"The Ordeal of Writing," or what if I get it wrong? What if no one cares?

Some days I can write like I imagine Faulkner or Dickens wrote--with charm, ease, and plenty of verve.


Other days I can't write three consecutive words that don't sound forced, strained, and false to me.
What is it that produces these very different days?

I could blame the weather, or fatigue, or politics, or family worries, or any of my tried-and-true excuses for not doing what I perfectly well know I can do.

But, in truth, there is only one source for this kind of creative block: a distorted idea of the process of writing that turns the simple act of putting words on paper into an agonizing struggle.

What if I get it wrong?
This is a strange question, though it's a question that often keeps me from persevering when my writing becomes difficult. It implies that somewhere out there is a "correct" piece of writing that I am trying to uncover (as if the writing already exists), and my job is to find and record it correctly. I fear I may not discern the correct writing and will produce a misshapen, ill-formed parody of what it should be. This fear stops me cold.

I imagine this notion comes from an ancient idea that good writing is inspired by the gods, or God; that what should be written already exists in an undeveloped form in the spiritual world; and that this blessed writing is given to a lucky human as a reward for being perspicacious or behaving in a way that's pleasing to these deities.

This kind of imagining is akin to what the Greeks thought--their written dramas carried profound religious meaning, as if they were direct messages from the gods. It also echoes the notion of holy writing, or scripture, as being revealed "correct" writing from God.

Delphi, photographed by Leonidtsvetkov
If you believe that the gods are behind good writing and that humans are simply scribes, it becomes very, very important not to make a mistake. This does not liberate the creativity needed to write well.

What if no reader connects with what I write?
Another version of the origin of good writing is a bit less stressful for the writer, though still fraught with pitfalls: good writing springs from a common well of shared human experience and is meaningful to the reader insofar as it is recognizably "human." 

Good writing is not simply the product of one person's intellect, produced in isolation, but is drawn from the vast and deep pool of humankind's experiences, sort of like Jung's "collective unconscious." The fact that the raw materials are drawn from this pool is what gives the words and concepts of good writing their resonance.

This theory resembles the spiritual interpretation, in that it suggests that good writing comes from a place that is not simply my own consciousness. But the pressure to be perfect is lessened, as the source of my inspiration is human, not divine.

I am, when I think of the writing process in this regard, trolling for a human situation which is worth writing about. Once I find one, I can bring it up, so to speak, examine it, and decide if I can convey anything interesting, original, meaningful, or useful about it. And I have all the latitude in the world for how I do so. I can't "get it wrong," because there's no one right way to write about this object I have located. I can only write about it in my own way.

So far, so good. But--what if I don't choose my materials wisely? What if I end up with some unrelated ideas and storylines that make no sense? What if I fail to inject the thrill of being alive into my words, ending up with a dead decorated stone instead of good writing?

What if I write something that seems good to me, but no readers connect with what I've brought to the surface? What if I give a party and no one comes? What if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?

Fallen tree by Tiia Monto
There are enough "what ifs" here to spook the most courageous writer. This is why writing is not most people's favorite activity, and why even good writers often can't write anything that they don't immediately hate.

How, then, should we write?
If writing is not a sacred gift from the gods, nor is it an archeological artifact, then how does a person go about writing? What is the actual writing process?

Having taught writing for several decades, I can say only two things that I know to be true about writing:
1. It is rarely easy.
2. It must be done, then redone, then done again, if you want a polished product.

When I write with effortless elan, with flair, with panache, it's a great pleasure. But this happens only here and there, in an unpredictable and inscrutable way. If I wait for this joyful kind of writing, I won't write much. And sometimes, I won't write at all.

What I do instead is write something. Anything at all, some days. Very often I start to write one thing and instead write an entirely different thing. But I still call it progress, as from time to time this kind of dilly-dallying leads to a solid piece of writing.

And this brings me to the drudgery part of writing. My novel Prague for Beginners, for example, was written in nine months. Imitating Stephen King, I wrote 1000-3000 words a day, every day. The book flowed out of me, and the entire process was a delight. I finished the book and thought I was done.

But I was wrong. I've spent at least as long editing the book as I did writing it. I want it to be error-free, as polished and perfect as I can manage. I want to eliminate any graceless transitions, any word which is not the precise word, any image that's flat or dull.

My advice, then, to writers, is that you are most fortunate, most favored, if writing comes naturally. You are most human, however, if writing is like breaking rocks with a pickaxe: tedious, difficult, dusty work, with no particular reward except the completion.

I still wonder if Faulkner and Dickens wrote as fluently, as daintily, as I imagine they did. Or did they, too have days where the words seemed like enemies bent on destroying their peace of mind? I wonder.

Dickens at his desk in 1858 by George Herbert Watkins


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