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Uneasy Writers: Working at the Craft of Writing

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

We had Christmas late this year – a few weeks into January – because right around Christmastime two of our children flew off to London, England, and two to Winnipeg, and then my wife and I also visited London.

And so it came to pass that I received from my daughter this month the fourth volume of The Paris Review Interviews (New York: Picador). A wonderful gift!

You may remember from a previous post that I like to mine these interviews for their insights on writing and editing. Following are two quotes from this volume. Both speak of the difficulty of writing.

The last writer I would think of as “out of control” is the essayist E.B. White, yet here is what he says about the experience of writing:

When I start to write, my mind is apt to race, like a clock from which the pendulum has been removed. I simply can’t keep up, with pen or typewriter, and this causes me to break apart. I think there are writers whose thoughts flow in a smooth and orderly fashion, and they can transcribe them on paper without undue emotion or without getting too far behind. I envy them. When you consider that there are a thousand ways to express even the simplest idea, it is no wonder writers are under a great strain. Writers care greatly how a thing is said – it makes all the difference. So they are constantly faced with too many choices and must make too many decisions.
I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn’t know where else to go.

Maya Angelou speaks of an unusual writing discipline:

I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner – proper, quite, lovely dinner; then I go back to work the next morning.

After quoting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s statement, “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” she says of critics who call her a “natural writer”:

Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language. On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan – I would have to look at all of that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks. When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat. That’s that. Not a cat. But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you. Come to me I love you. It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.

And all this isn’t to speak of the hours writers spend with editors to bring their work to an even greater pitch of perfection. Most people simply don’t realize just how much work is involved in writing and publishing a book.

This reminds me of the joke in which a brain surgeon says to a writer at a cocktail party, “You’re a writer, you say? I’m thinking of becoming a writer when I retire.” To which the writer says, “That’s interesting, because I’m thinking of becoming a brain surgeon when I retire.”

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