Here’s the thing: I don’t really like to write.
This isn’t what I’m supposed to talk about; it isn’t what writers are supposed to write about. We’re supposed to write about how we have a passion for the craft, a burning zest that flows out of us and spills onto the page like lava.
We’re supposed to be like the girl in the first creative writing workshop I ever took—a sophomore-level class in a hundred-year-old building where the afternoon light lit up the dust motes as they floated by the windows—who said, without a hint of pretention or irony, “I have to eat. I have to breathe. I have to write.”
Maybe she really meant it. Maybe she was just trying to impress the professor (Padgett Powell, who definitely didn’t look impressed). Regardless, her words embodied the spirit of what writing is supposed to be: a labor of love.
Another professor once told me that he had to “steal time to write,” and he said it in a near whisper, as if he was talking about some illicit affair. Writing was the mistress he pined for when he drove his kids to soccer practice, the dirty little secret that waited behind a glowing computer monitor as his wife slept beside him.
I want to feel what they feel: the thrill that comes with creating art. I want my words to pulse with a terrible truth, to cut to the core of our being with sentences as hard as diamonds. I want what J.M. Coetzee describes in his memoir, Boyhood: I want my words to “spread across the page out of control, like spilt ink. Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightning crackling across the sky.” I want, I want, I want.
But I don’t really like to write.
What I like to do: I like to cook and eat. I like exercising, working in the yard, fixing up the house. Sleeping and having sex and watching movies. All of these things I prefer to writing. I could live out my life doing these things and be content. Since I don’t really like to write, I often think I ought to just stop. Put down the pen. Move on. It’s easy. It’s over.
An idea forms unbidden inside of me. Like one of those time-lapse sequences of a bean sprout rising out of the loamy earth, it presses on me, bows and bends and unfolds.
It’s an image: a sunbleached skull lodged in a reef at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the broad foot of an anemone stretched across white bone, pink tentacles drifting delicately in the current.
Or a concept: crowds, moving underground; a subway, a tight space where lives bump and cross and familiarity and anonymity meld into a steaming shuffling chimaera.
Or a line, a shard of a fragment of a thought, something like “she looked out on the mist-smoked sands and the churning blueblack waters of the sea her parents called Caribe.”
And it grows within me until it takes up all the space inside of my head. Like the kid whose money burns a hole in his pocket, the fledgling story burns a hole in my brain. There it is: that lava that’s supposed to pour out of me onto the page. I carry it with me for a while, a hot liquid sloshing around between my ears, twisting, shaping, growing. The story gestates.
Eventually, it’s the fucking Alien. If I don’t let it out, it’s going to burst from my chest.
So I open the computer and pull up that blank document. It’s usually night when I do this. Sometimes the middle of the night, when the wife is asleep and even the dog is too tired to follow me downstairs. The computer lights the room with the pale bluish glow of a saltwater fish tank.
I write my line. There it is on the page: the sunken skull, the cave-like mouth of the subway station, the storming waters of this sea I’m calling Caribe. I look at the text. It is not spilt ink, nor is it lightning or a shadow on still water. It’s just a series of black symbols.
I read the words back to myself and cringe. It’s garbage. I want to delete it all then rip out the computer’s hard drive and smash it to bits with the bottom of one of my dumbbells.
Instead, I save the file and go back to bed.
Days later, when my mind has calmed and my self-loathing subsided, I open the document back up. I read what I wrote.
It’s not terrible.
It’s not great, either, but it’s not terrible.
And I begin to write.
This is why I don’t really like to write: it’s hard. You know this. You have been told this. Writing is work.
In our fantasies, it isn’t work; it’s like a dancer gliding across the stage, like Jackson Pollock splashing a masterpiece across the sprawling supine canvas. It should just happen. It should just be.
But no. Pollack was working. Dancers are working. And writing is work.
I can’t steal time to do it like my professor. Stolen time is too short, too fleeting, for me to get anything done. And I don’t have to write, like I have to breathe or eat. So I wait for time to present itself. I wait for the summer, when the days stretch on forever.
I write. The words are not spilt ink; they are spilt oatmeal, clunky and slow. They are not crackling lightning but distant, muffled thunder. They are the ghostly shadows cast of a hazy day. But they are there. They are words, and they populate the page and strip it of its horrible whiteness. They fill the page, and the next page and the page after that.
The summer days are long, and the pages pile one atop the other as the weeks go by. At last, on a day no different from the others, I write the last page. I read back over the last paragraph. It’s not garbage, I think. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It’s shadows racing across still water.
I think, Maybe I like writing after all.
So I print it out, and I give it to my wife (a writer herself), and she tears it to shreds.
I don’t really like writing, but I hate revision. I wrote it once. Don’t tell me I need to write it again. Don’t they have editors for that?
I put the work away. I can’t stand to look at it.
Revision is a different beast. It’s not the weird whirlwind slog of the first draft, where the story unspools before you in all its myriad and surprising directions. Revision is workmanlike, a task that can be picked at, whittled down, completed a step at a time. I may hate it, but I understand it. It’s the kind of task that I know how to do.
I will improve this description. I will trim a hundred words. I will add some interiority to further develop this character. Check, check, check. It’s like fixing the planks to the frame of the deck I’m building in the backyard.
Measure the boards, cut them to length, line them up, screw them in.
Read the paragraph, cut the extraneous details, punch up the dialogue, sharpen the sentences.
Page after page. And it’s done.
The wife reads it. She doesn’t hate it.
It’s really done.
I send the story off to literary magazines. Most will reject me. Sometimes, all of them do. It hurts. Every rejection is a little chip of my heart that some intern put in his pocket when he mailed me that anonymous thanks but no thanks.
But in the end, someone publishes it, and for a moment, the writing—all of it, from the roiling distraction of the idea to the drudgery of revision—seems worth it, no matter how much I claim to dislike it.
I cook and I eat, but then the food is gone, yesterday’s news. I work in the yard and fix up the house, but the house one day will fall, the yard will grow over with weeds. I exercise and I make love to my wife, but both our bodies will grow old and gray, and we will die and be nothing.
I don’t really like writing, but I do it anyway, because it’s all that will be left. It is something that matters, something that may live forever.