The following is adapted from the keynote address Michelle Huneven gave at Writing Workshops LA: The Conference, which took place on June 28, 2014 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
I would qualify to speak to the trouble with writing based on the sole fact that it took me 22 years to finish my first novel. In those years of trying and failing and trying again, and failing again, I even gave up writing fiction altogether and went back to grad school to train for a new career. But I failed to embark on a new career because writing, and all its attendant troubles, wouldn’t leave me alone. In those twenty-odd years, in which I tried and failed to write a book, and left writing and then came back to it and became a working writer who wrote books and also supported herself by writing, I grew intimately acquainted with many forms of trouble inherent in the vocation. And many of those troubles dog me to this day.
1. Trouble the Word
Trouble. Trouble is a great dustpan of a word. Its roots are found in Latin in the verb turbidare, to make turbid; and in the adjective turbidus, meaning disordered, turbid.
Turbid, of course, means unclear, muddied, obscure, and roiled up. We see its root in perturb, disturb, turbulent. Trouble branched off to mean that quality or state of being in distress or annoyance, of having malfunctioned; it’s a condition of debility, or ill health, a civil disorder, an inconvenience, a pregnancy out of wedlock.
The trouble with writing is that it’s awfully like having baby after baby all by yourself.
To get out of trouble, means to clear up, calm down, come out of confusion and distress, and function once again.
When I first sat down to write this piece, I made a list, like a Joe Brainard poem, where every sentence began, “The trouble with writing is——-.” After about 5 pages, single spaced, I thought, well, there is my speech.
Writing trails trouble in its wake like a long train of quarrelsome camp followers.
I decided to talk about some of the troubles that I personally have encountered over the years, namely some the mental and spiritual troubles associated with writing as an activity and writing as a way of life–the ways we writers can malfunction and find ourselves confused and roiled up.
Writing is difficult. Writing is difficult in the beginning, difficult in the middle and difficult at the end. And then, when you’ve finished, there is a whole new raft of difficulties having to do with publication—but I will save those issues for a much longer speech entitled The Trouble with Publication.
Writing itself is a series of problems to be solved, problems that constitute the hard work of writing and being a writer. Sometimes you can be surgical and rational in solving various difficulties, but it is the peculiar distinction of writing and much of the creative life that the inherent difficulties of writing have a propensity to become internally, personally disturbing and confusing, agitating, and otherwise psychologically problematic.
When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.”
There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented.
It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were.
Thus does the difficulty of writing morph into confusion and perturbation.
The trouble with writing is that we writers are often scared to death.
2. The Trouble with Writing is Writing
A few months ago, I was interviewed by a 3rd grader whose assignment was to interview someone with an interesting job. Her father’s work, running two physics labs at Cal Tech, apparently was insufficiently intriguing. She had only three questions, one of which was, “What do you write about?”
I knew I had to keep it simple. I said, “I write about people who get into trouble and then get themselves out of trouble.” Of course, that describes a great many books, but it strikes me that this also describes my writing process. I’ll take an assignment, or start a short story or a novel or an essay, and soon enough it feels exactly as if I’ve gotten myself into trouble. I actually feel like a bad person, guilty and a little ashamed, like, I’ve gotten myself into this thing, and now I have to do it, and I’m not sure if I can pull it off.
I know too that, even if I manage to write my way out of this hole, it will take time, and cause me aggravation and pain along the way—pain in the form of self doubt, frustration, and one more time, hitting the limits of my capabilities.
I was a restaurant critic for a dozen years, turning in one column a week, 52 weeks a year. Not once did I sit down and just knock one out. Every single review was a tumble into trouble, and a climb back out.
You could say, I took the trouble to do the best I could.
3. It Never Gets Easier
The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing.
The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself.
4. Getting Down to the River
Dylan Thomas said that he knew he contained a river of poetry within him. The trouble was getting down to that river, and bringing a bucket-full back.
The difficulty is getting down to it. Down to the desk, to the work zone, down to enough quiet and calm that we can even leave for the river. And once we’re there, the difficulty is locating access to that gush or trickle of material we contain. We range back and forth along the banks of the river, wondering where to plunge in.
The great late radical feminist theologian Mary Daley wrote in an introduction to her first book about the trouble she had just getting around to writing it. Everything else—cleaning the house, buying groceries, taking the dog to the vet—took precedence over this thing that she wanted to do more than anything else. Write a book. Daily life was constantly eclipsing her creative life, and eventually she determined that she would have to reverse that, and put her creative life in the foreground and everything else in the background. She came up with a mantra: “I have to turn my soul around.”
I have to turn my soul around.
And after a number of weeks, slowly, it turned.
To write, you have to turn your soul around. And then you have to turn it around again, and again, because there’s always slippage. Even after dozens of years of writing, there is slippage.
5. The Writing Life is One of Interruptions
Writing is a solitary occupation requiring intense concentration, large blocks of time, and all of one’s mental capacities. The trouble is, there are frequent interruptions and constant distractions.
The writing life is a life of interruptions. I used to listen to my friend the novelist Lily Tuck complain about her husband who often traveled for work. Edward wants me to go with him to Madrid…to Athens…to Hong Kong. I was a poor struggling wannabe writer and I would have gone to any of those places at the drop of a hat. Now, it’s me telling my husband, I don’t want to spend three weeks in Italy and the south of France!
Interruptions are inevitable, part of the fabric of the writing life. We must learn how to navigate them. There are meals, and sleep, and family; there are holidays and special occasions—weddings, graduations, funerals.
We have to accept the fact that there will be interruptions, and develop our abilities to get back into writing a little more swiftly each time.
It’s like meditating. In meditation, you return your attention to the breath. Your mind wanders and when you catch it wandering, you return your attention to the breath. You return your attention to your writing. You go off to your nephew’s graduation, you go back to your desk, you get back to work. At the same time, you have to know your rhythms, and allow them. I teach every Monday. The day after, I am never fully back to my writing. Tuesdays are the day for sinking back in. I know this and don’t beat myself up that I’m squirmy and unfocused. Everyone is different but it takes me a day or two to sink back into full writing mode.
There are even more pernicious attacks on the solitary and quiet thing we do.
6. The Trouble with Writing is that it is Fraught with Self-Loathing, Shame, Grandiosity, and Pride
I told you I quit writing at a certain point and embarked on another career. That career was to become a UU minister. In that process, I had to undergo a psychological evaluation—essentially, two psychologists determined my weak points and poked at me for a couple of days.
One psychologist asked why I had quit writing.
I told him that I’d grown up with parents who were highly disapproving and critical, and I must have internalized all that, because I lacked the confidence and self-esteem to write.
The shrink said, “You can blame a lot on your parents, but not that–that kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.”
This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it. Of course, low self-esteem and self-doubt are not requirements—Picasso never had many doubts, and nor does Alexander MacCall Smith who can knock out a No. 1 Ladies Detective novel in three weeks. But a great many of us do battle with self-confidence and doubts.
Because writing is so personal, or, more exactly, because its prima materia, or primal material, is the self, many, many writers do experience various troubling, vexatious states around their writing. Recently, I have heard Donald Antrim and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Edward St. Aubyn all talk about the shame they feel around their writing, and I have read that John Banville, whose arrogance is singular—he freely admits this—also admits to feeling a terrible sticky shame about all his work and cannot bear to reread it. I am constantly bolstering my female writer friends, and they me, about the quality of our work, and even its right to exist.
Of course, even as the writing process tends to kick up doubt, fear, and self-loathing for some temperaments, it also kicks up the opposing states of grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance. Some writers think their work can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be edited at all. More of us pingpong between grandiosity and despair. This is a terrible failure of a book, we tell ourselves, and I should really get an enormous advance for it! One writer I knew periodically had to stop working on his novel to compose acceptance speeches for the major awards the book was going to win. (He did actually win several awards.)
The trouble with writing is that it is often a roller coaster pitching us between grandiosity and despair.
As troublesome as they are, these uncomfortable emotional states, can serve to our advantage. Self-doubt humbles me sufficiently, so that I can improve and revise, and accept editorial assistance. And a certain stubborn pride serves me well in the face of awful editing or bad reviews.
7. The Trouble with Writing is that Little Happens the Way You Think it Should
Writing requires an investment of time and thought and the self. In making this investment, we can’t help but kick up a few hopes concerning the returns this investment might give us. When I was writing my first novel for all those years before I quit writing altogether, I had these vague, unarticulated ideas—assumptions, really, that once I published my novel, I would move into a new financial zone, I would be able to find a good job, but mostly, that I would be inducted—indeed welcomed-into the larger literary community and conversation of my generation.
The trouble with writing is that, although rewards do come, and your life does change, these things often don’t happen when and how you imagined them happening.
The year that my first novel was published—and sold overseas and to the movies and got fantastic reviews in slick magazines and newspapers all over the country and was nominated for a few awards–I was completely unprepared for the psychic transition from solitary, intense writing life to the more outward routine of selling myself to readers, and having my work misunderstood–oh, I mean reviewed–in public. I had no idea what to do with the good news I got—you don’t want to call up your struggling writer friends and say, I just sold my book to the movies for a big pile of money! As it happened, my best friend, who could not sell her novel, dropped me anyway, and I ended up the year filling a prescription for antidepressants.
It’s a tricky business we’re in. We work with various parts of the self: our memory, our experience, and emotions, the conscious self, and the unconscious which includes the patterning parts of the brain, and the imagination. These are all skittish entities, not always cooperative. Over time, we get better at accessing our imagination, our knowledge, our storehouse of anecdotes and perceptions, vocabulary and beliefs. We learn to trust that, if we set to work, the structure, direction and shape of a work will reveal itself, and that a character eventually will accumulate enough traits and coherency to come to life. We learn how to get down to that river, and to bring back buckets. But even experience can’t guarantee that we can do all these things every time.
8. Writing is Not Always Trouble and Disturbance
When it’s going well, there is little to match it. Creation is a mighty power–you might even call it divine.
The psychologists tell us that creativity is an adult state of play. When you’re deep deep in it, in the state of flow, when there is clarity and absorption, and the clock hands twirl, that is writing at its best. Flow: to get there takes time and effort—you could say, you have to take some trouble to reach flow. It’s like getting an endorphin high when you’re running—according to a friend who lately has become a runner, it took her running almost daily for three weeks before she experienced her first endorphin high, and even then she only began to feel it when she was three miles into a run. Three months and three miles…The same timetable, roughly, could apply to writing in a flow state. You don’t just sit down to it. You can’t induce it by swallowing a pill. No drug, prescribed or illicit, can get you there. Only steady, regular work can get you there.
To create the ideal circumstances for writing, and to protect those circumstances, to keep our soul and body properly positioned to write, you would think, would be the great aim of our life.
9. Writing is an Act of Faith, and Delaying Gratification
The trouble with writing is that it’s a weird, lonely occupation with only intermittent and unpredictable satisfactions and rewards—except for the satisfactions and rewards that come from the struggle itself, and they, too, can be elusive.
Writers have to be able to delay gratification. To work without immediate pleasures. To delay gratification in general is the great sign of maturity. In writers it is absolutely essential.
If the ability to delay gratification is the great sign of being a mature human being, with the internet we have all regressed, because the internet gives us everything that writing does not: it gives us what we dream about when sitting alone at our desks: contact with our tribe and the sense that we’re in a community; for posting mere snippets, we get liked, retweeted, favorited, shared, tagged, and notified; we get emails and instant messages and invitations to chat online. We read daily what our friends and also some of our most esteemed writers have to say about writing and life. That great conversation I thought my first book would induct me into? Here on Facebook are some of the great writers of my generation tweeting away, offering links to articles, vaunting their politics, singing the praises of their colleagues’ work.
The internet reminds me of smoking—which I gave up almost 27 years ago—but whenever someone talked about cancer or heart disease it made me want to light up. Just talking about the internet this way, makes me want to check my email or log onto Facebook. Excuse me for a minute…
I am not an isolationist when it comes to writing. I believe in writing groups and in exchanging work with friends and there is nothing more compelling than in-depth literary conversation. I also believe in leaving my desk and going out in the world to observe and research in service of book and soul. I have to replenish, refuel. Yesterday, I finally went to see the new permanent display at the Huntington: a illuminated, hand-copied edition of The Canterbury Tales; a Guttenberg bible, an original quarto of Hamlet that’s four hundred years old. And then we walked through the cactus gardens there which, as I like to say, is one of the few psychedelic experiences you can have without ingesting a drug. Somehow, this felt more generative, more like a part of writing to me than the same amount of time spent on Twitter and Facebook.
The trouble with writing is that it’s a dynamic balancing act, we are always seesawing between concentration and interruption, grandiosity and despair. The trouble with writing is that there are long dry stretches in the ugly stage, and the rewards, when they come, may not come when we need them the most. The trouble with writing is that even when some of our dreams and hopes and expectations do come true, they don’t relieve the difficulty of writing, or the solitude of writing, or the weird rollercoaster emotions of writing.
The trouble with writing is writing.
So keep going. Keep the faith. Go home to your desks and get yourself into some deep deep, trouble. And then write your way out of it.
Image via aukirk/Flickr