About Writers

It’s fun, right?

Sarah Waters: When you approach your desk in the morning, do you ever find yourself wanting to run screaming in the opposite direction? If so, how do you get yourself to sit down and start writing? (I’m asking for a friend.)
Hilary Mantel: I haven’t the energy for running and screaming but often I want to lie and groan under a tarpaulin.

Many years ago I went to a writers’ round table conference at the Edinburgh Literary Festival. I only recall two of the participants now: Gore Vidal (because he was Gore Vidal), and the late, great Beryl Bainbridge, on account of her reply to a question from a member of the audience.

‘How,’ she was asked, ‘do you overcome the urge to stay away from your desk and do all the other things that need to be done, such as the housework?’ For a moment, Bainbridge was flummoxed, as if trying to get her head round such a bizarre question. Then she explained that she’d never had that urge; her urge was to write, which was what she did while the house descended into chaos and grime around her.

I’m fully with Bainbridge here. (Not, I hasten to add, because Mrs B does the housework – she’s kept busy by her own projects, so it’s only when a certain threshold is reached that we tackle the chaos and grime.) It might even be said that searching for an excuse not to write means that you’re not really a writer. Significantly, in her question to Mantel, Sarah Waters added that she was asking for a friend; I’m sure that she, indubitably a writer, approaches her desk very differently.

Up to a point, though, I can see where Mantel is coming from when she says that being a novelist is no fun. The frustration when a paragraph won’t come right, the anxiety when the plot won’t hold together, the dreadful uncertainty about where the whole thing is heading. John Banville puts it more strikingly: ‘Writing a novel is like wading through wet sand, at night, in a storm, with no lantern to guide one’s steps and no lighthouse to warn of the submerged reefs and wrecks that lie ahead.’

But none of this deters me enough to keep me away from my desk. I love the challenge of solving the problems as I go, I love seeing each draft get successively richer, more detailed, and I love the satisfaction that comes with knowing when I’ve got something right. Sure, the end result always falls short of the vision, but that’s what spurs me on to write the next one. No one’s denying it’s an effort, there’s always a struggle involved. But surely that’s where the pleasure lies, isn’t it? A vaccuum cleaner? What’s that?


18 thoughts on “It’s fun, right?

  1. Perry Palin says:

    Good question, Curtis. I don’t write so much, and I only do it when I want to. I don’t have a timetable, I write slowly. When I am doing other things I am turning paragraphs over in my head, finding a better sound, a better cadence, or a better word to carry my meaning.

    I haven’t been doing much housework lately. Doctor’s orders. “No housework for you for the rest of the season,” as I recover from cancer surgery. But the outdoor work I have isn’t optional. I have to do it. The horses need looking after. My doctor didn’t bar me from farm work, yard work or trout fishing, and I don’t let writing get in the way of these necessary things..

    I am a short fiction writer. I have written one novel, which took months, and then many more months in revisions.It was great fun. If it wasn’t fun, I would have abandoned the project.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Perry, my god! “Recover from cancer surgery”. I wish you a full, speedy, and pain-free recovery. (You didn’t tell us–till now.)

      As to your “if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it” approach to writing: sounds both sensible and rewarding to me. Good for you, brother!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Perry Palin says:

        Thanks for the well wishes, Carl.

        I had (have?) a rare adenoid cystic carcinoma that started in a salivary gland under my right jaw. My surgeon removed the gland while I slept and sent it down to the lab. When the result came back positive, the surgery team stubbed out their cigarettes and put down their poker hands, and the surgeon pulled out some lymph nodes and a strip of muscle. I have a cool scar that runs diagonally from just below my ear to my Adam’s apple. The muscle has not totally healed and I’m afraid at least for a while I will scare the grandchildren when I smile.

        The hospital is a dangerous place. I was in surgery for three hours, much longer than expected. When I woke up in the recovery area I was pretty loopy, and I asked two of the nurses there to marry me. They looked young and strong, and I figured they could take over some of the outside work here at Sorefoot Farm. When I was thinking a little straighter I was glad that neither accepted. We never got to the point of discussing pre-nups.

        In the morning the surgeon’s resident was doing rounds and she sent me home. I told her that I’ve usually spent part of each winter tying trout flies for the next season. I asked her if I should go home and tie flies, or if I should sell off my better bamboo fly rods. She told me to go home and tie flies.

        The common post-operative treatment is radiation, which to the neck area is brutal. I have to decide whether I should go ahead with radiation or take my chances. Without radiation there’s a 20-30 percent chance of a reoccurrence. I am fortunate to have a great team working with me, ENT surgeon, dentist, oral surgeon, radiation oncologist, and my primary care guy who is acting as my general contractor to put together the input from the others. I’m feeling good about where I’m at, all things considered.

        Liked by 5 people

    • «When I am doing other things I am turning paragraphs over in my head, finding a better sound, a better cadence, or a better word to carry my meaning.»

      Amen to that.  While desks and keyboards have their uses, they can be limiting.  They can foster the mindset of a general whose only strategy is frontal attack.

      Sometimes I compose a haiku while out walking, w/o stopping to write anything down.  If the basic idea is good, I can remember it and maybe polish it later at my desk.  Sometimes I decide that a line is not quite right, leave my desk to do other things, and then (while cooking or cleaning or whatever) suddenly realize how I want to fix the errant line.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes, we don’t stop writing just because we’re not actually at the computer. And the deeper we’ve gone into a text, the more we work on it at other times. The conscious mind does the hard slog, and the suconscious chips in whenever the fancy takes it.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Yes, the really good stuff comes from synergy of conscious and subconscious thought (AKA synergy of analysis and insight).  To anybody inclined to let one or the other dominate, I recommend the well-considered remarks in *The Eureka Factor* by Kounios and Beeman.  The rest of the book is interesting too.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. @Curtis: As you know, I don’t write novels. Short stories and poetry are my metier. Having said that, for me the joy of writing is in the rewriting. Getting that first draft onto the PC screen, though–that’s tough! Final-creative-writing-assignment-graded-by-Martin-Amis tough. Queue ludicrous amounts of frustration, disappointment and doubt during the production of that first the-waste-basket-is-your-friend draft. (I can’t turn off the internal critic when I write.) When all is said and done, it’s rather amazing I manage to finish anything, actually. . . .

    FYI: Martin Amis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUk_ICrEODo

    Liked by 5 people

  3. “Mike, you can’t sit there writing all the time. It’s not good for you. You’ve gotta get up and move around.” That’s my wife. She may want help with the laundry, or burying the garbage. She’s right. I do need to keep moving around.
    I don’t have a desk. My wife says, “Every level surface in the house is your workspace.” And she’s right. The dining room table, the breakfast room table, the bedside table–all covered by my stuff. I move from place to place, but always working on my writing.
    Because I work on it so much, I don’t feel guilty those times I’m not working on it.
    A philosophical question: Does sitting here pounding out this answer count as writing? It does for me. I come up with some of my best ideas answering other people’s questions on Medium, Quora, or on forums like this one.
    Right now I’ve got to go fold laundry. Then later blow leaves off the sidewalk. Then back to writing. My small alien visitor is holed up in a spaceship factory in the Nevada desert. She’s very shy around people.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Like you, I move around a lot, only occasionally sitting at the desk. And when I’m stuck, a few minutes doing something else often brings the solution. Or reading too – another person’s work will often lead to an association, which then leads to another. Once the impetus is there, it carries on almost of its own accord. Which isn’t to say that finding the right words is easy – unfortunately it’s not!

      Liked by 3 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    I think you have set up a false dichotomy between the activities of writing and the activities of housework. There is an underlying premise that both are work and there is a choice to be made between one type of work and another. I don’t mean to over simplify it, but that is how it strikes me.
    There is a limited amount of time in any day and how we choose to spend that time balances preferences and needs. I might prefer to write on occasion, but need to accomplish something other than writing. There are times I enjoy writing and times when I do not. There are times when I enjoy cleaning. (My wife seems to love to spend her time cleaning but she has a bit of OCD.)
    Can you be a writer and not write? I can argue yes and no persuasively. An apple tree is still an apple tree even if it doesn’t produce apples. A squirrel gathers acorns and food as part of what a squirrel does. If it stopped doing so, it would need a different sort of nourishment or it would cease to live. (This is by no means to imply that writers are a squirrely bunch of nuts, but I can make a persuasive argument, at least in my own case.)
    So much of being a writer requires time not writing–observing human behavior and conversation, learning about issues, drives, passions, etc. Life is rich in so many ways. Experiencing that richness and the flip side of barrenness occurs when not writing. That’s what you bring to the writing desk and keyboard when you sit down to write, whether it is to do so as work or fun, vocation or avocation.
    I need time away from writing where my imagination, ideas, and creativity spark and take flame. There is a gestation time for me where I am not actually writing, but I am crafting a story. Sometimes that crafting happens while I’m doing housework or out running errands, or doing any of a number of things that on the surface don’t look like writing. Sometimes lying and screaming beneath a tarpaulin are precisely what are required to advance the writing process.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Some good points there, Victor. I think the person who asked the question chose housework as the alternative because it’s always there if we’re up for it. But it could be anything else – shopping, gardening, social media… I see the issue more as being about reluctance or eagerness to start writing, not about aversion to housework per se. And I’m firmly of the school that says that inspiration comes when it knows I’ll be working according to a certain routine. I’ve never actually tried screaming beneath a tarpaulin – worth investigating perhaps!

      Liked by 2 people

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