Monday, February 11, 2013

Writing as Self-Torture

Lately it has become a mystery to me why anyone bothers to write. Surely everyone knows by now that becoming a famous author is as likely as winning the lottery, and trying to write is a whole lot more painful than playing scratchers.

That got me thinking: maybe the pain is the point. The reason we write. When you look past the fantasy of fame and the aura of “coolness” that seduces many into attempting to get published, you have to wonder why would someone spend so much time torturing themselves, unless they actually enjoyed the torture?

When I read a recent interview with Junot Diaz, I thought at first, aha! See, even for this guy, who wrote one of the best books in a long time (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer in 2008), writing just plain sucks. It’s a ritual of self-flagellation. When the interviewer asked
Diaz how the writing went for his follow up to Oscar Wao, he answered: 
Miserable. Miserable. The stories just wouldn’t come. … There’s a story called “Primo” that was supposed to be at the end of the book — that was a miserable botch. I spent six months on that, and it never came together. There was a story called “Santo Domingo Confidential” that was trying to be the final story, that I spent a year on. I must have written a hundred pages. It was another farrago of nonsense. I wrote a summer story where the kid gets sent to the Dominican Republic while his brother is dying of cancer; he gets sent because his mom can’t take care of him. It was a story I called “Confessions of a Teenage Sanky-Panky,” which was even worse than all the other ones put together. And that was another 50-page botch. … That’s why I never want to do this again. It’s like you spend 16 years chefing in the kitchen, and all that’s left is an amuse-bouche.

I read that and I thought, “Amen, brother.” But then I read on, and as Diaz continued to complain about how writing is, all of a sudden he switched gears, and showed a different answer as to why we write:
You know, I force it, and by forcing it, I lose everything that’s interesting about my work. What’s interesting about my work, for me — not for anyone else; God knows, I can’t speak for that — what’s interesting in my work is the way that when I am playing full out, when I am just feeling relaxed and I’m playing, and all my faculties are firing, but only just to play. Not to get a date, not because I want someone to hug me, not because I want anyone to read it. Just to play. 

It is just as simple as that. When we can remember that we are just playing around, that’s when our writing is at its best. But knowing that doesn’t help you write any better, and doesn't make writing any less tortuous, because you end up trying to have fun, which is the most pathetic kind of fun there is, like someone who doesn’t like to dance forcing themselves onto the dance floor. No one wants to read that kind of fun.

So there is no easy answer, but it is kind of reassuring to remember that you aren't really trying to write the greatest thing since Hamlet; you're just trying to have some fun.