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Paradiso or Inferno? Writers on writing

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GERMANY-HUNGARY-LITERATURE-KERTESZ          michener

Imre Kertesz (above) found writing an angst-ridden struggle but James Michener (below) relished every syllable

I’ve just started writing a new play after a fallow year spent licking my wounds when a promising commission failed to materialise into a theatrical production. I know, I’m too thin skinned; finding time to write has also been my greatest problem: when you work and have a family, time slips by before you know it. Of course, this is a convenient excuse. Why not get up two hours earlier and write before work? How about stopping writing this blog and turning out four pages of dialogue instead? The fact is, for me journalism and blog posts are fun, flow easily and I love sharing them, but I find creative writing tough going. I’ll make any excuse – even doing the ironing, for crying out loud, a job I loathe, rather than sitting down in front of that anxiety-producing blank page.

It made me wonder about other writers’ procrastination techniques, and their attitude to writing. Years ago, I interviewed the playwright Tom Stoppard for my university magazine and he told me that although he loved the rush of adrenalin when his writing was pouring out of him, the hardest thing for him was to get started. “I’ll do anything to avoid sitting down at my desk”, he said. “I’ll drink five cups of coffee. I’ll read the paper. If I really want to avoid writing, I’ll even clean my tennis shoes!”

He’s not alone, but not all writers  hesitate. Some relish the act of creation. “I love writing”, said James Michener. “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”  For writers with a strong ego like Saul Bellow, writing was a manifestation of self-belief and “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  Similarly, Martin Amis refutes the idea of the struggling writer and the pain of writer’s block, stating he follows a “throb, a glimmer, an act of recognition” that turns, inevitably, into a novel.  For John Barth, the creative muse is awoken following an intriguing ritual which includes filling his Parker fountain pen, opening up a 40 year-old ring-bind folder and inserting crisp pages of lined paper and wearing wax earplugs to banish external noise. Writers are also notoriously superstitious. In the delightful film Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare rubs his quill between his hands, spits three times and practises his signature before writing Act I of Romeo and Juliet. We can only guess if he did this, of course, but we do know Roald Dahl used to rug up to write in his freezing garden shed in the depths of winter because only when he felt uncomfortable did his imagination roam freely. To each his own.

Writing is a hard task master, an unforgiving mistress. “You must write every single day of your life”, Ray Bradbury urges us sternly. (He obviously never got up at 2am to feed a crying baby, nor spent a day with a sick toddler who vomits every half hour.) Sometimes, your best intentions go by the wayside. “I love deadlines”, quips Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” As  Ernest Hemingway put it with characteristic terseness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

If only there was a blueprint to follow, things might be easier, but W Somerset Maugham dashes even this faint hope: “There are three rules for writing a novel”, he asserts. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Even the prolific Neil Gaiman recognises the frequent futility of the task. “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job”, he muses. “It’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins… This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”  The outcome is always uncertain and you’ll probably agree with Michael Cunningham that “one always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”  You only hope you’ll avoid writing the kind of novels, as Charles Dickens observes in Oliver Twist, “of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

So why stick pins in yourself? Are all writers stark, raving mad? Yes, says George Orwell. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  As for Imre Kertész, whenever he sat down to write, “it felt like a tragic fate I had to endure.”   Again, Hemingway recognises the folly of the writing process. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Still, when the work is completed, there’s a definite feeling of satisfaction and relief.  “I hate writing”, Dorothy Parker confides, “I love having written.” And then maybe, just maybe, you might have made a difference. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” advises Toni Morrison.  After all, as Ishmael Reed notes wisely – “no-one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”

Back to the drawing board. I’ve run out of excuses. I’d better crack on with Scene 4. To quote Neil Gaiman once more: “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”

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Author: Dina Ross

Dina is a writer, reviewer, journalist and broadcaster. It goes without saying that she loves books. Her blog, Books Now! can be viewed on www.dinaross.com.au and offers news, reviews and interviews with writers from around the corner to across the world.

35 thoughts on “Paradiso or Inferno? Writers on writing

  1. I love this post so much I may have to memorize it so I recite it at parties. If I ever go to a party. Maybe I’ll just recite it to myself, rather like a mantra. I think you had me at Hemingway “The first draft of anything is shit.” Sometimes, alas, so is the second and third.

  2. Loved the write up and quote in the end. My relationship with writing is as weird as I am, but I am glad we understand each other and give each other some space every now and then.

    • In the children’s book “Dr Doolittle” there was a curious beast called the “Pushmipullyu” which had 2 heads either end; I think that’s what a lot of writers feel about writing – like you, Soma, there’s an uneasy truce, but reading your blog, I think you’ve discovered the direction you want to take!

  3. Hi Dina, Karenlee Thompson, an author herself, has just reviewed Iola Mathews memoir, My Mother, My Writing and Me http://wp.me/phTIP-68B. She identified with the procrastination too!

  4. Hi Dina Great post, fantastic quotes! Just reserved The Salmon of Doubt at my library. For all other thin skinned procrastinators, I recommend Anne Lamott’s insightful and encouraging book Bird by Bird. One gem is, “You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind.” Best wishes with your writing!

    • Hi Susan, thanks for this recommendation which I’ll follow up – “chattering of the rational mind”, that’s wonderful. And the chattering of the internet too – such a distraction…..

  5. Lovely stuff. I find there are phases – writing being a project with creative, engineering, labour, finishing and peer-review phases. I get stuck at the finishing. I actually enjoy redrafting, but I will go on doing it until I can publish. So I am now stuck with my third novel and a non-fiction work ready to go, and a fourth novel in the early exciting phase. I don’t feel free to work on this until the other two are off my hands. So I keep on redrafting instead of biting the bullet, taking the bull by the etc and self-publishing. Procrastination at a different stage.

  6. Excellent post – I so enjoyed reading this, out loud, to my wife.

    That Dorothy Parker quote is one of the best I’ve heard in a while. Probably applies to most worthwhile activities in life – even if it’s tough while you’re at it, it’s the feeling of achievement afterwards that makes it addictive.

  7. Our relationship with our muse is always an uneasy truce. At least this is true of me with mine. If it, she, he promises to give me space I promise to write when I have time, inclination and something interesting to say.

    This was an excellent post.

    • Thanks Michele – it seems to have touched a nerve, as I’ve received a number of appreciative comments. I suppose, deep down, all writers need reassurance that they are not alone!

  8. I love writing. Am I weird or just not good like these writers? Maybe when I’m famous (ha, ha), you’ll quote me as saying, “I love the writing process. I feel as if I’m watching a movie in my mind and I simply have to transcribe what I’m seeing in the best way possible, from one scene to the next. And just like in a really good movie, I don’t know what is coming up next. I love the surprises!”

    • Hi Lorna – far from thinking you’re weird, I think you’re very lucky. How wonderful to enjoy the creative process, I’m so envious. May the Creative Force continue to be with you!

  9. Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    If there is one thing authors need, it’s reviews and many of them come from awesome book bloggers such as Dina. She has a great blog and this is a post worth reading. Please follow her and if you ask… she may feature you… you never know your luck. Thanks Dina!

  10. From L’antipasto, to Il dolce and everything in-between, I loved this article. I can now compare an opening line from ‘Lallapaloosa’, to the rare highs of a writers life and the lows it often brings.
    ‘Squat and peeling, its one time grandeur a sun faded memory, the Hotel Sucre sat like a knackered whore on a busy street corner in downtown La Paz.’

    • That is a great opening line, Rags – I also loved visiting your website and the dashing Fedora….

      • Thank you for your kind comment, Dina. And I do try never to be too pernickity, as that only leads to procrastination…But the Fedora is a Borsalino Fedora. (Always on a Tuesday, my humorous side will out)

      • I appreciate the clarification, Rags. But it raises another set of questions:
        Monday: Bowler?
        Tuesday: Borsalino Fedora
        Wednesday: Panama?
        Thursday: Deerstalker?
        Friday: Beret?
        Saturday: Fez?
        Sunday: Sombrero?

  11. you’re not thin-skinned. Or rather all us writers are thin-skinned. When my third book was received by my editor with far less than enthusiasm, I put it on a shelf. I started another novel. Got stuck. Then literally didn’t write again for 9 years. You’re thicker skinned then I was. Plug on.

  12. Thanks for the great article. I love to write too and why sometimes I procrastinate before beginning is kind of confusing to me. Which reminds me. I need to get writing right now.

    • Yes, I’m eyeing Scene 6 right now and weighing up starting or putting it aside to finish my tax return (which I really need to do). But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

  13. I go back and forth. Sometimes I love writing and I can’t wait to sit down and pour out my soul on the page. Every word is a delight and I sneak as much time as I can throughout the day. Other times…it’s like facing a root canal. I know it has to be done, but I can’t scrape up any joy. I find that being disciplined with my writing schedule tends to bring about more joyful days and make the less joyful days easier to bear.

  14. Great post – the ‘ambience’ of “Books Now” is also great!

    My tenth book, “The Reluctant Savage,” is coming out soon – hope it is one you would like to read.

    Best wishes,

    Billy Ray

    • Hi Billy Ray
      Congratulations on your new book and thanks for the kind words about Books Now! I’d love to read your novel – could your publisher send me a copy (hard copy please rather than a pdf, I’m happy with galley proofs). Also, will your book be available in Australia or would readers need to purchase via Amazon etc? If all OK, I’ll email you my contact details.

    • Howdy, Tennessee!…Hi, Billy Ray…Just to say, all the best on the imminent release of your new book, “The Reluctant Savage,”…I’ll be looking out for it…
      Cheers, Rags.

      • Hello Rags and Billy Ray

        What I love is this cross-fertilisation of contacts…. obviously you two know each other….. please don’t mind me and carry on your conversation via Books Now! I’ll look on with interest…..

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