to see the chains so I can break them. This is a beautiful post.


  11. Wow! What an incredible, raw, honest post. You have so succinctly nailed what each and every one of us as writers has struggled with at one moment or another, in between the rare moments of Eureka! and muse-filled minutes. Posts like this ground me and reassure me to keep on keeping on and knowing that my experience is normal and not to get discouraged or let go. Thank you!!!!


  12. Great turning point! And so true. A similar turning point for me was a change of thinking: from finding time to write — as though writing was a hobby — to making time to write — giving writing enough status that it was at least as high a priority as doing the dishes and laundry. Nowadays, writing sometimes comes first to showers, which is perhaps a status change I need to reconsider.


  13. This is just what I needed to read today. I edit and censor myself so much that I’m often frozen and unable to produce any work. Sometimes it’s a hard thing to remember to just be me.


  14. WOW. This.

    As I got to the end of the post and you mentioned the tiger and the guy in the cage I got chills because I recognized that from Numb. I marvel that your book started as something that exploded out of your head during a last ditch attempt to produce something for your crit group. Further proof that we all just have to shut up, stop arranging the desk, stop planning and just get to work.

    Thank you – awesome post, and having read (and thoroughly enjoyed) your book already I would LOVE to give a signed copy away as a gift. Sign me up!


  15. My writer didn’t show up for 20 years. After being pulled under the waves by a daily grind of marketing and copywriting, there were no words to be found at the end of the day. It took a cataclysmic event to bring that writer screaming from the depths, rising for air. She doesn’t plan on diving again.


  16. This is a great series and a great post. I know I’ve waited for some sort of perfect conditions to be present for me to write in the past but I realized I couldn’t wait for perfect conditions, I just had to write.


  17. Maybe there is someone out their who was born with The Writer, but it’s not me. And it’s not any writers I’ve met so far.

    Writing is, in large part, I think, being willing to do the work required to follow the ideas that grab hold of them. Many times, the ideas lead nowhere. Or they take a very, very, very long time to get anywhere good. But like Sean described—when you follow the ideas and realize you’ve landed somewhere special, wow. It’s an incredible feeling.

    Thanks for the post—and the series! Seriously. THANK YOU.


  18. This is fantastic. It reminds me of Stephen King talking about his muse being a guy with bowling trophies and a soggy cigar. I’m at a crossroads right now and articles like this keep drop-kicking me in the right direction. Thanks both for the post and the great blog series. Terri


  19. That, sir, is what I needed to hear.
    Teaching (of all things) nearly beat the writer fully OUT of me – just through pure exhaustion and sheer lack of time to do anything else. I actually took a leave of absence and headed all the way to California (from Toronto) to write a book just because it’s the only way it would happen. Through a myriad of messes, that work was agented, now is not (long story), and has recently been shelved after giving it my everything. Once more I stopped writing, not because of that experience, but because my work yet again (several jobs pieced together) took all my time. But do you know what’s bringing me back?
    I have made so many personal connections with writers and “lit. peeps” and cool people who inspire me with with their risk taking projects in all forms of media. People who just said, “What if?” and then actually TRIED to answer that question. So much of my time in teaching was spent coaxing kids and teens to TAKE RISKS, and somewhere along the line, I forgot how to do that myself.
    So whether or not the writer is here, my hands are poised over the keyboard.
    See y’all on the last page!



  20. Can’t wait to go home and tell my daughter once again “See, just write it.” She had an elementary school teacher tell her she couldn’t write and its taken until this year (senior) to get her to put her stories on paper. I’m so proud of my super hero writing daughter, can’t wait to put some of her stories in my YA collection.


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