I do not like people
who say they like to write.
Once I asked a friend who is a novelist -- an irritatingly good novelist,
a prize-winning novelist -- when he worked. He said, "I write when I
feel like it," but before I could bond with him in slackerhood, he added,
with a grin that made me want to smush his handsome face into the well-manicured
lawn of his huge Victorian house where his lovely children play and
his beautiful wife hangs out, "And I almost always feel like it."
From another friend I heard a comment made by a novelist we both know,
who was working on her second book. She said that each day she sits
at her desk and channels her main character; hours later, she notices
that she has written pages and pages. I'm glad that remark came to me
secondhand. Had I heard her say that in person, my response would have
been less than pleasant.
A good friend of mine, a graduate student in history, made the mistake
of interrupting me on one of the myriad occasions when I was ranting
about the hard work of writing. "No," he said. "Laying bricks is hard
work. Digging post-holes is hard work. Writing is not." He would have
been OK -- maybe -- if he had left it at that, but he didn't. He went
on to allow as how he enjoyed writing and didn't find it all that taxing.
My hackles rose. I reminded him that I had read a lot of his writing.
I reminded him of some of my more pointed comments about his writing.
And then I whipped out Samuel Johnson: "What is written without effort
is in general read without pleasure."
Maybe novelists can go into some kind of fugue state while they're writing
and it's enjoyable. They do tend to say weird things like, "I really
like this character" or, "I can't wait to see what happens," as if their
agency -- their authorship, their authority -- has somehow been shunted
aside. Maybe it has. If that ever happened to me as a writer, maybe
it would even be fun.
So I'll forget about my friends in fiction and say this: Writing nonfiction
is not fun. It's work. Hard work.
Those who are excellent at what they do -- whether it's writing, bull
riding, or figure skating -- make it look not only easy, but effortless.
It's when the labor starts to show, you are reminded how difficult it
Each time I'm in the throes of writing a book, I realize that I have
somehow forgotten how exhausting it is, how much it hurts. After writing
for a couple of hours, I have to go lie down, wrist thrown across an
aching forehead. It helps only a little to remember that I am not alone,
to think of George Orwell's comment that "writing a book is a horrible,
exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness."
It's not only doing the work that's hard, it's also the recognition
that you never quite know when it's over. Once you get through the labor
of creation, there's the torture of revision. You can revise for months.
For years. You can convince yourself that, unlike a Thanksgiving turkey,
it's never going to be done. In a way, having deadlines, while adding
cuticle-chewing stress, can be a boon.
I will allow that there may be people who like various aspects of the
writing process. For some, it may be the excitement of facing a blank
page. (Hate them!) For others, it could be a sense of getting a sentence
just right. (Jerks!) There may be those who like the revision process,
who can go over what they've produced with a cold eye and a keen ear
and feel a satisfaction in making it better. (Liars!)
Dorothy Parker said, "It's better to have written than to write." Amen,
sister. Unless you are called on to read what you have published. Then
you have to go through the printed book, with its tight little lines,
and edit every sentence before you can bear to hear yourself pronounce
any of it aloud.
Those who don't approach the blank page (or document) with the same
fear and trembling as climbing aboard a ton of angry animal are, I think,
about as bright as bull riders who have landed on their heads too many
It's a daunting thing -- to believe that you have something to say (that
others will want to hear); to convey information in a way that is pellucid
and intriguing; to find the mot juste, to avoid the tired and the clichéd;
to create scaffolding to support the ideas you are juggling; and then
to have the confidence to put it out there in the world, where it will
surely be picked apart, kicked around, and perhaps even trampled.
While there are no shortcuts, there may be ways to make the whole affair
Routine helps. Knowing that you have to do it, every day, at the same
time in the same place (and if you're me, with the same breakfast in
front of you) for some number of hours makes writing a normal part of
the day, just another chore like mucking the Augean stables or training
Cerebrus to fetch.
Knowing the limits of your own productivity helps. I have about three
hours of writing time in me. After that, there's a lot of Internet surfing,
Spider Solitaire playing, and staring off into space. At that point,
it's useless to keep sitting in front of a screen. Hemingway said it's
best to write in the morning and then not think about it for the rest
of the day; to let the subconscious go to work. He also said that he
always stopped at a point when he knew where he had to go next; it made
it easier to start again the following day.
But no matter what tricks you find to make writing less onerous, it
will still be hard work. If it's not, then you're asking the reader
to fill in your gaps, to glide over your flaws. Readers don't like to
do that. I know I don't.
If you love to write -- if you think it's a joy to express yourself
on the page, if you are transported by the muse -- bully for you. But
give me wide berth. And please, don't ask me to read your "work."
This past summer I ran a 50K race in the (big, rocky) mountains just
south of Helena, Mont. The whole state had been on fire for some time
and the air was filled with acrid smoke. The course had thousands of
feet of elevation change. There were points when you felt dizzy from
a lack of oxygen; there were no flat parts. It was in August -- hot.
I led the women's race for five hours and then, somehow, missed a turn.
I ended up going up, way up, and then down, and finishing off course,
out of water, out of food, having run more than 35 miles without even
getting an official completion. It was hard.
But it was not as hard as writing this column.
Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at the
Inland Northwest Center for Writers, the M.F.A. program of Eastern Washington
University in Spokane. Her Web site is www.racheltoor.com.
She welcomes comments and questions at email@example.com