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.