It ain’t easy

Aaron Sorkin, making it look easy.

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, his seminal book on screenwriting, William Goldman talks excitedly about meeting one of his literary heroes, Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions and Rich Man, Poor Man among many others).  They spend an afternoon together, the young Goldman soaking up as much of Shaw’s wisdom as he can.  As they are about to part, Goldman flippantly comments to Shaw that writing must have been easy for him.  Shaw is struck dumb and becomes incredibly morose, remarking quietly, “It wasn’t easy.”  Goldman spends the rest of the chapter berating himself for having said that, for trivializing in one ill-informed quip a lifetime of Shaw’s tribulation and heartbreak poured out on paper.  Perhaps the most intimidating part of attempting to write anything is the mere existence of the reams and reams of brilliant work that have gone before, and the resulting feeling that you will never measure up because it’s so difficult for you and those other guys could just knock out genius effortlessly.  Staring at the blank screen and the blinking cursor with the spectre of Jack Kerouac feeding rolls of paper through his typewriter because he just couldn’t stop can diminish your verve quite abruptly.

Indeed, writing is one of those paradoxical vocations that people can claim to love in one breath when they are bashing their heads against the wall trying to figure out the right order of words in the next.  While I am presently finalizing my first novel, it is intended to be the beginning of a trilogy – an accidental trilogy, given that when I began writing it, it was only going to be a single work until I found out about word count limits – and while I know how it is supposed to end, I am not entirely certain how to get there.  The other day I had a flash of inspiration and found myself laying out the plot of book two in my head.  Resolving to get at least a workable outline down as soon as possible, I found myself sitting at my computer, utterly stymied.  The words were just not there.  I got up, walked around, got a drink, looked out the window, pet the cat, changed the music and still nothing came.  In that moment I felt about as in love with writing as I am with right-wing conservatism.  An inability to find the words is the wedge that lets all the demons through the door.  Who are you kidding?  You suck at this.  You’ll never amount to anything.  No one will ever want to read this, let alone spend money for it.  When a writer sinks into that well of self-criticism, no amount of positive feedback will help a whit.  One can imagine Irwin Shaw at his typewriter caught in the same spiral, and thus have no difficulty picturing his deep offense at William Goldman’s casual remark.

One of my writing heroes, Aaron Sorkin, wrote 88 episodes of The West Wing over four years – working on his other series Sports Night concurrently during the first two of those years and still maintaining an unsurpassed level of quality that entrenched a collective ideal of a liberal and intellectual Presidency of the United States during the frustrating Bush years.  A recent Vanity Fair article discusses how The West Wing continues to inspire young staffers who work in the White House to this very day.  Yet while he was writing, Sorkin’s marriage broke apart and he suffered well-documented problems with substance abuse, even an embarrassing airport arrest.  I would love to meet Aaron Sorkin one day, shake his hand and thank him for inspiring my own writing.  But not in a million years would I ever dare to suggest it was easy for him.  That would diminish not only his work, but my own – I think I’d be embarrassed to say I was inspired by something that the guy knocked off in five minutes on a cocktail napkin.

Writing is the articulation of the soul, the translation of wordless thoughts and feelings into a permanent form that can be shared with and experienced by others.  It is announcing with a megaphone the baring of your vulnerable heart to the world, and hoping for connection, and though it can be as difficult as physically tearing open your ribcage with only your fingertips, we are compelled to do it anyway.  The drive of a writer to craft his message can leave ruin in its wake – the ruin of relationships, of health, of entire lives – the fate of men like Ernest Hemingway.  At the same time, one has to concede nobility in the idea of this sacrifice of personal well-being to a higher purpose – the creation of a lasting story.  This is not by any means to suggest that all great work should require ear-slicing insanity, only that no one should ever expect to reach this mythical idea of effortless writing, and it’s something to remember the next time the flashing cursor unveils the horrifying sight of the blank page.  It’s hard for everyone, no matter how easy they make it look.

10 thoughts on “It ain’t easy

  1. Oh, god… I know EXACTLY that routine of petting the cat, getting another cup of coffee, staring at the blank screen some more, sinking into an increasingly hopeless loop of “What am I doing, how did I ever think this was something I could do?” self-criticism. SO helps to hear other writers acknowledge that they don’t begin with the perfect, polished results that we see. I used to periodically run into an older friend who’d come to writing late in life. Every time I saw her, she bubbled with the high of everything she was writing, how amazing it was to get all of these stories down on paper, wasn’t writing SO MUCH FUN and did I want to come over and listen to her read her latest? I was in the midst of an especially agonizing dry spell, and smiled politely while screaming inside.

    Thanks for this, Graham. Though it comes down to forcing myself to sit in the chair and accept shitty first drafts, it’s comforting to remembering that the misery isn’t just mine.

    1. Your friend sounds quite infuriating. I think we all know someone like that – I went to high school with a guy whom the entire English staff was convinced was the second coming of Shakespeare, and one grew rather weary of hearing constant praise of his genius. But we all have our own voices, and our own stories to tell, and one of the great things about a community like this is that we can share both our wounds and our triumphs and encourage each other through the rough patches.

      Loved your most recent post. Very heartfelt. I’m sure you didn’t bang it out in two minutes, and it’s all the richer as a result.

  2. Pf… tell me about it. Writing is exhausting and challenging to say the least, so why the hell do I like it? And why, indeed, do so many authors make it seem effortless, especially the prolific ones who chunk out one great text after another? I suppose love of writing and the envy of wanting the finished polished work are what keep me going.

    I’m curious, Graham, what you trilogy is about?

    1. I think of George R.R. Martin, who has grown exasperated with some of his fans for insisting that he hurry to conclude A Song of Ice and Fire, when he would like to spend some time actually living his life as well. How even more frustrating must it be when the muse dries up and thousands of people are ready to burn you in effigy if you disappoint them? In a way I can’t believe I’m willing to try to venture down that same road.

      Thanks for asking – my trilogy (or book and a half as it stands now) is a fantasy adventure as well. Far fewer characters and places to keep track of than Martin or Robert Jordan, but hopefully still a rollicking blend of action, romance and the occasional provoked thought on many of the same themes I’ve been discussing here. I hope to share more details here in the future as the (fingers crossed) journey to publication begins.

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