Sometimes writing goes well. Sometimes writing goes badly. Sometimes writing goes not at all.
You know when it is going well. Ideas arise smoothly and without self-consciousness; the lexicon is expansive and the wit is superlative. I mean to say, it all just flows together and the delight in the act is palpable. ‘This is good shit. I want to share it with others.’ This is unmatched by few who follow this craft. I feel so positive I could burst.
When it’s going badly, nothing comes easily. Even clever ideas somehow cannot be expressed in a way that enchants me. I say, “enchants me” for that’s what it must do first or else I cannot presume it will enchant anybody else. At that time tiresome elements like typos are more frequent and a vocabulary that I pride myself on being relatively extensive drops to about a third (or less) of its normal potency.
When this condition persists for a while panic sets in. Have I lost it? Will I ever get it back? What is the difference between now and (say) two weeks ago when I felt I could rule the literary world? What happened to me in the interim? Why does everything I write become something reminiscent of other things I’ve written a dozen times before and my self-consciousness is not permitting me to break out of the miasma? I will write a line and think, I have written this before and I didn’t like it the last time. Self-consciousness then becomes pervasive and that cripples me even more. Racked with doubt I ask myself why I am persisting with what is apparently a mug’s game. Who told me I could write? Why do I do it?
I offer up my plaints to my wife who has heard this all before so many times. She asks, quite legitimately that, if I cannot write how is it that I’ve made a living with the process for much of my adult life? Did I somehow manage to fool the people who wrote those cheques for me? Was my byline in assorted newspapers some sort of a mistake? That affords me a little – teeny-weeny – bit of solace but not enough to get me out of my torpor. The most pervasive emotional sensation at a time of blockage is ‘loneliness’. You know, me against the world and that dead horse I’m a-floggin’ ain’t getting up. And the more I beat it the worse it gets.
The real problem with writing (or any creative endeavor) is that it’s all pure ego. It is the writer or artist not only against the world, but against him or herself. And invariably we are our own harshest critics. Ironically, in this ego-fraught endeavor, whatever it might be, the perpetrator of the public sin is all-too-often an introvert – or at least an ambivert. I don’t mind disrobing in public but somebody must tell me they like what they see for it’s painful for me to pull down my knickers for your scrutiny if I harbor any thoughts you won’t be impressed.
And that is what I mean about the ‘ego’. I’m at my best and most productive when I have somebody in my life against whom I can bounce off my stuff. Otherwise I lapse into self-consciousness and writing becomes masturbation rather than gratifying carnality with another. No, it’s not an inapt metaphor. At least I don’t think it is, but there is nobody here I can bounce it off so I’ll just have to satisfy myself that the thought expresses some aspect of what it’s about.
In that I wonder about writers like Salinger and Pynchon who have gained some sort of notability for saying “fuck you and leave me alone” to the outer world. Did they really produce brilliantly by assuming an Emily Dickinson mode of life? Salinger may have shunned outsiders in the sense of granting interviews but it is also relatively well-known that he had assorted little enraptured doxies tending to his wants and needs whilst he had them in his thrall. So, their isolationism may or may not have been entirely true.
I once, a number of years ago – while I toiled at a small-town newspaper – attempted to secure an interview with this year’s literature Nobelist, Alice Munro, who happened to live in the same town as I do. I secured her home telephone number via a mutual friend. I don’t know if the person in question remained a friend of bristly Alice because she was livid that I’d had the audacity to call her and no she did not grant interviews to small town papers, so screw you, buddy. She didn’t actually say the latter, but it was the impression I got from her tone. In other words, I wasn’t respecting her right to decamp to a little burg for part of the year. Maybe that’s how Salinger felt, as well.
I don’t. I’m needy.
I read one time that Douglas Adams who wrote the wondrously inventive, witty, and often downright hilarious Hitchhiker series, among many other things, suffered from blockage so agonizing that it has been suggested the stress cost him his life at a rather disturbingly early age. Ironically, in that regard, when I first encountered him about 1980 I thought I’d give my left testicle to be able to write a tenth as well as he does.
That was early in my writerly career and I had been a columnist for about three years by that point. Now these many years later I still feel the same and am still as lacking in self-confidence. I can receive personal accolades and even win writing awards – and I have won a few – but it doesn’t make the angst dissipate. When I go dry I am filled with thoughts that it will never come back.
It didn’t get better when I discovered Bill Bryson. Yet another who makes it all seem so smooth, droll yet wonderfully informative. I want to go on rides and hikes with Bill. I once sent him an email praising him for his environmental efforts in the UK. He wrote me back! Bill Bryson actually replied! And such a nice letter. I felt as enchanted as a teenage girl getting a nod from a favorite actor or musician.
Latterly, David Sedaris has filled me with the same angst about my lack of worth. I love what he writes and how he writes it and I then tell myself that I have three virtually completed manuscripts kicking around that have gone nowhere and why is that?
Once I taught creative writing to a high school class. That was a very happy time in my truncated teaching career. Eager little faces on enthusiastic kids who actually liked the magic that can unfold with an adept handling of the printed word. Part way through the term I got a call from a teacher of the same course at a high school some sixty miles away. He let me know that he an his class were having a special writing day and he thought it would be good for his kids to interact with another group taking the same course. I thought it was a fine idea and we got ourselves a school bus and we headed down there.
I immediately liked the teacher at that school. He was an outgoing and agreeable guy, and during the course of the day he and I discussed our personal literary ambitions. He informed me that he was currently in the process of publishing his first novel. The bastard! He wasn’t a struggling hack like I was – a dabbler – a dilettante (I’d be loath to admit) but a guy who was actually in the process. And yes, that novel was published. Not only published, but to considerable acclaim and that novel was the first of many from his highly skilled and readable output. That ‘other’ teacher’s name was and is Jack Hodgins.
Well, at least when by now ‘well-known’ author Jack Hodgins comes to town he invariably grants me a chatty and pleasant interview. Take that, Alice Munro. He doesn’t yet see himself as being ‘too famous’ and needing to eschew small-town newspapers. Sorry. Starting to sound bitter here.
Whatever the case is to be for me in the future, I suspect I will persist in what it is that I do as a writer. Maybe someday Something I have penned will find it’s way between covers and on somebody’s bookshelf or in the remaindered bin, perhaps, at Munro’s Bookstore in Victoria. There’d be a certain irony in that.
Anyway, if I were to stop doing this, what would I do to fill my days. I stopped drinking years ago, so that’s out, and my wife tends to frown on adultery.