he writing life is overrated. Let me begin again: it is overly romanticized. I am guilty of it. I occasionally lapse into romantic sighing until I actually face a pending assignment (this time around it’s about the role of technology in contemporary art). It’s then that the romance vanishes and life seems drab suddenly and unfair. My Pollyanna side is exposed — how dare they!
The rusty wheels of my brain creak as I furiously type away while looking over my interview notes. I hop from café to café drinking more and more coffee — with pastries — until suddenly I realize that I actually hate cafés (and their in-house-roasted blends and gluten-free muffins).
So I head next door to a bar called the Bearded Lady, which sounds more promising. It’s Happy Hour (isn’t it always when you’re a writer?) and I open my laptop at the bar. The grinning bartender saunters over and I order a Pinot Noir. In French, he says: “Ça te plait?” Different languages and intonations thrill me. But it’s also a question. I ungracefully gulp it down and reply in my broken college French, “Oui, il me plait,” and we both laugh. I sit up tall and tell him I have work to do. “Sure,” he nods, and goes back to making martinis.
But the work can be a struggle. Yesterday, both the weather and my writing were miserable, as if “misery loves company” decided to take itself seriously. Bad days give me pause. I know lots about living in the moment — “embrace your imperfections,” “kill your darlings,” and so on — but there are days when writing is downright lonesome. Hack that you feel you are, you wonder if you can hack it.
When that happens I either head for the self-help section of Barnes and Noble or dig out two essays that share the same title, “Why I write.” The original was by George Orwell (every journalist’s hero) and the one that followed by Joan Didion, homage to Orwell. Rereading them anchors me. I realize that amid pending assignments, bearded-lady bars, Brooklyn bartenders who speak in French, and no heat in the winter, the madcap writing life is mostly about method. It gives you a rare chance to turn thoughts and images into words, to tell a story, to convince, and offer a different perspective — even if it might be flawed.
Orwell couldn’t have been more honest in the four reasons he gave for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse (the desire to see things as they are), and political purpose (to relay the power of convictions). Didion shared a similar view but also pointed out the aggressive side of the act — “imposing one’s thoughts on paper.” She chose that verb: to impose.
I’ve never liked that aggressive part. But she’s right about one thing: writers, aside, good or bad, are people “whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.” In terms of motivation, Didion was just as blunt as Orwell: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
I spend a lot of my days arranging and rearranging words, deleting sentences, glancing at a computer and then my notes, and sighing. There’s lots of sighing. My drive exists even when my inspiration is lacking — since inspiration isn’t a convenience store item.
The point is to keep at it, which involves lots of engineering work, as in dealing with the basic mechanics of English grammar and sentence structure. That unromantic side of writing has nothing in common with stumbling onto a Brooklyn waiter who randomly speaks French and reminds you of the potency of language, the power of a question, and how an exchange, a scene, a day, and a life can evolve into something more, or something else.
These daily fragments, taken together, can manufacture buzz of sorts, a buzz any writer tries to associate with words. The quandary doesn’t change: how to keep it smart while making it crackle and pop. Sometimes the answer to the “how” is in the dumpster along with the house-blended coffee grinds and pastry crumbs outside the cafes where you’ve imprisoned yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to face the fact that writing is no fun and the only way to make it happen is by simply keeping at it.
At the same time, it’s worthy work, and worthy work demands you respect it, and yourself — all the more if you expect to get any enjoyment out of gluten-free muffins and “ça te plait?” Pinot Noirs.