Copyright © 2003 Henrietta W. Hay
About Writing - 2003
May 23, 2003
When somebody says, "What are you doing these days?" I never know
whether to say, "Oh, not much," or "Oh, I keep busy," or "I read a lot
of mysteries and watch too much TV." The true answer is, "I write and
stew around about what I am going to write next."
Whether you are writing the great American novel, a book on how to get
along with your husband, a political tome, scientific research or a
newspaper column, writing is so all-consuming that it is what you "do."
One of the best definitions I have found is, "A writer lives, at best,
in a state of astonishment. Beneath any feeling he has of the good or
the evil of the world, lies a deeper one of wonder of it all. To
transmit that feeling, he writes."
Writing a column is, of course, quite different from writing a book,
but whether I am walking down the street, in the shower or having my
morning coffee I am writing in my head, and my head and that gets
confusing sometimes. After all, how do I know what I think until I see
what I say?
There have been dozens of books written about writing. One of the more
amusing is called "Bird by Bird," by Anne Lamott. She describes some of
the emotions facing the writer when she sits down facing that blank
page. "Very few writers know what they are doing until they have done
it. They do not type a few warm-up sentences and find themselves
bounding across the snow. The right words and phrases do not come
pouring out like ticker tape most of the time."
She knows what she is talking about. Recently a friend asked me what I
was working on that week. I told her I had general idea, a great first
sentence, and a couple paragraphs of random thoughts, but I wasn't sure
yet how they were going to come together.
She seemed surprised, assuming, I suppose, that the stuff just flows
out. But my friend the philosopher knows better. She is the only
person who can look at a first draft or even a few sentences and figure
out what I am trying to say and whether it makes any sense. That is a
talent beyond price.
Lest it sound as though writing is incredibly difficult, it is. But I
have seldom done anything that I really like more. Sometime between
that first sentence and the end result -- sometime during that time
when I stare at the computer and pace the floor and drink coffee and
look out the window and know I will never again have a cogent thought
-- there is a moment when it all comes together. I have actually said
what I wanted to say, trivial as it may be to anybody else. That is the
moment that makes it all worth while and I want to go outside and shout
to the proverbial rooftops.
But that's not the end. I have to go back and check and tighten and
rearrange and cut out the parts that don't quite fit the subject. One
of the great tragedies a writer has to survive is cutting out the stuff
that is good but that doesn't fit You write a wonderful sentence - a
truly spectacular sentence. And it doesn't really belong, and you have
to throw it away. Now that does hurt. I have often threatened to keep
a file of great, unused sentences.
I am, of course, talking about essay type writing. I can't begin to
imagine what it is like to write complete books. I look with awe at
what son Dave went through writing two technical books and part of the
third while working full time. Wonder whether he has any great unused
sentences to add to my collection.
As Carl VanDoren said, "Yes, it's very hard to write, but it's harder