Monday, December 8, 2008

Why is it so hard to write?

There are a few lucky souls for whom the whole process of writing is easy, for who the smell of fresh paper is better than air, whose minds chuckle over their own agility, who forget to eat, and who consider the word at large an intrusion of their time at the keyboard. But most writers are not among them. We are in love with words except when we have to face them. We are caught in a guilty paradox in which we grumble over our lack of time, and when we have the time, we sharpen pencils, check e-mails, or clip the hedges.

Of course, there’s also joy. We write for the satisfaction of having wrestled a sentence to the page, for the rush of discovering an image, for the excitement of seeing a character come alive. Even the most successful writers will sincerely say that these pleasures- not money, fame, or glamor- are the real rewards of writing. Fiction writer Alice Munro concedes:

It may not look like pleasure, because the difficulties can make me morose and distracted, that’s what it is – the pleasure of telling the story I mean to tell as wholly as I can tell it, of finding out in fact what the story is, by working around the different ways of telling it.

Nevertheless, writers may forget what such pleasure feels like when confronting a blank page. The heroine of Anita Brookner’s novel Look at Me bemoans:

Sometimes it feels like a physical effort simply to sit down at the desk and pull out the notebook…sometimes the effort of putting pen to paper is so great that I literally feel a pain in my head.

It helps to know that most writers share the paradox of least wanting to do what we most want to do. It also helps to know some of the reasons for their reluctance. Fear of what could emerge on the page, and what it may reveal about our inner lives, can keep us from getting started.

There’s another impediment to beginning, expressed by a writer character in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Durrell’s Pursewarden broods over the illusory significance of what he is about to write, unwilling to begin in case he spoils it. Many of us do this: The idea, whatever it is, seems so luminous, whole, and fragile, that to begin to write about that idea is to commit it to rubble. Knowing in advance that words will never exactly capture what we mean or intend, we must gingerly and gradually work ourselves into a state of accepting what words can do instead. No matter how many times we find out that what words can do is quite all right, we still shy again from the next beginning. Against this wasteful impulse I have a motto over my desk that reads: “Don’t Dread; Do.”

The mundane daily habits of writers are apparently fascinating. No author offers to answer questions at the end of a public reading without being asked: Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you write every day? Sometimes such question shows a reverent interest in the workings of genius. More often, I think, they are a plea for practical help: Is there something I can do to make this job this job less horrific? Is there a trick that will unlock my words?