The writing life’s irreplaceable satisfactions
I thought I was done with writing. I thought I was too old, too busy, absentminded, uninspired, and tired of the publishing business. A grandma, for god’s sake! Wouldn’t I rather gaze at my baby granddaughter’s sculpted mouth and unblinking eyes than at my own reflection on a blank computer screen?
I’d experienced enough of the writing life to know its disappointments and pressures thoroughly: the sting of rejections and bad reviews, worries about publicity and public appearances, the inexhaustible details of travel, venues, interviews. Wasn’t I well rid of the drama of chasing success now that earning a living was no longer paramount? Wasn’t it time to stand in the muddle of moment-to-moment existence—the chaos of real life, unfolding as it will—instead of sitting at my desk in the orderly dream of a fictional world?
Certainly I realized that other interests—my volunteer work in a hospice, for instance, assisting and talking to people nearing death—could be useful to society, or, at least, valuable ego boosters. Growing a field of garlic—raking, weeding, punching holes, and planting cloves—was purposeful and rewarding despite aching joints and muscles at the end of the job. Even something as mundane as exercising at the gym was beneficial after decades bending over a keyboard. Planning and establishing a flower garden to attract bees and butterflies, I might have argued, was no less important in the larger arena than writing a novel—probably more so in the eyes of passersby. I imagined more people stopping to admire my yard than had ever read my books.
Familiar and ordinary ways of being were engaging in their own right. Activities like shovelling dirt or playing with a baby happened in the here and now, to be replaced by yet another present experience. Writing, on the other hand, was all about looking back and trying to make sense of things long after they occurred. Something immediate, primarily wordless, satisfied in a way that writing couldn’t.
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard spins a similar thought. Many people prefer life to the written word, she says archly. “Life gets your blood going, and it smells good… This writing that you do … that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.”
A writer’s life “is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation,” she goes on. “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.” From that angle, this is a stupid way to spend a life. And not a whole lot of fun. How is it possible to sit on the ergonomic chair in my study when sunlight is sweating the windows?
So, for a spell, for a very long spell indeed, I played with my granddaughter, dug, planted, weeded, watered, kayaked, and swam in a lake, raked leaves, shovelled snow, hiked in the woods, and wrote nothing at all.
This requires courage. A writer not writing is a tremulous creature, unfocused, edgy. A writer not writing still has the urge to write, that irritating itch to stitch words together and perhaps make something important and enduring. I had forgotten that. I forgot that writing keeps the mind from unravelling; keeps it from sloshing around in the mud of fear: fear of insignificance, solitude, aimlessness, and the biggest bugaboo, old age.
A garden might easily outlast the life of a book, and cuddling a baby is undeniably joyful. So too are taking walks, watching films, looking at art, hearing music, dining with friends, travelling and reading; always reading: enough to fill a life—to overfill it, if desired, and if time and money allow. And yet, as Dillard points up, a “life of good days lived in the senses is not enough.”
That’s it exactly. Time passes agreeably, but a deeper need is unmet. Awareness grows, in the slow hours between pursuits—especially on rainy or wintry days—that my inner world is dormant and diversions aren’t enough.
Not enough, not enough: the mark of an artist.
Is a writer who isn’t writing still a writer? I wondered as I ticked off the busy days. What other identity would fit as well as that one? What else defines me as precisely and profoundly?
Nothing, as it turns out.
Though Granny and Gardener are roles I slip into often and enjoyably, they aren’t fundamental ones. Partly this is due to a lifelong writing habit, but also to my periodic need for a deep, candid talk with myself, which only the act of writing can appease. Even when friends and family are available, weighty conversation rarely happens; instead, we’ll talk about dinner plans, car repairs, baby stuff, politics, weather patterns, and so forth. Those closest to me are often too distracted by the static of their lives to listen carefully and spend time reflecting, and without that sort of dialogue I find that I’m off-centre, fuzzy at the edges, increasingly anxious to write what I don’t speak. A special brand of loneliness that can’t be salved by tilling the soil, hugging a child, or anyone else.
And so I choose solitude to treat my restlessness. Silence quiets me, and only in stillness can I touch creativity. Alone, my mind stretches freely, dreamy and imagining. I become focused, clear-headed as thoughts gather, fall into place, and find their way to the page—provided I’m not interrupted by loved ones. In his book of essays, Autumn, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard speaks about the value of being secluded, “exempt from all the complicated bonds, all the conflicts, great and small, all the demands and expectations, wills and desires that build up between people,” restricting the possibility of reflection.
But writing is hard work that’s often as difficult, complex, and frustrating as human interaction. Sometimes the mind stalls and words evaporate. Days spent socializing or doing yard work seem less demanding and instantly rewarding—more alluring than watching dust land on my computer.
There’s no end to the conflict: writing is crucial, but the call of the not-so-wild outdoors and sensory experience can never be entirely dismissed.
Nor should it be. Sights and sounds and memories of the physical world are, after all, what typically moves a writer from an outer to an inner realm, where the real work begins. They stimulate sharper perception, a kind of enhanced noticing that may excite word play. In her book of essays, Afterwork, the poet Anne Compton explains that “not only acute attentiveness to sensory impressions” is needed, “but also the inclination … to carry those sensations into the interior” if something special is to occur. A particular ability and mindset are required.
A particular way of seeing and interpreting life. Once, after a hot day of hoeing rows of garlic, I felt a slight, shivery synergy with the plants and knew I wanted to think about that and possibly use the experience in a book. In fact, the event found its way into my last novel, Benevolence, a book with several garlic bulbs on the cover.
That’s how it works: deep within a private space, things perceived are mulled over, pages emerge, and a manuscript starts to take shape. When the work is going well, I’ll walk around grinning for days. The happiness that ripples out, lightening everything, has nothing to do with getting ahead or pleasing an editor.
What I’ve discovered recently is that to write without ambition—or, more exactly, with less ambition—is to find again the freedom to say whatever I like, as at the start of my career, when writing was new and I was barely aware of the demands of publishers and my imagined audience. In the many years I worked as a writing instructor, I often told students to write to please themselves first; to enjoy the writing process and worry about agents, publishers, and marketing platforms down the road. I’m finally going to take my own advice.
To write because I want to, when I want to, in order to explore and better understand an idea or emotional truth, or something as faint as a feeling, an image, a flake of memory, is as good as it gets. To write without a strangling fear of failure or of letting others down; to shape my own project and not worry about creating lovable characters and a page-turning plot, or about upsetting readers, is a breathtaking freedom indeed.
Write what matters, I tell myself. Write what urgently needs to be said. Don’t be a lightweight: aim high. “Write as if you were dying,” Dillard exhorts. “What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”
Making something consequential is an arduous task. But now, in my late sixties, closer to death than ever before, it seems to me the only work worth doing. Elizabeth Hardwick put it succinctly in her 1963 essay “Grub Street: New York”: “Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.” The wish to say something honest and meaningful—maybe even wise or beautiful—about the human condition, in the hope that others will find my words eloquent, inspires me.
Reading about the writing life in essays by Dillard, Knausgaard, Compton, and others sharply reminds me of what I miss when I’m not writing: the emotional and intellectual challenge of examining, in words, ideas that interest or even befuddle me. I miss the heady, immersive experience of writing—of building rhythmic sentences, cogent paragraphs, convincing scenes, with little awareness of time skipping by. Everything else falls away and I am loose in a personal dream that exists, to some degree, no matter what else I’m doing, for as long as I’m writing a piece. Sometimes I’ll wake at night with just the phrase I’d been looking for the previous day and hop out of bed to jot it down, as if the point of sleep were to write with my eyes closed. Compton refers to this state as “the increased internal luminosity” that happens when a new work takes hold. “It’s like having a twin,” she says, “an interior twin—this writing life that goes on, seemingly, of its own volition, as if the you making … the sentences is somehow separate from the I who might answer the phone.”
The ego soars as an idea of what you might accomplish opens out. As yet vague and unformed, that contemplated story, novel, or essay warms your innards with its lustrous possibilities. “But you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing … you are filling in the vision,” Dillard warns. The imagined work, only glimpsed, will endlessly shift in form and content as the writing proceeds. After months of struggling with an unwieldy manuscript, what I end up with never seems to equal my initial fantasy. “The vision … has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.”
This is a humbling and painful experience: the ego is crushed.
From there, it’s an easy slide to feeling inadequate, isolated, irrelevant. Who cares if my work is good? Who cares that I wrote these superfluous pages, especially since there are already manuscripts out there far better than mine, “most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones,” to quote Dillard again; books that are far more deserving of an audience. “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?”
It’s never come to that, but the question always lies in wait: Why bother writing at all?
A rollercoaster, this writing business.
Months and years go by until I’ve finished a manuscript. Feeling temporarily buoyant and hopeful, I want nothing more than to share my work with others, to have the manuscript loved and admired. First it was written for myself, then shown to friends for critical feedback, and finally I’m ready to present my stunning book to the world.
Humiliation lies ahead. Agents and editors will read and reject it again and again, for lack of interest or for marketing reasons, and once more I’m asking: Is it worth it? Why am I doing this?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the metaphysical novel The Wall, by Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, in which a woman who may be the last person alive on earth struggles to survive both physically and psychically. The book is a report of her difficult, lonely life in a forest, written on the back of used sheets of paper. She doesn’t expect her notes to be found, but writing holds her fears at bay. At the start of keeping this journal, she realizes she still wants someone to read her words. “My heart beats faster when I imagine human eyes resting on these lines, and human hands turning the pages. But mice will eat the report long before that.”
To believe that you’re writing for yourself and not for an audience is to struggle with a long-standing habit not easily quelled: writers need to share their work with others. Art, after all, is meant to be “the bridge between souls,” as Irish novelist Joyce Cary says in Art and Reality, expressing “common sympathies, common feeling, universal reaction to colour, sound, form,” connecting authors to themselves but also, ideally, to sensitive readers. But who are these readers anyway? What concerned citizens or singular souls are we trying so hard to reach? “The public in this sense does not exist,” Cary says, “it is a figment like the average man. No one can say what this mysterious being will understand.” One thing he’s sure of is that an original writer will be unappreciated, “bound to be misunderstood by critics and read by few. He will be lucky to be published at all.”
Might as well write for mice.
Especially if you’re getting old. Artists in the traditional post-retirement years are likely to be sidelined by a younger, more energetic, digitally adept, and fast-moving generation. Still productive, aging writers with lesser “author platforms” endure small audiences, media inattention, and meagre sales. With a few highly visible, famous exceptions, of course, this is how things go—how they’ve always been. In Art and Reality, written sixty years ago, Cary speaks of a once-renowned, aging French painter, no longer able to sell his work and thus impoverished, “whose whole life and skill had lost its meaning,” a commonplace tragedy happening continually as new generations arise, demanding “always a new statement, a new form … a new intensity and immediacy of expression.” Artists, he continues, “are apt to live much longer than their style, than their symbols.”
What to do about that? Collaborate with younger artists, if appropriate—but that’s not an option for me, writing in solitude. Devote tedious hours to promoting myself on social media? Sorry, not interested. The hours left to me in life are far too valuable to spend doing things I dislike.
Maintaining a public profile has always been a challenge for me—more so in recent years—and one I’ve finally decided to shrug off. I’ll still send my work off to journals and editors, hoping to be published, but I won’t care quite as much about the outcome. The time for striving is over: a low-key, peaceable existence has more appeal.
Toward the end of Haushofer’s novel, the unnamed narrator, still filling her notebooks, no longer worries about mice feeding on her words. “Writing is all that matters,” she concludes, keeping “the endless conversation with myself alive.”
What do I say when I’m talking to myself? I talk about people and places, fantasies, experiences: things real and made up. I talk about feelings of anger, kindness, sadness, longing, tenderness, and estrangement; of envy and admiration for youth, achievement, wisdom—all the mucky human stuff that wants to be noticed. I tell myself it’s time to finish the job of becoming myself—“to become the self you were becoming before the world got at you,” in Compton’s words—the world of nine-to-five work, marriage, and parenting.
Now I can delight in both the satisfactions of writing and living with immediacy in my daily life. “No one longs to be lost in linguistic lushness and syntactical byways more than I do,” Compton says, “but I’d never want to overlook what in the world enticed me into that swirl of syntax.” There’s room enough for private thought and introspection; room too for hobbies and lazing about with family and friends.
In the end, I’m writing less, with less doggedness, but I’m also out in the world more, doing a wide sweep of things that engage me. Writer, thinker, reader, wife, mother, grandma, gardener, friend, wanderer, and much more goes into the mix of making a life in my later years. In any of those roles, a tumult of ideas can suddenly be stirred up, leading, perhaps, to a thoughtful and gratifying conversation with myself, page after page. I’m not done with writing yet. Not done with living, either.
—From CNQ 104 (Spring 2019)
Cynthia Holz is the author of a story collection and five novels, including Semi Detached, A Good Man, and Benevolence. Her short fiction, essays, and book reviews have been widely published. She is currently writing a series of personal essays.
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