Writing Actually Is Hard Work, Which Is Fine
January 8, 2016 § 27 Comments
I’m in the winter doldrums and the writing is slacking off. More precisely, I’m slacking off it. Too much late night television, forgetting to write down my ideas. At least I have an excuse for the moment. One of my sons has winter vacation, so until school kicks in again, it’s him and me facing the world together.
He’s fifteen but less independent than a typical kid his age, so I’m his buddy these days. We spent this morning at a warehouse store. I knew better than to troll the aisles, which I find headache-inducing even when I’m shopping solo. We stuck to business. After we ordered my son’s eyeglasses (cheaper than at the local optician, with its seasonally-appropriate window displays, but less risky than the hit-or-miss of an online pair), we headed straight to the produce and the thrill of color: Powder-skinned blueberries (I lifted the tray to check the bottom; no crushed berries to threaten the rest with rot). A Carmen Miranda of tomatoes. Avocados, with their waxed-linoleum rind. Mangoes, blushing beauties stacked six to a box, either all-unripe or all nearly-overripe. I chose a batch of hard greenish specimens, then swapped out one of them for a softer fruit.
And tonight, when my husband came home and dumped the mail on the table, the first gardening catalog of spring had arrived, resplendent with promise. After the boys were fed and the laundry folded, I opened it at random. Clusters of indigo blueberries beckoned, even prettier than in the store. Luscious adjectives promised more-luscious desserts. But I know enough not to fall for lies. Sure, they make it sound easy: check your zone, place your order, stick the plantlet into a hole in the dirt, water it and stand back. They don’t tell you what it’s really like. I never tried to grow blueberries, but I’ve planted vegetables and herbs on my tiny balcony. I dragged the paraphernalia outside — seed packets and tender shoots, earthenware containers and giant green-and-yellow plastic bags of potting soil, tiny implements and rubber gloves — and began. The tomato plants grew starter leaves and kept growing up and out, and I staked them and fertilized them and watered them, hauling a galvanized-zinc bucket sloshing through my living room to combat a July heat-wave. A plague decimated the marble-size green fruit and the plants went from growing to dead within days. The parsley was easy, needing only watering, or so I thought. One Saturday morning, I saw something moving among the leaves. A striped caterpillar was perched on a stem, taking actual bites with its tiny insect mouth. Suddenly there were half a dozen of the beasts. It was the Jewish Sabbath and I couldn’t kill them, so I watched, more fascinated than annoyed, as the parsley was slowly, steadily devoured.
We won’t talk about the carrots that never progressed beyond the orange-thread state.
I decided the effort wasn’t justified. A couple of years ago I found one answer: grow flowers, not produce. The neon-pink vinca were beautiful, and the marigolds were fine; those are unkillable, anyway. For a time I was content with the ratio of work to joy. But I finally caved. Now I visit the flower district on West 28th Street in Manhattan. Every few months I navigate the greenery festooning the sidewalks, pop into the familiar stores, and point: I’ll have these spiky bronze chrysanthemums, please, or those glorious lavender hydrangea. Everything potted, delivery extra. I water my flowers a few months, they look good, I get bored or the weather turns, they die, I buy replacements. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I loved Mike Minchin’s blog post. But can I disagree? To me, thinking that writing should be easy is like believing that shiny catalog. What you’re a novice like I am, you read an essay or short story and every sentence is perfectly crafted, every word inevitable, and you think: simple. But you start writing — assuming you have an idea to write about — and watch your words thud across the page like the hapless giant pursuing Jack.
In a recent class I took, our teacher drilled it in: writing is rewriting. But it’s so tempting to think that if you are truly talented, a draft or two should do the job, and if it doesn’t, you just might not be good enough. If I don’t experience writing as the life-affirming, non-work it is to Mr. Minchin — and more power to him — am I in the wrong business? That’s why TV is important. I recently saw Stephen Colbert interviewing George Saunders. Saunders (who, incidentally, played a mean guitar) discussed the writing process and the torment of pruning away at what seems at first perfectly good prose. Is this word necessary? you ask yourself. What about the other one? And so on. He said he writes hundreds of drafts.
Hundreds of drafts. Doesn’t sound easy.
So maybe my gardening was cursed, but maybe I was too lazy to get it right. Maybe too sure of myself, or not curious enough. I know this: if those tomatoes had been the only thing between me and starvation, I would have found a way to grow them.
As it is, if I’ll never be the green-thumber I thought I aspired to, I’m at peace with that. I don’t need to be more diligent or successful at gardening than I already am: not very. I’ll buy what I can’t make.
But if I’m going to consider myself a writer — I like “wordsmith,” with its shadings of honest labor — I don’t think the work needs to be, or will be, easy. I think I need to stop letting the perfect paragraphs of great writers scare me into hopelessness. Perhaps good writing is not magic or happenstance or bliss but, simply, as much work as it takes. And being willing to sweat a bit.
Metaphorically, I mean, Mr. Minchin.
Ruth Carmel – a pseudonym – is a lawyer and writer who lives in New York with her husband and children. Her essays have been published in Ducts, Aish, Talking Writing, and Alimentum, among other publications. She is working on a memoir.