In this recent interview with the New York Times, Philip Roth addresses his decision to stop writing. Says Roth:
“I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”
I wonder how other writers feel about this. For me personally, Philip Roth saying this was a huge relief, because I’m experiencing the exact thing he talks about right now. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of what I’m doing and the immense effort it takes to pour into words my unique and – inherently – limited view of the world.
Why do I bother? Why do any of us write? Why are we so certain that we have anything new or interesting to say? And the million dollar question: IS IT WORTH IT?
A salute to you, Mr. Roth.
Recently I (finally!) joined Twitter, a wonderful experience that has already led me to discover many interesting new blogs and writers. What I don’t like about Twitter is that the majority of authors on there is promoting a book (or a blog). Inherently, everything on Twitter is positive. This is the same phenomenon as everybody seeming to have a nicer life on Facebook than they actually do.
It also means that all the blogs about writing are positive. People tell you to follow your dream, follow your inner voice, follow their ten helpful tips, and everything will fall into place eventually. This blog is by no means an exception, btw. Generally, I have a positive outlook on life and I DO think that to let your inner creative banshees howl is to live truly.
Downloaded a picture of a banshee. Scared now.
But recently I also got a healthy dose of Mr. Roth. I’m realizing that the more TRUE your writing becomes – in the sense that you maintain a connection with a deep, urgent feeling of ‘this needs to be written, and it’s ringing MY doorbell’ – the deeper you have to dig, and the harder it gets. I don’t let myself get away with fluff anymore. I need to find the exact right words to be able to write what is true. And as my sense of ‘truth’ deepens, so does my bullshit detector. I have thrown not five, but fifty pages away over the last weeks.
So is it worth it?
At some points during the past weeks I have doubted it. When I was still writing genre fiction, my progress was a lot smoother, I had a good sense of direction and I never had to throw away a day’s work (of course I edited, but nothing like this). But then I didn’t have that sense of urgency, either. I was enjoying myself, but it was a safe joy, the kind where nothing is at stake. Now, there is.
The fact that I’m asking “Why are we so certain that we have anything new or interesting to say?” is progress, in my opinion. I’m willing to put myself on the line because there is something to put on the line. That ‘something’, pulsing through my words and showing itself in glimpses, is my truth to the best of my knowledge. And it’s getting closer. And being in touch with that, in spite of everything, is worth it.
Even if I don’t know the answer to my own question yet.
Why we write
I think we write BECAUSE it gets harder. Because we feel that we are getting closer and closer to the truth. Because there is something at stake, something that is worth getting frustrated and humiliated about. Strange, isn’t it? Writing is really a humbling realization of the limits of your ability to know the truth – and your willingness to stretch those limits as far as you can.
I think I’ve gone beyond positive. I’m getting real.
What about you?