The Agony of Writing
Backpacking off trail in Alaska, circa 2010.
Recently, one of my monthly mentees shared a NYT Magazine article with me, summarizing the tradition around the agony of writing. The article features John McPhee the writer who “opened up” the state of Alaska to me before I ever set foot on its wild and diverse lands. And in so doing, he made what is easily stereotyped or generalized as legend, into something utterly concrete, personal, and layered. He brings a place to life by letting it be complex, beautiful, ugly–whatever it takes–and there’s always a feeling of intimacy to the experience of reading his work, paired with the feeling that something precious is dying right before your eyes.
The article itself is well written (staff writer Sam Anderson was the lucky interviewer), and I appreciated the following two paragraphs:
Every book about writing addresses, in one way or another, the difficulty of writing. Not just the technical problems (eliminating clutter, composing transitions) but the great existential agony and heebie-jeebies and humiliation involved–the inability to start, to finish, or to progress in the middle. This is one of the genre’s great comforts: learning that you are not alone in your suffering. William Zinsser: “It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.” Annie Dillard: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.” Anne Lamott: “Your mind has become a frog brain that scientists have saturated with caffeine.”
McPhee embraces this tradition. In his preface to Annals of the Former World, he calls writing “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor.” (The first time I read this, I put a large star in the margin.) In Draft No. 4, McPhee writes of his “inability to get going until 5 in the afternoon” and his “animal sense of being hunted.” And yet this doubt, he writes, “is part of the picture–important and inescapable.”
What can I add to this tradition, the agony of writing? Reading how these “greats” have chimed in, I don’t think anything more needs to be said. But I am comforted, ever so slightly, by the feeling that even as we write and revise alone, we are participating in a beautiful misery…a beautiful mystery. I lean toward the latter, even it if hurts a little sometimes.