The Agony of Writing


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.

Showing 6 comments
  • Suzi Banks Baum

    Mystery yes. Misery too. But also, when I spend time with non-writers, people who appreciate the literary arts but have not one clue about how a person might begin such an endeavour, I also feel a tiny bit of the magnificent. Some days when the wind is just right and my sails are mended and trimmed, when the rudder is well placed, if the ropes are looped and laid well, if the deck is swabbed properly so the salt water rinses the weathered planks just so…it I can set a sentence on the watery page, and the sail bellies in the fresh air, I feel it carry me in to writing. That feeling is magnificent. Brief mostly, but magnificent. xoS

    • Katey

      Beautifully stated, dear friend.

  • Claudia Green

    Beautifully metaphored Suzy Banks!

    The ebbs and flows, I am certain, dance with the dips and crests of the creative smittened intentions. Can’t seem to push it forward. It is a mysterious, miserly, magnificent metaphor for life, is it not?

    • Katey

      It is!

  • Lea

    Love you, both, Suzi and Katie, as I sit here, not-writing, twisted ankle packed in ice and think, “misery, mystery and magnificence.” Such good companions, you are.

    • Katey

      Ah, I can say the same about you! Cheering you from across the continent!

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