Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
October 24, 1995
Sometimes people ask me, "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 and watch too much TV." The true answer is, "I write."
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." If you are punching a keyboard, walking down the street, sleeping, or in the shower, you are writing, and it is very, very hard work.
Joe Murray discussed writing in one of his columns. He used a quote from E. B. White. White told about watching a piranha sulking in the corner of his tank waving his pectorals. "We like having a murderous fish in the neighborhood ; it is reassuring to know that all we have to do is dive into a nearby tank to be stripped flesh from bone in a matter of minutes." Joe added, "If that appeals to you -- a work more consuming than piranhas -- have at it."
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....For me and most other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really, shitty first drafts."
She knows what she is writing 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 several paragraphs of utterly unorganized thoughts. But I had no idea where they were going. She seemed surprised, assuming, I suppose, that this stuff just flows out. Not so. Even Molier had the problem. "I always write a good first line, but I have trouble in writing the others." My friend the philosopher is the only person who can look at a first draft and see what I am trying to say. 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 love more. Sometime between that first sentence and a vague idea 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 tighten and rearrange, cut out the stuff that doesn't fit, and re-write. I must confess that one of the great tragedies a writer has to survive is cutting out the stuff that is good but immaterial. You write a wonderful sentence - a truly spectacular sentence. And it doesn't fit and you have to throw it away. Now that really hurts. 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 fiction, but I have some theories. One of my favorite mystery writers is Sue Grafton. I'll bet that she lives with Kinsey Milhone, her P I character, day and night. Kinsey probably talks to her at dinner, with her on the beach and interrupts her conversations with friends. She probably goes to bed with her and haunts her dreams. Sue can't get rid of her.
But she doesn't want to.
As Carl VanDoren said, "Yes, it's very hard to write, but it's harder not to.