In a reply to one of the comments on my last post, I tossed in the late Gene Fowler’s bleak observation that “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” On the face of it, that’s not exactly a compelling incentive to race for the keyboard and start bashing away at your magnum opus, is it?
And yet, strangely enough, this quotation continues to be one of my favourites in spite of its gloomy summation of the writing experience, because it tells me that those lonely moments of doubt and dread and blind panic when the words refuse to be summoned aren’t unusual. That they are, in fact, normal. Joseph Heller’s insistence that “every writer I know has trouble writing” shores up that normalcy, and George Orwell cements it with his “writing a book is “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
There is something curiously satisfying in taking a brief detour from one’s one writing journey to sneak a peek at how other writers cope with the challenges of blank pages, balancing literary endeavours with work and family obligations, and feelings of inadequacy.
When sentences I’ve tried so painstakingly to shape into loveliness glare back at me from the page like warted, misshapen gnomes, and I start to think that there never has been or will be as hack-handed a stylist as I seem doomed to remain, how restorative it is to read William Styron say to an interviewer:
I never knew anyone who had a passion for words who had so much difficulty in saying things as I do and I very seldom say them in a manner I like.
And when I’m boggling at myself for having taken half an hour to decide on the exact, the perfect word or phrase to convey a particular sensation or image, I find vindication for my exactitude in John Steinbeck’s reflection that:
A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.
It’s also interesting–and frequently instructive–to hear successful authors weigh in on some the issues we wrangle over regularly in the blogosphere. Take the plotting versus panting debate, for example. On the one hand, I’d say the preponderance of writing advice floating around on the interwebs lands on the side of plotting, and many of the plotting proponents would probably concur with John Irving’s suggestion that writers should “know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?”
But, hey, pantsers, don’t be daunted by Irving’s dictum (or by his somewhat insufferable tone). There are many, many critically acclaimed authors who don’t share his opinion:
Simone de Beauvoir: “In general I start writing a novel long before working out the plot.”
Marilynne Robinson: “I really don’t [plot my novels]…I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don’t give anything a higher priority than character.”
Paul Auster: “You find the book in the process of doing it. That’s the adventure of the job. If it were all mapped out in advance, it wouldn’t be very interesting.”
Chuck Palahniuk: ‘Let yourself be with Not Knowing…You don’t have to know every moment up to the end, in fact, if you do it’ll be boring as hell to execute.“
Right now I’m reading The Paris Review Interviews, vol iv. Not cover to cover, and not every day, but here and there throughout the week, whenever I need a little pick-me-up, a little encouragement, a dash of insight into my own writing challenges. The conversations contained within its (virtual) covers are long and rich and focused squarely on writing and the writing life. If you don’t have the cash to fork over for the Review, you can find the interviews online, and The New York Times also has an online archive of their Writers on Writing series that makes for fascinating, addictive and and inspiring reading.
How about you? Do you find it helpful/interesting to take a little stroll through your favourite authors’ brains as they reflect on the writing experience?