By Martha Reed
Being a writer is a strange animal. People look at what you do with a kind of awe but they can’t comprehend what it takes because they don’t actually do it. God bless them, they try to understand the reason I need to go away and be quiet for hours at a time and why I get cranky when I can't. I also think most of them understand that I feel a kind of mystic connection with the writing when it is going well but writing is like any other hyper-specialized knowledge and the only ones who really grasp what I’m doing are the ones who do it, too.
(Which isn’t to say I’m not fully supported by my family and friends, I am. I just can’t explain what I do to them and have it make any sense).
Which leaves me two avenues for support: 1) my fellow writerly friends and 2) completely unknown to me writers who are interviewed and who then are quoted saying something I can agree with.
Thankfully, I have two local groups to support me whenever I need a face-to-face discussion: the Mary Roberts Rinehart chapter of Sisters in Crime, and Pennwriters. If you’re a new writer looking for the path, I recommend that you research either one of these two groups and there are more: Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, or even a local writing and/or critique group. I’m okay with the idea of discussing your writing with anyone as long as you can go into the discussion with an open mind and you’re prepared to walk away if you encounter a group that turns out to be toxic.
The other avenue open to me, writers who are interviewed (and I should include those who write how-to books because I read those, too) crop up in my life with regularity. I have a practice of cutting these interviews out, highlighting in yellow whatever it was that sounded sensible to me at the time and then sticking the articles over my coffeemaker so that I see it at least once a day (for encouragement). I suppose I could post these in the bathroom, too, but I think that sends the wrong message.
Anyway, last month Vanity Fair reporter John Heilpern interviewed Philip Roth. I have to admit I’m still working my way through the 17th and 18th century novelists so I haven’t visited his work yet but he did say some interesting things that I thought I should share:
JH: “Do you find writing difficult?”
Roth: “I find it arduous and un-doable. It’s laden with fear and doubt. It’s never easy – not for me. The ordeal is part of the task and the satisfaction usually comes at the end. You stood up to it, you endured it! You achieved the unachievable – for you. But the next time, I find it impossible all over again.”
Please note this man has written 31 books including Portnoy’s Complaint.
JH: “Don’t you know by now that you can write?”
Roth: “No. Because it isn’t a matter of writing. I’ve written before but I’ve never written this book before. And it poses all kinds of problems I’ve never faced. So I really have to learn all over again how to write a book.”
I read this to mean don’t be discouraged when you hit a tough spot.
In his latest book, Nemesis, a character debates the love of God.
Roth: “Truly, I don’t worry about these things.”
JH: “But you’ve spent an entire book worrying about it.”
Roth.: “The character worries about it! God becomes an issue with him. It wasn’t an issue for me. Because it’s not about me. It’s about this character, and I have to follow the logic of his experience.”
JH: It is as if the new novel, like all his novels, exists objectively as an entity separate from its author.
Bingo! That bolded bit was the gold nugget because this has been my experience. As I walk joyously through the bewildering experience of writing new work and then when I finish it I find myself delighted to see that the work holds up on its own merit. My work exists independently of me.
I think this is why some writers compare their work to the birth of a child: because like children, writing is a practical form of immortality.