A student that I like and respect tells me, “Talking to you about writing is kind of depressing.”
I will never be the pitch-person for a Write Your Way to Happiness seminar. At a book festival, after a reading, someone came up and wanted to discuss the life-affirming qualities of literature and the healing qualities of writing. Perhaps it was simply out of orneriness, but I pointed at a shelf nearby that contained “Classics.” Ernest Hemingway – suicide. Sylvia Plath – suicide. Anne Sexton – suicide. Virginia Woolf – suicide. Richard Brautigan – suicide. David Foster Wallace – suicide. Hunter S. Thompson – suicide. I was about to work my way through the attempted suicides – Twain, Vonnegut – and then I was going to substitute “alcoholic” or “drug addict” for “suicide,” but I finally noticed the woman’s horrified expression. I mumbled something like “Well, maybe writing helped them postpone killing themselves for a while.” She moved away quickly, as if she was afraid that I was about to launch myself through a window.
My student made the comment she did, not because I had given a suicide litany, but because I had been explaining how writing doesn’t necessarily make me feel good as much as it makes me less miserable. I’m irritable if I don’t do it, so much so that my wife can tell. Noting my crankiness, she’ll say, “You haven’t written yet today, have you.” And she’ll send me off so that my company will be more bearable. But, even when I do sit down and put in some time, the next day I have to do it again. In an interview recently, Billy Collins pointed out that a poet can finish work quickly, but this means a constant resetting back to zero and having to start all over.
As a writing teacher, I emphasize the work it takes. The need to revise. The need to put in the time. The day-to-day struggle. The discipline and craft. It’s not romantic or inspiring. It’s … well . . . boring which is why it’s difficult. Most of us have a low tolerance for boredom. (It’s also why movies about writers are usually boring. At least those that want to show them “working.” The craft of writing is fundamentally uninteresting to watch; there is no action.)
I know my students want to hear something motivational. Something elevating and quasi-mystical. Maybe something that emphasizes the joy, the sense of accomplishment, the God-like power of creating worlds. And sometimes I even want to say something like that. But, just as I warn them about exclamation marks, I’m no Keating from Dead Poets Society. I’m no coach, no personal trainer, no rah-rah speaker.
And yet . . .
F. Scott Fitzgerald (alcoholic) talked about a mind needing to be able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time. I think the writing of poetry (and most writing) is … pfffff… piffle, not a waste of time, but certainly not as valuable as working in a hospital, fixing a toilet, taking care of a baby. It’s just a poem, and usually not even that. Just a draft. It won’t affect anything, change anything, mean anything. And yet simultaneously, I think it’s the most important thing that I can be doing.
In the movie Shadowlands, someone tells C.S. Lewis that God may be answering his prayers. He responds, “That's not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God, it changes me.”
This is how I feel -- there is an internal need and my writing doesn't change anyone but myself -- but I'm no minister, so I don't put it in these terms. Instead, I try to explain it more prosaically quoting Gloria Steinem who once said, “writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”