It’s Kind of Like Creative HerpesMarch 2nd, 2009
by Brad Listi
Every writer I know has trouble writing. Joseph Heller said that once. I would echo it here. Personally I don’t know a single writer who has an easy time writing. Especially fiction. Fiction seems to be a special kind of pain in the ass. Or maybe I’m just projecting.
Another thing I would add is that a lot of writers don’t write very much. And some of them don’t write, period.
It’s a weird phenomenon. Might sound strange, but it’s probably true. I’ve seen it pretty often through the years. Writers who don’t actually write anything. Writers who call themselves writers even though they don’t actually do the work. Writers who look you in the eye with incredible sincerity at cocktail parties and bemoan the fact that they can’t catch a break and get a book deal, even though they have no regular writing regimen, have never finished a novel, and are nowhere close to doing so. It’s odd. And I suspect it’s very common.
And by the same token, nothing is more uncommon than a writer who writes and has an easy, breezy time of it. Just waltzes on through, no problem.
Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, which was published in 1997 to worldwide acclaim. John Updike, for example, was effusive in his praise, calling it “a work of highly conscious art—a Tiger Woodsian début.” It went on to become an international bestseller and a literary cause cèlèbre, particularly in India, where Roy was both deified and condemned.
In the interview blitz that followed the book’s publication, she would often claim, quite famously, that she didn’t revise a single word of it. The novel came out whole, as is, like some kind of golden turd.
And maybe it’s true. I have no reason to believe that it’s not true. And if it is true, Ms. Roy is pretty extraordinary and deserves our enthusiastic applause. She’s the rare exception rather than the common rule. And really, as a struggling member of the majority, you have to work pretty hard not to hate somebody like that, somebody who just coughs up a novel on the first pass and wins the goddamned Booker Prize. (And she’s beautiful, too.) She cranked out an instant classic sensation that will likely be read around the world for decades to come, and she did it on the first try. (And received nearly a million-dollar advance in the process.)
Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of writers have trouble writing.
And here it’s worth noting that Arundhati Roy hasn’t published a single word of fiction since 1997. Supposedly she’s at work on her second novel right now.
Let’s hope so.
I do not like to write. I like to have written. Gloria Steinhem said that once. I think this also rings pretty true. Writing is (usually) grueling. It requires a lot. Even this kind of writing, sitting here babbling into cyberspace, can often be grueling. Trying to think of something useful to say. Some days are easier than others. But it’s always a pretty good challenge. There’s always a bit of concern. You always sit here thinking: Am I embarrassing myself?
And the answer, of course, is: usually.
In the rear view mirror, writing is almost always easy to romanticize. When it’s not actually almost happening, it’s an absolute joy. You miss it. You fawn over it. You think of it in the fondest possible terms. (And when it is actually happening—meaning you’re actually, really doing it and having a time out of mind experience—which, proportionately speaking, isn’t really all that often—it’s an even greater joy.)
I think this is part of the reason why there are so many “writers” out there who don’t write. A lot of people, at the end of the day, just like to call themselves writers. They like the way it sounds. They like the idea of it. It reminds them of a time they once wrote—and wrote well. The romantic notion of it. The way it goes over at parties. It’s better than saying: “I’m a phone sex operator.” Or: “I change colostomy bags at the local nursing home.”
Then again, there are plenty of downsides.
And really, when I stop and think about it, it’s pretty confusing in a way.
And certainly I’m not trying to condemn anyone on any kind of eternal level, nor do I mean to imply that I have it all figured out. I struggle with the wide majority pretty much everyday.
In fact, there’s a part of me that stands in awe of anyone would ever lay claim to being a writer without good reason. Even the late great David Foster Wallace used to struggle with the identity; he used to balk when people asked him what he did for a living and would often say, quite awkwardly, that he “worked in English.” Or else he would say he was a teacher. This from a guy who was pretty much King Shit in the world of literary fiction. I find that telling.
I’m a writer.
If you’re not actually writing regularly, it’s sort of a ridiculous thing to say. And even if you are actually writing regularly, it’s sort of a ridiculous thing to say. There’s a certain amount of recklessness inherent in the claim. If you’re a writer who doesn’t write and you talk about writing in public and tell people close to you that you’re writing (even though you don’t actually write very much), well…that’s actually kind of masochistic in a way. Not to mention dishonest. But in a strange way it’s also kind of brave.
I like to joke that one of the best things I ever did in my career was to tell everyone close to me that I was going to write a novel back when I was twenty-one and dumb and fresh out of college. I remember right after graduation I went to a family wedding and stood around all fresh-faced and boozy talking to aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, wearing the coat and tie, receiving congratulations and answering twenty questions about the future.
“So what are you gonna do now? What kind of career path are you gonna pursue now that you’ve graduated college?”
“I’m gonna write a novel.”
“Without a doubt.”
“That’s terrific! What a wonderful thing to do!”
(By the way: People love it when you tell them that you’re gonna write a novel. Almost no one will tell you that it’s a shitty idea and a risky proposition at best. At least not to your face.)
So anyway: If logic doesn’t prevail, and you do wind up going that route, and you’re actually serious about it, and you actually try to write, then you have to gird yourself for the inevitable outcome. You have to be prepared to hear about it for however many years it takes. On holidays. At cocktail parties. Over dinner. Via e-mail. Your disclosure will follow you around like a phantom, like a curse, tugging on your pant leg at inopportune moments, shadowing your every move.
“How’s the novel going?”
“How’s the novel going?”
“What’s it about?”
(I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again: If you need a good shorthand response to the time-honored question “What’s your novel about?”, here it is: It’s about the death of hope. Log that one into your memory bank for use at a later date. It’s generally pretty foolproof, and it might well come in handy someday as a surefire conversation ender.)
So yeah. Another tangent on the writing life. I’m sitting here now, late at night, and my brain is starting to fade. I need to go to bed. I hope I’m making half-sense.
The central idea, really, is the oddity of it. The oddity of writing. Trying to put the words in the right order. How absurd it can often be. How excruciatingly difficult and maddening and frustrating, and so on. How much inertia is often involved. How much waiting. And how completely and utterly enjoyable it is in spite of these things for those of us afflicted with the disease. And that—all sappy romanticism aside—is most assuredly what it is. It’s a disease. It’s an affliction. Or at the very least, a compulsion. Or an obsession. Or an obsessive-compulsion. And it seems likely that you either have it or you don’t. And if you have it, forget about it. You’re absolutely fucked. There’s no stopping it.
And if you don’t have it, then you’re likely to know that, too, because you’ll be able to take it or leave it with relative ease. You’ll be able to write—or not—whenever you want. And it will have very little impact on your mood.
How do you know if you have the disease? Simple. (And I’m paraphrasing Lorrie Moore here.) Just try to do something else. Go ahead. Give it a shot. Be a barber. Or a tax attorney. Or a topless dancer. Or a private eye. Do that for a while, and see how it goes. If you still find yourself getting up two hours before dawn to sit in front of your computer to stare at a flashing cursor in a slack-jawed state of quiet frustration, profound elation, and mild-to-major self-loathing, then you know you’ve got the curse. You know that you’ve got the disease.
In which case: Start telling people. Make it public. Or don’t. It’s your call. It’s totally up to you.
And if you don’t have the disease, and you’re not really a terminal case, you can still tell people that you are a writer, if for some reason that floats your boat. Just be aware of the fact that, in doing so, you’re essentially telling people that you have a crazy, incurable disease that you don’t actually have—which is sort of a heavy thing to do, when you really stop and think about it.