Includes the pain of dancers, a mention of f-stops, and the first ever appearance in this newsletter of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. — James Joyce
Writing is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. — Flannery O’Connor
It’s a very excruciating life facing that blank piece of paper every day and having to reach up somewhere into the clouds and bring something down out of them. — Truman Capote
I have known numerous painters, read about many more, and not once have I heard one say, “God, I hate to paint.”
I have known a lot more musicians, and not once have I heard one say, “God, I hate to play.”
I’ve never conversed with an actor, but profiles of actors and interviews with actors, especially screen actors, are inescapable in our culture. Ever heard one complain about how much they dislike acting? Neither have I.
Dancers? Dancers live in pain. I’ve known a few and I’m sure they have days when they think, I do not want to dance today. But that is because they hurt, not because they hate to dance. If dancing did not break their bodies they would dance every day to their graves.
Photographers love to take pictures. If they complain, it is about the time they must spend at a computer processing images. They are grousing because every hour they are in front of a screen is an hour they cannot be somewhere with a camera in their hand.
All of these artists carp because they are human. I gripe, therefore I am. But when musicians complain it is invariably about the music business, which is universally regarded as awful, even by the people who make it awful. Actors complain about the entertainment business, about auditions and sexism and the contingency of the acting life. Painters vent about gallery owners and critics and landlords. Photographers? We want to know how gaining two more f-stops on a lens can possibly cost an additional $10,000.
Nobody bitches and moans about the misery of making art like writers. Spare me.
I let reporters off the hook. Some are fine writers, but most just hope to be clear and accurate. They’re not artists and don’t want to be artists, and when they complain about writing it’s because writing is the price they pay for what they really love, which is reporting. Reporters live to interview people and examine documents and make connections and solve puzzles and reveal lies and be in the middle of someone else’s trouble. They love being on the scene and in the room where it happens. They write because they want to document the truth and empower readers, and because unless they write they won’t get paid. An opportunity to craft fine prose is not what gets most of them out of bed.
Observing that writing is hard doesn’t irritate me. That’s simply fact. Scribbling something merely comprehensible can be hard enough. Art? Forget about it. Back in the 1970s, for a job I wish I had never had, I had to write instructions for truck drivers who needed to order name patches for their uniform shirts. The text went into a box on an order form and had to get the job done in about 40 words. Sounds straightforward, but I invite you to try it, especially when the slightest room for error will result in dozens of botched orders, frustrated customers, and a cohort of irate customer service staff who would like to know the name of the literary genius who drafted the instructions.
Making art through writing is exponentially harder. But every art form is impossibly hard. That is why we revere anyone who learns how to do it well. Art demands years of study, practice, failure, frustration, obscurity, and anonymity. But at least the pay is bad. The only people willing to meet those demands are the ones besotted by the daily work. For them, the challenge is not motivating themselves to pick up a brush or a pen or a script, but walling off enough hours from the rest of life’s demands to get something done.
When writers like Joyce, O’Connor, or Capote bitch about “the writing life,” I simply do not believe them. (O’Connor's remark may have been tongue-in-cheek, but work with me here.) What irritates me is the cheap play for sympathy, all that faux martyrdom from people who should have more grace. “Look what I put myself through so you could have Ulysses.” “You think it was easy writing Wise Blood? Look at my decrepit teeth and bald patches.” “I shudder when I remember what I endured to produce Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
If you really hated it so much, you wouldn’t do it. If you’re the rare scribbler who has had a few critical and popular hits, who’s made a lot of money for yourself and your publisher, and you genuinely dread having to write another book that keeps everyone happy by mostly repeating the last two, your problem is not that writing is agony. Your problem is you hate the expectations of the publishing business and don’t have the guts to walk away and write whatever you really want to write. You could learn something from Picasso or Bob Dylan.
I know, I know, not exactly an issue worthy of a snit, but Dr Essai can be a grump. Just ask Mrs Essai. A suitable statement with which to conclude this rantlet comes from Peter De Vries. I don’t think he’s read much these days, which is a shame. Any man who could say of Kalamazoo, Michigan, that it rains a lot “but it’s a dry rain” should be on more bookshelves. Anyway, let his statement conclude this topic:
I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.