Monday, December 22, 2008

The Writing Life

Several weeks months ago now,* while describing his daily rhythm, Scot McKnight remarked: "Because I’m a writer, my posts don’t take me too long to write." Although it was not the point of McKnight's helpful post, one could easily infer that writing comes easily for writers--too bad for the rest of us.

Not so, says William Zinsser:
A school in Connecticut once held 'a day devoted to the arts,' and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation. When I arrived I found that a second speaker had been invited--Dr. Brock (as I'll call him), a surgeon who had recently begun to write and had sold some stories to magazines. He was going to talk about writing as an avocation....

Dr. Brock was dressed in a bright red jacket, looking vaguely bohemian, as authors are supposed to look, and the first question went to him. What was it like to be a writer?

He said it was tremendous fun. Coming home from an arduous day at the hospital, he would go straight to his yellow pad and write his tensions away. The words just flowed. It was easy. I then said that writing wasn't easy and wasn't fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.

Next Dr. Brock was asked if it was important to rewrite. Absolutely not, he said. 'Let it all hang out,' he told us, and whatever form the sentences take will reflect the writer at his most natural. I then said that rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.

'What do you do on days when it isn't going well?' Dr. Brock was asked. He said he just stopped writing and put the work aside for a day when it would go better. I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke.

...So the morning went, and it was a revelation to all of us. At the end Dr. Brock told me he was enormously interested in my answers--it had never occurred to him that writing could be hard. I told him I was just as interested in his answers--it had never occurred to me that writing could be easy. Maybe I should take up surgery on the side.
- William Zinsser, On Writing Well (6th ed.; HarperCollins, 2001), 3-5.
Earlier (as in 5 months ago) I quoted from Frederick Buechner's The Alphabet of Grace
on the work of writing:
"It is time to . . . go off to what it embarrasses me to call my work because it is my idiotic game instead, my solitaire, played out in an empty room where when I'm lucky, I manage to escape everything including the question whether there is anything anywhere that the world needs less in its pain than another lecture, another sermon, another book" (62).

"Then, as so often happens, just as I am ready to start writing, knowing pretty much what I want to say and excited about finding a way to say it well, something in me tries to get up and leave it--drink a glass of water, look out the window, read a magazine, [check blogs, surf the net, work on an unrelated blog post]. Just as the spell has a chance of working, I break it. Just as there is a chance of bringing light out of dark, I choose the dark, withdraw my hand from the hand I have reached out for" (88).
Annie Dillard's experience, as she tells it in her wonderful autobiography, The Writing Life, is similar.

Unfortunately, that writing comes hard, doesn't mean that one's writing sparkles with the sheer brilliance of a Buechner or a Dillard. And we can all use help becoming more efficient in our writing, and generally improving our craft. At least I can...

Better get to work before the babe wakes up!

*Who says blogging has to be timely?

1 comment:

Celucien L. Joseph said...

Thanks for this post on writing. I just received Zinsser's "On Writing Well." I look forward to slowly devour it.

Happy Holidays and Merry Chrismas.