Back to the Rough Road of Writing

Yesterday, I showed my fiction classes a clip of an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle. At one point, he’s asked if he likes writing and he says that there are times (winning the Man Booker Prize for instance) when he absolutely loves writing. There were other instances, sometimes covering long periods of time, in which it was not so easy, when it felt more like trudging the writing life. Still, he said, he’d rather be writing than anything else.

It seems easy to say such things when you’ve got a few books under your belt. Winning the Man Booker or the Pulitzer can go a long way toward mitigating any disdain a writer might be developing for the work. I’m not saying those writers don’t have doubt. They do, and sometimes it’s crippling. But for those of us who have to be content with publication (if any) in small literary magazines without the wider audiences afforded the “cream of the crop” writers, the grind of writing is almost always present, at least for me. I suppose I can’t speak for others. What I’m saying is that even though a published and respected writer may have moments when he/she feels out of tune or out of touch or just plain bad or hopeless, they can always look up on the mantle and see the little National Book Award statue, or look to the shelf and see the books with nice little blurbs, or reflect upon the readings they gave at AWP or elsewhere and remember the people lined up to buy their book–and think, “Well, at least I was doing something right at some point….”

The motivation for the lesser published, or the non-published has to come from somewhere else. For some, it seems to spring from some never-ending fount of inspiration that knows no troughs, no sputtering delays. Those writer annoy me. I’ve got into semi-arguments with them where they say, “If I didn’t love writing, I wouldn’t do it, and I can’t see how you can write if you don’t love writing all the time, everyday. It’s more important than air, water, cake. I can’t live if I don’t write.” Phooey on that.

The world doesn’t care if I write and I’d do just fine if I wasn’t writing. There are plenty of other activities with which I could fill my time. Writing is not simply turning on the light and watching the words find their home on your blank page. Its really about faith overcoming doubt. Faith and doubt, at least in my writing life, go hand in hand. The faith requires work (daily or routine action, sitting at the desk, working somehow, in some large or small fashion, in the act of creating) and doubt requires strength and patience (working through those crappy sentences, trusting the process of draft and revision) and fortitude (belief that indeed, what you are doing has value).

It’s always been up and down with me. Two weeks ago, at the AWP conference, it was up. Letting AWP happen, letting the voices of all those writers drift over and through me, left me feeling buoyed and alive with writing. Now, I’m back to normal, back to work, back to real life and family and the exhaustion of daily chores. Writing is not so rosy or glamorous now. It’s this thing I have to do. Or want to do. Or feel compelled to do when what my body and half-my-brain are telling me to sit down and turn on Iron Chef America, and just relax, wouldya, for the love of Pete? It’s getting up a little earlier and attempting to involve myself in the process of writing, to make my life a literary one. I did recently sell a story to Eclipse Literary Review, which is always an exciting two minutes (and after the initial boo-yaa of joy, my writer brain immediately enters panic mode: what if this is the last best thing I’ll ever write?). It’s balancing teaching and writing and all those things. It’s the daily grind right now, where I (and all those other writers who are writing because…well, because they don’t know why, that’s why, can you lay off with the fifth degree?

The inspiration must come from some unexpected inner resource.

If not there, then where?

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One thought on “Back to the Rough Road of Writing

  1. Great essay: honest and eloquent about hard things. Maybe writing is a way to deal with the odd aspect of self-consciousness: that each I is a We somehow, or each I has a “virtual” aspect, or a potential-I as part of it, or a not-I. That’s of course one writer’s way of putting it into words. Writing introduces language into areas of self that otherwise may not have a language face. There’s that to deal with, once you start. That’s a conversation within the self, I guess, that, like other conversations, keeps on generating more words from previous ones. Try living without language at the heart of yourself. Try just being you without writing. That’s hard.

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