Sunday, January 1, 2012

Writing in the New Year

One of the first things I read on this first day of the new year was an interesting statement--for anyone who writes--from John McPhee (in the Paris Review, reprinted in today's NYTimes):

"I think it's totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something. Why not? Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you."

As I work on the beginnings of a piece of fiction--a rare venture for me--I appreciate this admission by a noted author. Each piece takes us back to the beginning, in a sense, and we have to remind ourselves that, despite the misgivings, we really do know what we're doing, that our experience as readers and writers will lead us eventually out of the pit of writer's block. That McPhee uses the word "rational" is curious since the issues involved are largely emotional: fear of the blank page, of wasting time, of facing our inner selves.

One of my Christmas gifts was a book by the master stylist Gay Talese, A Writer's Life, in which he confesses--after explaining the slow, "Stone Age method" by which he works to create what look like effortless sentences--that he produces prose "with the ease of a patient passing kidney stones."

Hyperbole aside, his admission is refreshing, and he rewards himself after a morning of such labor by having a fine lunch in a New York restaurant because writing, as he and many others have attested, is indeed hard work. He lingers over each sentence, he says, "until I conclude that I lack the will or the skill to improve upon it..." The results are invariably wonderful--for the reader.

Part of every writer's challenge, as McPhee's statement suggests, is that combination of distraction, loneliness, and restlessness often called acedia, which is not (despite what Kathleen Norris suggests) a type of depression but of fear: like the early medieval monks in the desert, the writer facing an entire morning of work, freezes. There is too much time and yet not enough, perhaps. How do I begin to make myself clear, and how can I stay focused on the task at hand and not be lured by the beauty of the day or the inviting phone call?

This is the great challenge of the contemplative life, which English professor John Plotz discussed wisely in The New York Times Book Review last week. Solitary, cerebral, sedentary work of any kind, especially writing, can lead to acedia. When you add in our conscious or unconscious sense of readers (who are likely to be critical), the fear intensifies. The early monks knew how to anticipate and deal with the problem, and it didn't keep them from continuing to live contemplatively.

What I tell my writing students is that, as much as we can gain comfort from the struggles of other writers, we must adopt a positive attitude toward ourselves and our work. Any start we make, any draft, any sentence we write is a step in the right direction; the roughest of outlines can help us bridge the gulf between creativity and despair.

So my new year's wish to anyone who writes is that you have the courage to forge ahead. There's no other way to write than to write: maybe just one sentence will lead to another...

The difficulties of the solitary work of a writer are real but utterly human and nearly universal. Be skeptical of those who dash off essays in 30 minutes. Value revision. Reward yourself for any good sentence you produce; rejoice over every paragraph you have revised.

Any beginning you make is a beginning. Build on that and keep going. The rewards of the struggle will become apparent; eventually, you will enjoy the process, as Talese surely does despite his agony. As every good writer does, even those who say they hate to write but love to have written. (I enjoy both; generally, the process of producing an article is more rewarding than its publication.)

To give up or postpone writing might be to deny that part of your soul that needs nurturing, just as the soul of the contemplative needs the daily exercise of silence and prayer. Any struggle is holy: it leads to wholeness. I see writing as a spiritual activity, in case you haven't guessed. Happy new year!

1 comment:

Chris said...

I lose track, sometimes, of where I've "caught" my inspiration, but following back to your blog (which I found via another blog I read----Mystic Meanderings) today, I realize that it is to you I can attribute my discovery of Caleb Carr's new book, THE SHALLOWS, which I downloaded to my Kindle and am enjoying. I've also enjoyed reading your thoughtful posts. Thanks!