Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Writing the Immortal Word

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.


Annette said...

Sounds like a great interview, Martha. And I liked his comment about not having written THIS book before. Explains why I always think I've forgotten how to do this every time I start a new project.

Joyce Tremel said...

Excellent insightful post, Martha!

The quote that got me was the same one Annette just mentioned. Except I do the opposite. I start out just fine. It's the second half of the book that kills me. I'm at that point near the end of the first draft where I'm saying to myself, "How in the world can I call myself a writer? This totally sucks. No one is going to want to read this piece of crap."

PatRemick said...

Enjoyed this very much!

Jeff Bennington said...

I so agree with you here. Writing can be such a lonely endevor. My wife gets it after about three years of not gettingit. But I often wonder, self-centeredly so, why my family and friends rarely ask about my writing. I've come to the conclusion that it's just too difficult a topic for them, because they don't know what to say. They don't know to ask about my latest protagonist or how my black book of ideas is coming along, or what my latest twist is in my current novel; you know the things that interest me. I can, however, see the pride in their eyes that comes with knowing someone who writes books. That's me, and thats how I see it. Great Post. Consider yourself followed!

Jeff Bennington
The Writing Bomb . blogspot . com

Jennie Bentley said...

Excellent post! Sounds like a good interview, too. I think we all probably feel that way. Crafting a book is always crafting a book, but each book is different, so there's always a learning curve. And Joyce, you're not alone in reaching the end of the first draft and thinking what a piece of crap you've written. Happens to me too. Usually somewhere around 2/3, since the middle is the hard part for me. When I get to the last 75 pages, I'm usually rocking and rolling because the end's in sight.

Annette said...

Jeff, my family doesn't talk to me about my writing either, but I think it's because they believe I'm slightly unhinged.

Ramona said...

A good and thoughtful post, Martha, and I love that bolded quote. That may make "Post-It" status at my work station.

I think it is normal for a writer to be slightly unhinged. More than slightly is probably good, too.

Patg said...

Great post, Martha. Roth has made several comments about the stress of writing, all of which I find more than true.
I think readers do have a hard time separating a character from the writer, especially when God is mentioned.
I so agree with everyone about those middles. That's why I try to get the end written. It helps to have a destination.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I'm not sure if his remarks make me feel better about my struggles or not. After seven published books I keep expecting the next one to get easier. I guess I'm glad it's like this for even more experienced writers.

Rochelle Staab said...

Thank you for this post, Martha.

When I began to write my first novel, no one warned me about the self-doubt and inner critic. I wish I could go back to my blissful ignorance!

Roth's quotes are comforting. Foxhole humor?