February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The big fiction

By |2018-03-21T20:11:11+01:00September 27th, 2017|"Notebook"|
Restoring a pillow can make you positively happy.

his morning I refurbished a pillow I bought at a church rummage sale. This left lint and thread on the floor, so I had to vacuum. After vacuuming downstairs, it only made sense to do the upstairs. Since I was making the house nice, it also seemed prudent to make and freeze a lasagna for an upcoming visit from my children.

That made me see the compost needed emptying. While doing that, I pulled some weeds. Then I turned to a paid editing project, which isn’t due for another week, but I finished anyway. By now I needed lunch.

I’m not sharing this to boast about what I can accomplish in a single morning. In fact, the only reason I’m thinking about the lengths I go to avoid writing is because of a recent conversation with a stranger.

Once, this kind of conversation happened once a year. But now that midlife is forcing my peers into transitions, it seems to occur monthly — even weekly.

It goes like this:

Me: So, what do you do?

Other person [usually male]: I used to be in tech, an investment banker-corporate lawyer-dentist [pick one]. But now I’m writing.

Me: Wow, how fascinating. What are you writing?

OP: A book.

Me: Wow, fascinating. Fiction or non-fiction?

OP: Fiction. A novel. [OP’s tone suggests annoyance with the question, as if I had asked which he liked better: stealing candy from children or helping old ladies across the street.]

Me: [Thinking I’d like it if a novel were written by me, but only if I didn’t have to actually write it.] Wow, that’s bold.

OP: Writing a novel is my dream. Plus, I have some great stories.

Me: I’m a writ…

OP [Interrupting]: I find writing so relaxing. Actually, I’m having a ball! I should have been a writer from the beginning. It beats making deals [or going to court, or pulling teeth…]

Other details invariably emerge. OP is still “finding my voice.” He is also deciding whether to have a first- or third-person narrator. OP is not writing for publication; he writes only for himself. OP is proud of his angle on [pick a subject] Wall Street, sports, or his dysfunctional family. He’s convinced his approach is unique. OP is surprised I’m a writer; he’s never heard of me. But anyway, he’d love to hear my comments on his work.

There are two good responses to this chat. If in a public place, you can tell the OP that someone suddenly seems to be hailing you from afar and leave. If at home, you can rush off to attend an urgent matter in the kitchen.

The asking-for-trouble approach would be to tell your OP (aka would-be writer) the following:

Claiming to write only for yourself is a disingenuous cop-out whose purpose is to pre-empt harsh marketplace judgment — or cut off the person asking about your writing [me]. If you are writing as truly a solo pursuit, strangers wouldn’t get to hear about it. Speaking, like writing, is directed at others. I’m not sure if we actually do anything just for ourselves — at least things fit for talking about in public.

I’m not through.

There’s little relaxing about good writing. What you write in moments when words flow and you think you’re Mozart with a pen will likely be edited out when cooler heads prevail.

Few writers want to hear they’ve mastered the art of the cliché, that their characters are wooden or that errors in their text are legion. Especially not an OP in search of a voice.

In fact, for those I know who write, the problem isn’t finding a voice, but getting the voice to shut the heck up. Yes, writing can seem like fun. That is because you already know how to do it daily life and it is easy to fall for your own words. This tends to blind would-be authors to the gap between their entry-level work and a master’s. If they’d started out in say, ceramics, this wouldn’t happen. If the aspiring author ever becomes aware of this humbling gap and tries to close it, the fun will go out of writing in a hurry. I guarantee it.

Most of us do not become writers because it entertains us. It’s more like becoming a gymnast in the Eastern Bloc; compulsion and circumstance conspire to forge a crumb of talent into a discipline, and then a life. Once set in motion, the process is hard to stop and makes you unfit for much else.

My advice to my OP and others like him would be to revive the now-lost dimension of amateur writing, the equivalent of the unpretentious “Sunday painter” who daubs happily away secure in his obvious limits. How about those Victorian pursuits, such as the gentlemanly art of writing poetry — even bad poetry — or the pre-television entertainment of writing and performing amateur theatricals in the drawing room? The OP could even try putting his ideas and feelings into letters to friends and loved ones.

My closing advice to the OP is to find a form of creative expression whose product is more useful or lovable than a starter manuscript. Only the worst results of an amateur cook fail to nourish someone. A garish landscape, lopsided pot or imperfect quilt can add something joyous to a home.

In fact, of this morning’s writing-avoidance activities, making lasagna for my children was important. Writing this column brought relief. But remaking the pillow not only brought a shopworn relic back to life but also made me positively happy.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."