Writing is Hard Work

Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.
(Franz Kafka, novelist)

We who produce the prose for this magazine write for hours on end, often alone, unsociable; then we edit, revise and rewrite to perfection (well, almost). Or we throw it away and start over again. And, now and then, we pause to ask: What is writing? I’ve raised the question before in this column, but it keeps cropping up, and the answers are always intriguing.

Richard Nordquist, a writing guide at About-dot-com, recently published a series of answers to the question. He quoted international novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists, and non-fiction writers. Here are a few of his choices, together with some from my friends and others:

Writing is a struggle against silence. (Carlos Fuentes, novelist and essayist)

Writing makes no noise, except groans, and it can be done everywhere, and it is done alone. (Ursula K LeGuin, novelist)

Writing is communication, not self-expression. Nobody in this world wants to read your diary except your mother. (Richard Peck, young adult fiction writer)

(Writing is) like any discovery job; you don’t know what’s going to happen until you try it. (William Stafford, poet)

One Kathmandu writer feels that writing is a form of memoir:

For me, writing has always been about documenting my own life, what I’ve done and where I have been... writing as a witness to my life. (Utsav Shakya)

Here’s more and deeper wisdom:

It is impossible to discourage the real writers—they don’t give a damn what you say, they’re going to write. (Sinclair Lewis, journalist)

You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club. (Jack London, novelist)

Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal. (William S Burroughs, novelist)

Writing is its own reward. (Henry Miller, novelist and playwright)

On the process of writing, we’d probably all agree that writing is hard work. But―

Beware of writers who tell you how hard they work. (Beware of anybody who tries to tell you that.) Writing is indeed often dark and lonely, but no one really has to do it. Yes, writing can be complicated, exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating; it can be made to be grueling and demoralizing. And occasionally it can produce rewards... If you’re a writer, you can stop anywhere, anytime, and no one will care or ever know. Plus, the results might be better if you do.(Richard Ford, writer)

(On finishing your first draft) The best advice on writing was given to me by my first editor... “Finish your first draft and then we’ll talk,” he said. It took me a long time to realize how good the advice was. Even if you write it wrong, write and finish your first draft. Only then, when you have a flawed whole, do you know what you have to fix. (Dominick Dunne, journalist)

(On revising your work) I love that part; that’s the best part, revision. I do it even after the books are bound! Thinking about it before you write it is delicious. Writing it all out for the first time is painful because so much of the writing isn’t very good. I didn’t know in the beginning that I could go back and make it better; so I minded very much writing badly. But now I don’t mind at all because there’s that wonderful time in the future when I will make it better, when I can see better what I should have said and how to change it. I love that part! (Toni Morrison, novelist)

Finally, wisdom of old:
Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out. (Samuel Johnson)

And, ultimately:
“Things should be made as simple as possible. But no simpler.” (Albert Einstein)

Don Messerschmidt is a Contributing Editor to ECS Nepal magazine. Contact him at don.editor@gmail.com.