Eloquent whining: on writing, pain and prevarication

Many of us find writing more difficult than we would like to admit. And those who write for a living no less than others. As the novelist Thomas Mann put it, ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’

I’m not referring to the pains of designing an intricate plot, investing a fictional character with life, defining a memorable image, or disentangling an obscure concept. I mean writing for everyday purposes: finding the words for a blog post, a press release or a marketing brochure. Writing that just needs to be good, not great.

Too often we find that something we feel we should be able to dash off quite quickly takes much more time than we had expected, enmeshing us in a circular confusion of words and images that refuse to settle into an order that satisfies us.

It’s partly because we tend not to acknowledge that speaking and writing are two quite distinct skills. We assume writing should be straightforward because we find speaking to be straightforward. We are born with a natural facility for language, able to master the complex rules that allow us to use our mother tongue from an early age, a remarkable feat we find so natural we don’t even remember doing it. We usually manage to get our point across when we speak, so we think it should be similarly straightforward when we try to write it down.

But despite those expectations writing does not come easily to us. We find it a messy, frustrating process, taking years to learn and a lifetime to master (or at least get better at). We can’t get our meaning down on paper quickly but feel that we should be able to, and often find ourselves quietly ashamed, suspecting that everyone else finds it easier than we do.

Eloquent whining

So it might be some consolation that we are not alone. Many of the most famous and accomplished writers have written extensively about how hard writing can be. Indeed if there is one thing that writers seem to find it rather easy to write about, it’s the difficulty of writing.

In his fascinating book Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, the novelist and essayist Vikram Chandra tries to identify just what it is that makes writing so baffling by comparing the process of writing words with that of using another kind of language, computer code.

For Chandra, a novelist in the mornings, and a programmer in the afternoon, software development is hard work, but the agonies of creative writing are of a different order. When so engaged, he confesses, ’I’m never quite in hell, but in a low-level purgatory that I’ve put myself in.’ That complaint might sound rather overwrought, but as his book amusingly documents he is in good company in his resort to apocalyptic imagery of nightmares, purgatory, hell and damnation to describe his craft.

For the author Thomas Wolfe the looming prospect of starting a new project was something that could scarcely be borne:

I am back at work now. It is going to be another very long hard pull. I am already beginning to be haunted by nightmares at night. I am probably in for several thousand hours of hell and anguish, of almost losing hope, utterly, and swearing I’ll never write another word and so on, but it seems to have to be this way, and I have never found any way of avoiding it … Sometimes I am appalled by my own undertaking, and doubt that I can do it.

Interviewed about his working day, another American writer William Styron complained:

I get a fine warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started every day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.

For the journalist and author Norman Mailer things were no better:

I think nobody knows how much a damage does to you except another writer. It’s hell writing a novel; you really poison your body doing it … it is self-destruction, it’s quiet self-destruction, civilised self-destruction.

And British writer Anthony Burgess observed:

My eight-year-old son said the other day: ‘Dad, why don’t you write for fun? … The financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.

Certainly, the sorry business doesn’t seem to be quite so bad for everyone. The late journalist Christopher Hitchens was celebrated – and notorious – for his capacity to turn out perfect prose in short order, seemingly at any time of the night and any physical condition. But on beginning their day it seems most writers are more inclined to ask, with the Japanese playwright Abe Kobo: ’To write or commit suicide. Which will it be?’

At sea

For Chandra the contrast with programming is illuminating. Writing code can be exceptionally challenging, and requires time and skill. But the programmer works towards a clear objective using a defined set of rules. Of course there may be multiple ways to complete a task, and imagination may be required at certain forks in the path, but there is a sense of following an established process, and, at the end of the day, a clear criterion for success: the code either works or it doesn’t.

That sense of procedure and closure is common to many of our daily tasks. But writing seems a much more nebulous business. When we try to select and arrange words we can find ourselves cast on an open sea, overwhelmed and nauseous with the burden of choice. We feel our way forwards, relying on intuitions and judgements that seem mysterious even to ourselves. As Chandra described writing one of his novels:

Writing sentences felt like construction, and, also, simultaneously, a steady, slow excavation. You put each word in place, brick upon brick, with a shimmery sense of what the whole edifice would look like, the shape of the final thing. But each phrase was also a digging inward, an uncovering. You tunnelled, dug, dug. On good days, you emerged from your labours, tired but happy. On bad days you were left quivery, stupefied.

The critic Stanley Fish observes that ‘the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders.’ The writer continually refines and refocuses their text as they close in on meaning:

Think about what you do when you revise a sentence. You add something, you delete something, you substitute one tense for another, you rearrange clauses and phrases; and with each change, the ‘reality’ offered to your readers changes. An attempt to delineate in words even the smallest moment – a greeting in the street, the drinking of a cup of coffee, the opening of a window – necessarily leaves out more than it includes, whether you write a sentence of twenty words or two thousand. There is always another detail or an alternative perspective or a different emphasis that might have been brought in and, by being brought in, altered the snapshot of reality you are presenting.

When we face a blank screen we face the prospect of a limitless horizon that overwhelms as much as exhilarates. Finding the right words, and arranging them appropriately, takes discipline and patience. In a famous passage in his essay Why I Write George Orwell, after resorting to the same theatrical imagery as so many of his peers to describe the anguish of putting words on paper, makes plain the paradox that while writing is often motivated by pride, doing it well necessitates a kind of self-forgetting:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.

And, even when we do pay language the utmost respect, there’s no guarantee that we’ll find the right words easily. In his Four Quartets TS Eliot complained that:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Catharsis

But of course the good news is that – despite everything – these writers did get things done. Despite all of their doubts they wrote, and wrote a lot, and we look to much of what they managed to get down as models for our own efforts.

If, like them, we can acknowledge that writing by its nature tends to be a tricky business, that’s an important first step to getting something done, a necessary catharsis. We can stop blaming ourselves and just accept that writing, even everyday writing, is quite different from speaking, a skill that has to be learned like any other. Just because we can talk it doesn’t follow that we can write.

When we look at writing as a skill we can gradually get better at it by learning from others who have reflected on the principles of good writing. Through practice we can use those principles, and some that we discover ourselves, to develop a writing style that works for us and our readers.

And if, as so many writers have complained, it can sometimes feel like purgatory, we can at least console ourselves that purgatory was a destination leading towards somewhere rather better.

So let’s look at the process of developing a writing style that is right for you and your audience.