Nothing Works Until It Works: On Writerly Discomfort

May 20, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 3 5 min read

I write in Courier for the brutally utilitarian shape of the letters, and the sense of constant, stepwise progress suggested by the monospace characters marching across the page. Often displayed by default when the chosen font is unavailable, in the post-typewriter age Courier has come to symbolize something broken, an intermediary step in need of replacement or repair. In 2007, Slate surveyed a cross-section of writers on their preferred font for composition and Courier emerged as the clear favorite for many of the same reasons that I like it: it feels raw, temporary, unfinished. “You need the sentences to look their worst until the dress rehearsal of the galleys, when all the serifs come out dancing,” explained Nicholson Baker.

Part of the reason we obsess over the quirks of the writing process is because it’s so hard to talk about the work itself — the actual, internal generation of ideas and the translation of those ideas into words, sentences, and paragraphs. We try to describe the essence of the art by examining and itemizing everything that surrounds it, like how astronomer Alexis Bouvard inferred the existence of Neptune by observing anomalies in the orbit of Uranus. We pick apart what time of day Marcel Proust did most of his writing or what Gertrude Stein snacked on while working in the hope of replicating a process that is ultimately highly idiosyncratic and not at all formulaic.

Although cataloguing authors’ habits may sound like a fruitless exercise, there’s one theme that these quirky routines share: many of them seem uncomfortable. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote standing up. Vladimir Nabokov liked writing in his car (presumably while parked). In probably the most extreme example, the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller kept a bunch of rotting apples in his desk, which filled the room with an eye-watering stench.

cover The list of uncomfortable techniques goes on: Wallace Stevens jotted lines onto scraps of paper while walking (I personally find trying to write on anything other than a hard, flat surface to be one of the most frustrating things on the planet). That’s nothing compared to Walter Scott, though, who apparently wrote on horseback. In order to meet his deadline for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo locked away all of his clothes — save for a gray shawl — to keep himself from leaving the house. Honoré de Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day, which must have made for an exceptionally uncomfortable bladder. Even my use of Courier is uncomfortable: at a basic, lizard-brain level, ugliness triggers revulsion, not unlike the smell of bad apples.

This idea of discomfort being a catalyst for creative output certainly fits with the Romantic ideal of the tortured, suffering artist. Conceiving of art as a struggle has so pervaded our collective consciousness (thanks in no small part to writers and artists themselves casting the process in those terms) that we have been conditioned to mistrust creative impulses that come too easily; if Johannes Brahms spent his entire life writing and rewriting the same four symphonies, then it’s hard to believe I can write a short story that’s any good in one long afternoon.

Whether you are working at becoming a better writer or a better molecular biologist, a certain amount of performance is required: it helps to play the part, with all the trappings of the role as we understand it. Discomfort — whether from blood pooling in your feet after standing for hours or from the heady methane fumes of putrefying fruit — evokes that artistic suffering. It reminds you in an acute, physical way that you are undergoing a painful and torturous trial for the sake of your craft — which, after all, we’ve been told is a prerequisite for creating Good Art. Maybe willingly causing yourself discomfort makes you feel more like a “true” writer — and that can be more powerful than it sounds.

I’m not entirely satisfied with this explanation for writerly discomfort, and I imagine many of the writers whose routines I mentioned might take umbrage with it as well. We have internalized the notion that art must be born out of intense struggle and suffering, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Sometimes writing is like drawing blood from a stone, and sometimes ideas flow freely with relatively little effort. As much as the tortured artist is a widely accepted trope, suffering isn’t required to produce creative work (neither is Courier).

Even so, the purpose of and motivation for creating art — especially the written word — has always been to attempt to reconcile the conflicts we face in our lives. Imagine a writer living in a hypothetical world in which everything has been taken care of with an eye toward her comfort — and I mean everything, from her personal needs on up to geopolitical issues, deadly disease, and climate change. I’d bet our lucky writer wouldn’t be able to find much to write about. Even if they aren’t trying to be explicitly didactic, most writers feel compelled to create stories, novels, plays, and essays as a way to address discord or imbalance that they perceive in the world. Discomfort of any kind reveals the liminal nature of a situation, the potential for a change in circumstances. At a basic level, human beings create art because this potential for change exists. We feel an urge to acknowledge that things needn’t remain how they are now. Discomfort, discord, imbalance, conflict — however you want to describe it, this liminality is the spark that lights the creative fire.

A writing routine that causes some form of discomfort isn’t so much a reminder of this omnipresent discord; given so many writers’ propensity for neuroses and anxiety, I doubt many of us need a reminder of how much conflict exists in the world. Instead, it is a distillation of that broad imbalance into a discrete unit, a microcosm of discomfort. If existential discomfort serves as the impetus to create in the first place, then perhaps a more localized, physical discomfort can cause a smaller version of the same reaction and help you actually come up with some words that could lead to a draft. Keeping yourself on edge — especially by, say, using an ugly font that you know will get replaced later — puts that potential for change in sharp relief.

Of course, aside from discomfort, the other theme common to writers’ quirks is that they happen to work for those particular individuals. Here we have all these writers who employed some form of discomfort to aid their process, and then there was Truman Capote, who couldn’t think unless he was lying down and described himself as “a completely horizontal author.” Just when you think you’ve found enough examples to prove a rule, an exception always crops up. Those exceptions are a helpful reminder, though, that writing (just like anything creative) is not a linear process. There is no recipe we can follow, only suggestions of things that have worked for other writers. With this in mind, you can contort yourself into orthopedically unsound positions, deprive yourself of food or sleep, or choose a font that makes you retch, but as axiomatic as it sounds, nothing works until it works. Maybe if all writers had the same habits, we would all write the same stuff. Being reminded how different we are — that’s comforting.

Image Credit: Pexels/Anete Lusina.

is a writer and translator in Boston. His essays and fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Electric Literature, Punchnel’s, Gargoyle Magazine, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @csferguson.