Monday, January 9, 2012

Banging Against the Low Ceiling of One's Own Talent

Some days it’s easier to write than others. This morning I woke up with the germ of an idea for a book I‘ve been working on. Nothing earthshaking, just a nice little plot twist that might have amused the readers. By late this afternoon I’ve come to realize that either the idea has no legs, or that it has lost its appeal in the hours between nine and five. Or perhaps my mood has changed, and what looked inviting this morning is now at best silly.

This happens routinely. Writing is, for better or for worse, an emotional endeavor. It’s hard to write happy stuff if you’re not. Georges Simenon once said that “writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.”  If this is true (and I believe it is) the one must ask, why write? Normal people don’t have the need to tidy their thoughts and thrust them upon others. Perhaps this is yet another addiction, albeit a marginally socially acceptable one. Pondering such imponderables can rapidly escalate one’s unhappiness with the process. Is there anything as unglamorous as hunting and pecking at a keyboard all day in the hope that something worthwhile will emerge?

Does writing cause depression or vice versa?  Simon Brett, a bestselling writer, wrote in the quarterly journal of the Society of Authors that, When the writing’s going well, the author’s is the perfect life. When it’s going badly, there’s no one else to blame.” He believes that the day to day “grind of writing is … conducive to depression,” since “to do their job, writers have to be introspective, gauging their own reactions to life, projecting what other people’s might be, riding the switch-back of their mood swings to create fiction. They do feed on themselves. It’s an emotional business. A new idea, a surge of energy that lasts a paragraph, a page, a chapter, can make you feel you’re producing the definitive work that is going to redefine the parameters of the novel as an art form. Yet within a sentence, when the right phrase won’t come, you can be in total despair and about to scrap the whole project.”

And then of course, writing is solitary work. There’s no feedback, no attaboy, no reason to doubt that only an overactive ego could lay claim that anything produced is worth reading. I know that in recent times I’ve stopped hounding others to read my stuff. This came after the realization that this is tantamount to asking them to commit time to something they might not enjoy.  Or that’s the way the thoughts pattern themselves. Of course, who knows, they might enjoy it, but this is not the concept to emerge first, if ever. Additionally, writing is a day-at-a-time process that must begin anew each morning regardless of one’s outlook on life. Says Brett, “For most writers, any time spent away from the keyboard or pad of paper is basically cheating. You should be writing.”
But of course can’t write all the time. Brett quotes Michael Ratcliffe in a Times review of Graham Greene, “Writing itself, of course, is an ideal form of escape, unless you happen to be a writer, in which case there comes a time when you have to escape from writing, too.”
This is difficult for a lot of us. Our characters are more interesting than we are, their adventures more captivating, their dialogues wittier than anything we might have to say in ordinary conversation. Probably, they’re better looking as well,  and more attractive to the opposite sex.  “Eventually,” writes Brett, “you’re going to have to get back to reality. Because, apart from sometimes being the most fun you can imagine, writing fiction is also the most exhausting activity you’re ever going to undertake.”
The trade is riddled with failure, and “authors who feel they’ve failed don’t have to look far for confirmation of that opinion. Bestsellers lists are everywhere, bulging with the names of other writers. As if the living weren’t bad enough, you also have the genius of the dead to contend with. Cast your eye along your bookshelves. It doesn’t take long, looking at names like Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy or Wodehouse, to feel your head banging against the low ceiling of your own talent.”
In spite of all this dire stuff, writing remains the art of hope. Most of us know one or two authors who’ve made it, who travel to the south of France yearly and get six-figure checks and the adulation of readers. We hope to transcend ourselves, to obtain with our creations what we can’t find personally. We look to be revealed while hiding in our tale. I’d be willing to bet that most writers would be willing to be left behind if only their works could forge ahead. 

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