A Writer Should Always Feel Like He's In Over His Head
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.