As a novelist, I learned long ago that my interest in talking about how very difficult it is to write fiction exceeds almost everybody's interest in hearing about it. I rarely bring the subject up, any more than I expect, in old age, to go on at length about my joint pains or the fact that everything and everyone used to be better than they are now. Every writer I know, however, is obsessed by the subject, and often when we're alone together we do, in fact, with a sense of guilty abandon, spend a certain amount of time buzzing about how unbelievably, monumentally difficult writing actually is; what fools we are for having taken it up in the first place; and how often we contemplate abandoning the pursuit altogether and going into another line of work, though most of us are too old for go-go dancing and too inept for carpentry.
Okay, writing is difficult. Still, I do wonder why we writers are so insistent on the subject, so preoccupied by it. Other people work hard, too, and I don't feel from them quite the same barely suppressed eagerness to publicize their suffering. It is, as I suspect we all agree, difficult to be a neurosurgeon, a fireman, or the accountant who calculates the taxes of hundreds of clients, any one of whom might be ruined by an error.
You could argue that writers are unusually adamant about our trials because our rewards generally run from small to nonexistent, and because the greatest writer alive is not just underpaid but also not nearly as famous as a bad actor with a medium-sized part in a semipopular situation comedy. And yet. I have a friend, well into her 40s, who works at a shelter for the homeless in New York City, which she expects to be doing until she either retires or drops over. This means she'll always live like a graduate student, and that if she should (God forbid) lose her modest rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village, she'll be moving...actually, it's hard to say where she'd be moving. The South Bronx is probably out of her price range by now. She works long hours under impossible conditions. No one would give her a special table in a hot restaurant, though the point is moot because she couldn't afford to go to a hot restaurant even if she was recognized as the celebrity she ought to be. And, while she's given to eye-rolling, bemused accounts of her daily struggles, she is rather ostentatiously not prone to killing most of a fifth of vodka every night and complaining, with witty bitterness, about that day's razor fight, unexpected birth, or five separate trips to various emergency rooms.
I suspect that one of the many reasons we who write tend to contemplate our troubles the way nuns finger rosaries is the fact that our sufferings are entirely invisible to everyone but us. A neurosurgeon removing a tumor the size of a lentil, a fireman carrying a child out of a burning building, my friend interceding in a razor fight...no further details required. Yes, all right, the accountant's burdens are less visible and romantic, but anyone who's ever had taxes done by an expert and doesn't feel awed by his or her command of law and math is suffering from awe-deficiency.
Writers, especially we who write fiction, not only do it in private but when the book is published—even if it turns out well, and even if it's well received—it's not apparent from the finished product that we actually know how to do anything. Well, we can tell stories, but everybody tells stories. Everybody's grandmother tells stories. I was recently approached by a friend of a friend who told me he had a great story, and wondered if I'd like to work with him on it—he'd provide the plot and I'd do what he called the "fancy stuff," by which he meant characters, dialogue, settings, etc. He was not the first to make a suggestion like that.
This is exactly the sort of thing that turns writers into whiners. A surprising number of people—I'd put the number as high as 50 percent of the American population—believe they could write a good novel if they just had the time. The figures are surely lower when we move to whatever cohort of the population thinks they could, and quite possibly will, become neurosurgeons or firefighters once things quiet down a bit, and the kids are in college.
The widespread conviction that anyone can write a novel is, naturally, cranky-making to those of us who actually write them, but I admit that I can understand its source. A good writer strives to conceal the effort that went into producing a short story or novel. A fireman or a doctor, visibly saving lives, does and should inspire in us an appreciation of the courage and training required. A work of fiction, if it's any good, has precisely the opposite effect. It should seem effortless. It should so infiltrate the reader's consciousness that by its end it should seem not like the long, heroic effort of another person but like an unusually vivid dream the reader has had.
For all those reasons, and more, we who write seldom if ever talk in public about the joy of writing. Too much attention to that subject could undermine our campaign for wider appreciation, and might even make us seem a little...insipid, mightn't it? Who'd want to be known as that happy chap who hums ABBA to himself while trying to come up with the next sentence?
All artists, not just writers, are expected to be dark and tormented spirits. There's justification for that. With the possible exceptions of S.J. Perelman and James Thurber, I'm hard-pressed to think of a writer I love who isn't (or wasn't) clearly acquainted with the dark side. This is why expressions like "delighted as DeLillo" or "merry as Morrison" never caught on. If writers like DeLillo and Morrison weren't intimately acquainted with the murkier aspects of human life, we wouldn't love them so; or at any rate we wouldn't trust them as we do. We need, as readers, to feel matched at the very least in our knowledge of human life, and we know from experience how hard it can be simply to live, in the flesh, on the earth. Anyone who doesn't know that probably doesn't need to read novels at all.
And still, at the same time, most of the writers we love—the dead as well as the living—are also clearly acquainted with how marvelous it is to be alive, in the flesh, on the earth. The novels of DeLillo and Morrison and just about every other significant writer I can come up with are at least as full of pleasure as they are of suffering. If an author isn't acquainted with happiness in some form or other we don't trust him or her, for the same reasons we don't trust a writer who seems to know nothing but sadness (okay, we'll talk about Kafka another time).
The widely held assumption that the characters and events in a work of fiction must be to some degree autobiographical is not only mistaken but exasperating to those of us who are continually asked about it. It does seem fair, though, to believe that few of us can write convincingly about emotional states we've never experienced. It's one thing to imagine life in the palace of an Ottoman sultan even if you've never been to Turkey—you can get pretty much everything you need to know by spending less than a day on the Internet. It's quite another to imagine writing a love story if you've never been in love.
At the risk, then, of being shunned by some of my gloomier peers, I venture to tell you that writers work like demons, suffer greatly, and are also happy, in unmistakable ways, some of the time. If we had no knowledge of happiness, our novels wouldn't sufficiently resemble real life. Some of us are even made a little bit happy, on occasion, by the writing process itself. I mean, really, if there wasn't some sort of enjoyment to be derived, would any of us keep doing it?
For me there are hours, there are even whole days, when I feel good about what I'm doing as I sit at my computer. Here's where the question of happiness gets a little tricky, because if you start feeling like an expert, if you start putting down sentence after sentence the way a baker squeezes rosettes onto a cake, you're in trouble. A writer should always feel like he's in over his head. That's part of what makes good writing compelling—the sense that as readers we're in the company of a writer of vast ambitions, who is always trying to do more than he or she is technically capable of.
And there, really, resides the pleasure that comes from writing. It's a quirky, sweet-sour, Yankee-ish pleasure; it's more like a plunge into icy water on a hot day than it is like lolling around in the tropics. It's like what runners feel running the 500-yard dash, making good time and feeling pushed slightly beyond their limits, which is great, and feeling at the same time that although they're able to do something remarkable—they can run faster than almost anyone alive—they should nevertheless have done a little better, gone a little faster. They'll try that much harder tomorrow. There may be, in the end, no happiness quite so potent as the anticipation of a greater happiness still to come.
That is, to a considerable extent, what keeps writers going. We'd just rather not talk about it.
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, December 11, 2013