Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Writing

George Orwell once said writing a book was "a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness."

Churchill thought, "writing as book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling it to the public."

Katherine Anne Porter believed that "writing is a craft. You have to take your apprenticeship in it like anything else."

I believe that when it comes to writing, the three quotes pretty much cover all the bases.

Orwell's painful disease for me is closer to an un-ease, a malcontentment with the world and most things in it. I write, I think, because the events I can imagine are far more pleasing to me than those life has to offer on a daily basis. Books have a beginning, a middle and an end, and good books, at the end, leave you satisfied. Life, on the other hand, is steadfastly confusing, a labyrinthine plodding from one dead end to another with, here and again, a glimpses of satisfaction.

Churchill's quote illustrates what all writers struggle with--the letting go of a work that in the writing mind can always stand more revisions, more polishing, one last look and a penultimate rewrite. I well remember a professor I had at university who, for two decades, had been finalizing his novel. To the best of my knowledge, the thing never saw the light of day.
Porter best says what I think. Writing is a craft, and an apprenticeship is necessary. I've had heated discussions about this with writing and non-writing friends who display various levels of shock when I compare writing to plumbing. Both artisans, I believe, are given tools-words, grammar, some basic rules; pipes, solder and joints-and hired to create something that works. Both should work efficiently, leaving no mess at the end, and charging a fair price. Plumbing, writing, carpentry, poetry, brickwork and composition all share the same purpose, and efficiency of action, use, thought and spirit. And both have in common the sweetest of sentence: "The check's in the mail."
When I was much, much younger, I found a certain romanticism to writing. I no longer do. It's work, pure and simple. Mary Heaton Vorse, a rabble-rousing laborite, suffragist and the author of 17 novels said it best. "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." Thanks, Mary.

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