Photo: Andrew Eccles
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.