Monday, January 14, 2013

This Writing Business

Some 12 years ago, I was in Peoria, Illinois, visiting my daughter, Meredith, who, at the time, was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an analytical chemist. I was thinking about that visit as I mulled over what to write for today's post. I had decided that I would offer a few thoughts (not to be confused with actual advice) on the "writing business". That is, the "business" of putting words on paper - or more likely on screen - with the fervent hope that a novel will emerge at the distal end of the process.

It was a September day in Peoria and it was bright and sunny and warm. To keep me from being bored or restless while she was toiling away in the USDA lab, Meredith had set me up for 18 holes of golf with one of her colleagues, who was also a chemist. For the record, he was a much better golfer than I - he had even played the Old Course at St. Andrew's in Scotland, one of the most famous in the world - but we had a good time just the same. Those of you who play golf will know that there is plenty of time for conversation on the course. My playing partner was intrigued to learn that I was "working on" a novel. So he asked me to talk about that. Like him, my background was in science, although I had recently retired from that game, and was spending most of my mental energies on my novel. I told him that I believed there were basically two kinds of writers who were, as I was, just starting out in the scribbling game. There were, I said, the writers who wanted to write; and there were the writers who wanted to have written.

"Which category do you belong to?" he asked me.

"I think I fall somewhere between the two," I said. "There are times when I really want to write, and I am able to keep at it for hours. Then there are the times when I just want to have it over and done with. And at those times, actual writing is more difficult, sometimes almost impossible."

"That's very interesting," he said.

And having said that, he teed up his ball and laced it 200-plus yards down the centre of the fairway; a good 70-80 yards past my own modest tee shot. At this stage of the game, now well into the back nine, I had given up on my woods, which had turned against me as woods are wont to do, and I was sputtering along with my 7-iron.

That conversation came back to me just last week when I read a piece in the New York Times by one Silas House, a wordsmith much younger than I, who has written five novels:

The opening line of his piece goes as follows: "Many of the writers I know talk about writing more than they actually write ... they fret about writer's block or about never having the time to write."

Well, that struck a chord. Especially just now when the dreaded writer's block sits leadenly upon me. House wrote something else that also struck a chord with me; his belief that too many writers today are "afraid to be still." They spend a lot of time on Facebook or other social media, they attend writers' conferences, they read books about writing. But they don't actually write very much.

"The people who see me out in the world," House writes, "might scoff at me since I am nearly always in motion, but those who know me best realize that I am being still even in my most active moments. This is because I'm not talking about the kind of stillness that involves locking yourself in a room with a laptop, while you wait for the words to come. We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened."

Like most of us who have fielded questions at readings, House lists the #1 question as: "How many hours a day do you write?" He often was not sure how to answer. Then, on one occasion when that question was asked, he says the true answer just popped out: "I write every waking minute," he said. "I meant, of course, that I am always writing in my head." Even if he is not actually putting words and paragraphs on the page.

At the end of his Times piece, House recounts a meeting with an older, established writer when he himslf was just getting started. "I asked him if he had any advice on how to be a better writer. He didn't answer for a long minute ... But then he spoke, and I realized that he had taken that moment for quiet thought. 'Discover something new every day,' he said. That advice changed me as a writer and as a person."

The importance of "stillness" that House writes about reverberates with me every day as I walk about, or sit in coffee shops or restaurants. I look around me and I see that so many of the other people, especially the younger ones, are constantly communing with their cellphones or smartphones, texting, tweeting, reading texts or tweets. They appear to see nothing that is happening around them. Even sitting two to a table, so many of them are individually reading or thumb-typing, paying little or no attention to each other. I find it so very strange, even irritating, that so many people appear to live this way, immersed in a fog of constant electronic chat. Where is the stillness, I wonder? How will they "discover something new"?

It seems to me to be a conscious avoidance of solitude. As a writer - even one who is blocked at the moment - I could not function without solitude, the absence of chat, the opportunity to just sit and think. Alone with my thoughts, as it were.

A bit heavy, all of that, I think you might agree. So, I will end on a much lighter note. Looking for a New Yorker cellphone cartoon on line, I came across the following: 


Just the thing for a fairly grim January day. I do hope you agree.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Tom, this is a marvelous post. I love it. It's difficult for me to convey to others how much writing goes on in my head when I'm doing other things. Nevertheless, I try to stick to a page quota. That seems to work best for me.

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent post and spot on. Thanks!