Why are we writers such a whiny lot? And it\’s often the best writers who complain the most. E.B. White kvetched endlessly about having to write his weekly Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker. He moved to a farm in Maine, where he hoped to be able to write more easily, only to discover that he would much rather farm than write. He lamented that, as he went about slopping the pig or gathering the eggs, he couldn’t “watch the show just for the fun of it,” but had to be constantly thinking how to write about it (see Scott Elledge, E.B. White).
Whenever Flaubert wasn’t writing, he was complaining about it to his friend, George Sand: “You don’t know what it’s like […] to spend an entire day with your head in your hand in order to find the right word[…] I spend my life gnawing at my heart and my brain.”
And here is the great Colette, at her peak, telling an interviewer, “I don’t like to write. Not only do I not like to write, but I especially like not writing […] I am so happy, so happy when I’m not writing, that it’s clear to me that I shouldn’t write…” Asked what she’d like to do instead, she answers: “Anything! Anything except writing! Carpentry, gardening, polishing the furniture …”
|Colette in her eighties. Her right pinky was permanently bent from decades of writing.|
Like Flaubert, she labored endlessly over every word. The appendices of the Pléiade edition of her works show that for every line of finished text there are often half a dozen lines of false starts, reversals, and erasures. So fond was she of not writing that at the height of her career she opened a cosmetology salon. Fortunately, it was a failure and she was forced to return to writing.
Me, I don’t like not writing, but I love having written. Even if I’m just writing about something cute that the cat has done, after I’ve poured my daily ration of words onto the screen I feel cleansed somehow, purged, at ease. It’s the way I imagine skilled meditators (of whom I am not one) must feel after their daily sitting.
There are times, of course, when I don’t like writing. These occur mostly when I haven’t written for a while. Then I find myself stumbling over prepositions, enmeshed in clauses, entrapped by tenses. The main thing I lose when I have been away from writing is the discipline of the first draft, which for me consists of shaking out whatever is in my head onto the screen, as if I were dumping out a waste basket.
At this point, if I allow myself the slightest backward glance over the piece, I always turn into a pillar of salt. The backward glances are the second stage. But by then I have something to work on. The page is no longer a trackless desert over which I must wander alone. There’s stuff—mostly stupid stuff, but stuff–already there. Now all I have to do is fix it, mostly by the enthusiastic use of the delete key.
When I was a sculptor I would start with a block of Indiana limestone and then make a head, or a cat, or a human figure by slowly chiseling off what didn’t belong. As a writer, I first have to produce the stone itself, by quarrying words out of my brain and hurling them onto the screen. Then I chip away until the mess starts to make sense, and becomes something that someone might want to read.