Feature: Why I Didn’t Write

by Ken Gordon

For a long time I was on the lam.

My crime? Well, not to frustrate your gun lust, to deprive you of your quota of gangsters and graft, but it wasn’t a crime in the conventional sense. More a spiritual than criminal offense. Something akin to sin. When I say “spiritual,” I don’t mean the old-time-religion racket—I mean that I caused no observable physical, monetary, or property damage.

I was a writer who didn’t write; instead I played the part of Author to an easy crowd of family and friends. I dropped loud, heavy hints to others (coworkers, college pals, contemporaries in general) that I was in the middle of a novel. To myself I whispered that I was gathering material. But in my heart, and on the page, I hadn’t written a syllable. A crime against myself. A case for what one of Charles Baxter’s characters calls “the fraud police.”

There’s a certain kind of writer who is drawn to analogies between the criminal and the writing life. Not hard to see why underworld figures appeal here. They give the quiet vocation of writing a glint of ruggedness. They make it sound dangerous, consequential. Almost threatening. Hell, they make films, supremely successful American films, about crime; what movies do they make about writing? (Besides cinematic freaks such as Adaptation and Barton Fink, I mean.) The analogies confirm for the writer what the rest of the world has forgotten, or never quite knew: that he is not just an outsider, but a potentially threatening outsider. I suspect that our crime-minded writers think this way not to pump up their own self-image but to revenge themselves on a public that hardly recognizes their existence. It is not easy to be so full of yourself, as writers usually are, when the rest of the world is so empty of you.

“Not writing is more of a psychological problem than a writing problem. All the time I’m not writing I feel like a criminal. Actually, I suppose that’s probably an outmoded phrase, because I don’t think criminals feel like criminals anymore. I feel like criminals used to feel when they felt guilty about being criminals, when they regretted their crimes. It’s horrible to feel felonious every second of the day.”—Fran Lebowitz

I didn’t write; I hid. That’s what I did. Call it an unauthorized vacation. In my imagination I set my crime at a resort hotel—warm white sand and cool blue water—a thick book in my left hand; in my right, a gun.

It’s good to be back. Who’d have thought getting pinched could be so profitable? Between you and me, it wasn’t easy being on a procrastination vacation. I mean, how much can you enjoy your book when you’re always looking over a suntanned shoulder?

When I talk about hiding out from literature I mean writing literature, or, more modestly, more accurately, trying to. Though I did write during this period—articles about the electronic nose and escalators and architect Michael Graves for a technology education magazine—I produced nothing that I was truly proud of. Nothing to write home about.

So what did I do during my vacation? Well, I read. A lot. I read seriously. Voraciously. I read like I convict. Five, six books at a time. A constant reader. A dedicated rereader. Reading and thinking and talking about literature are very serious affairs with me. I spend much of my free time, and most of my slim income, on books. My natural habitat is the second hand bookstore, the remainder rack. Few activities thrill me as much as picking up some book that’s been absurdly passed over by the cable-ready public.

The situation was neither cute nor clever. I felt, whenever I thought about it, guilty. It reminded me that I was weak. A non-writer. An unliterary American who couldn’t complete the essential task, who wouldn’t dare risk the rejection. It shamed me but—and this is important—not enough to get back to work. I could live with the feeling. I would from time to time feel a shiver of remorse, mope over my sloth, and then reach for yet another book or the phone.

One night, as I was snorting my way through Fran Lebowitz’s Paris Review interview, I found following sentence: “It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.” Fran Lebowitz, in case you’ve forgotten, is a woman with an overdeveloped sense of irony and a public case of writer’s block. She was describing the way she’d wasted a decade of her life not writing, and halfway through she noticed that her solipsism was showing (not writing is quite easy, for example, if one isn’t a writer). That is, she caught herself being unconsciously serious, of wearing her unprotected psyche down and out in public. An unseemly act for a professional humorist. She tried to cover it up with a dash and an objectivity-restoring clause but, sadly, it didn’t work. She had crossed the line. She wasn’t anywhere near funny.

Then I reread the sentence. It’s the sort of sentence one needs to reread to understand. Please, would you take another look at it? Thank you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing. Hear the sentence. Say it slowly.

It’s very psychically wearing not to write—

I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.

It’s a grave sentence, no? An unsentimental sentence. A work-threatening sentence for writers who take such things seriously. The first half is a pitying caress (You’re not alone in your suffering); the second (Christ!), a quick shot to the skull.

I haven’t been able to get it out of my head: who is supposed to be writing?

We have no idea who is supposed to write. That will be decided by the future. If there are readers in the future. If there is a future. This uncertainty is lodged the heart of the remark. (As Louise Glück puts it, “‘Poet’ must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation.”) For those readers with eyes to hear, the sentence is not just a painful dose of truth. Dr. Lebowitz pulls the plunger, soaks up 600 cc’s of literary doubt, and injects it into the skin of fifteen otherwise harmless English words. To me it suggests something far greater—far worse—than missed deadlines, unfulfilled book contracts, incomplete homework, or unanswered correspondence. It questions the wisdom of engaging in the slow difficult painful uncertain art of writing—of the overwhelming possibility that we writers have wasted, or are in the process of wasting, our lives.

No wonder Ms. Lebowitz took the decade off.

Actually, the interview was published in 1993; it is now, according to my calendar, 2006, and we still haven’t seen the novel!

“One last thing,” says Donald Hall to T. S. Eliot in an old issue of the Paris Review. “Seventeen years ago you said, ‘No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.’ Do you feel the same now, at seventy?”

Eliot responds: “There may be honest poets who do feel sure. I don’t.”

As the Eliot quote suggests, it’s not just blocked humorists who feel this way. I speak here to the condition of all living writers, of everyone busy cranking out the future’s store of unsolicited manuscripts—from the meanest bullies on the bestseller block to the National Book Award champs to the multitudes of wretched poets clogging up the Internet. I’m thinking, simply, of every writer of ambition, the folks who, if only to themselves, spell “literature” with a capital L.

The people I’m thinking of understand the why the words in the following paragraph, from Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, are both seductive and agitating:

The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having drawn the conclusion, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, and will not acknowledge that they are prevented by their present way of life from ever creating anything different.

Intellectually, you can’t disagree with Mr. Connolly: the essential thing in the life of a writer should be the production of masterpieces. Sure, sure: acclaim is nice, as is fame, but they are not essential. We know this. Absolutely. You bet. William Faulkner, the essential William Faulkner, says as much when he declares his desire “to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” Jean-Paul Sartre, to throw one more dead writer onto the fire, asserts something similar (though he asserted it originally en Français): “There is no genius other than one which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust is the sum of Proust’s works; the genius of Racine is his series of tragedies. Outside of that, there is nothing.” Together, this international trio harmonizes a little tune called “Don’t Take it Personally.” And you can see the point. I can. Think of writing, not the writer.

Emotionally, however, the above should sound, to a sane person, rather like bullshit. Or, at least, as radically incomplete. What kind of life would such a writer have? Cynthia Ozick, discussing the long failure of her thirties, sums it up perfectly: “I lived only to read and write. I lived for nothing else; I had no other ‘goals,’ ‘motivations,’ ‘interests’—these shallowness pointing to what the babblers of the hour call psychological health . . . . What I wanted was access to the narrowest possibilities of my own time and prime; I wanted to bore a chink. I wanted a sliver of the apron of a literary platform. I wanted to use what I was, to be what I was born to be—not to have a ‘career,’ but to be that straightforward obvious unmistakable animal, a writer.” This moves me very much. It speaks to my own ambition, my own failure. I like the anger and dedication. You know that Cynthia Ozick is going to be a writer or she’s going to die trying. You feel the heat of her monomania. You can taste the craziness. Ozick longs to be an artist, but does not balk at the necessary scarifies (to mutilate a line from Manhattan). But the description of her life, her monumental dedication, her admirably monastic master building, is precisely what I think Eliot had in mind when he used the phrase “messed up.”

W.H. Auden says something interesting about wanting to write: “How often one hears a young man with no talent say when asked what he intends to do, ‘I want to write.’ What he really means is, ‘I don’t want to work.’ Politics and science can be play too, but art is the least dependent on the good-will of others and looks the easiest.”

Two things, actually.

First, not wanting to work is an extremely important motivation for inexperienced writers. It is, of course, a remarkably sane idea. Who would want to devote their life to work from which they took no pleasure? Work they didn’t truly enjoy? Who would pass up the chance to work at a job that was more like play than work? No one, of course. The problem here is that while writing resembles play, for most writers it’s more like a sophisticated form of self-torture. The Writing is Not Working School (“Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?” asks Philip Larkin) takes the final product for the reality of the process. It assumes that writing is not an insanely difficult activity, but an artistic form of spontaneous generation. We recognize the romantic first-thought-best-thought impulse here, of course; but how many people can sustain a life of writing by merely transcribing their unedited thoughts? It’s an aesthetic philosophy for young people. Which is to say, no one can afford to think that way for very long. George Orwell, in “Why I Write,” puts it exactly: “After the age of thirty [the great mass of human beings] abandon individual ambition—in may cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all—and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery.” And it is when these people realize that writing is a hard, as hard a job as there is, that they are forced to shift down to more realistic ambitions.

The second point that Auden suggests is the question of talent. “A young man with no talent,” he says. The idea of whether or not one has literary talent is really dependent on one’s most recent literary production. I like to think of talent as what Eric Hoffer calls a “species of vigor.” To me, talent is not something one is born with, but the by-product of ambition, work, and editorial acumen. Though for some geniuses, they say, literary success is a first-draft phenomenon. But I’ll believe that when I see it. Most of the writers I read, certainly all those I admire, admit to having to work damn hard to find what they need to say.

The talent question reminds me of another one of Ms. Lebowitz’s remarks:

“Writing is so hard. Why would you be a writer if you weren’t really good at it? If you could be anything else, why would you be a writer? Lots of times I feel this way, and not just about writers. You look at someone trying so hard at something for which they have no ability. The one thing about people that I truly don’t understand is the compulsion to do something that you are really bad at, other than doing it as a hobby.”

The reason why so many people will slog away at writing, I’d say, many to no apparent improvement, is not just egotism or self-delusion, but the fact that writing depends so heavily on revision. William Gass says that his method is to write a story and then begin revising from the first paragraph on “so that each work would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal would, one of the sort you hope, as François Mauriac has so beautifully written, ‘the members of a particular race of mortals can never cease to bleed.’” I employ the same bloody labor-intensive approach, and I know that many other writers do as well.

As long as one is willing to work—to eventually be objective in one’s editorial decisions, to live with the writing until it is good and truly finished—then one has the potential to succeed. To be, as they say, talented.

Perhaps Aunt Frannie’s just bitter and looking to knock off any potential competition. She’s clearly earned her bitterness. Or maybe she’s trying to help would-be writers by telling them not to put themselves through the torture. Writing is, as she says, so hard. Who knows.

George Orwell almost admits to wanting to write in the following:

“From an early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon the idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”

This is a touching paragraph for a famous dead author to have written. It gives heart to the many not-yet-famous people out there hunting and pecking and cursing the publishing world late into the night. Trust your childhood instincts! it says. You will be a writer! You weren’t born to be an insurance salesman!

(You know, I can’t stop thinking about how the thinking-you’re-a-writer-but-doing-nothing-about-it phenomenon plays itself out in even the lame-o Billy Joel song, “Piano Man.” In the course of his song, the Long Island Liberace sings about a character who either identifies himself—or is identified by Joel—as Paul, “a real estate novelist (who never had time for a wife).” How perfectly Joel had captures the pathos of the would-be writer. How sad is the pseudo-cleverness of the word play, the obviousness of Paul’s self-deception. How well Joel squeezes this guy’s life into one line! It’s so moving that you begin to really wish that Paul had spent less time in bars, less time lying to himself about writing, and more time trying to find himself someone to marry.)
Although if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that there is a mild conceit in Orwell’s tone. Wanting to be a writer is somewhat different from knowing you should be a writer and pretending you are not. (It’s certainly different from the way I went around Acting the Author.) The introductory words to “Why I Write” suggest that Orwell’s failure to become a writer was just a matter of overcoming his shame about his “true nature,” as if it had nothing to do with immaturity or lack of talent. As though a writer is a writer and that’s all there is to it. If read in isolation, this fine slice of prose is sure to make you want to toss the essay out the window. “What arrogance! What self-possession! What a jerk!”

Fortunately, few people read only the first paragraph. There is, of course, much more. While the beginning seems to say that writing talent is portioned out at birth, later on in that endlessly anthologized essay Orwell memorably calls writing “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness” and goes on at length about the time and effort needed to make one’s prose professional. Which makes me think that what he’s actually proposing is that writers have a kind of masochistic streak in them, that it’s the ability to endure, the ability to absorb pain and one’s own lousy prose, that’s given out at birth.

You want to avoid all this pain? Don’t think you can handle it? Then don’t be a writer—and don’t pretend to be one, either. But if you can accept the fact that writing is an intrinsically difficult task, and then get on with it, and stick with it, you’re sure to be forgiven for your crimes against the humanities. I know, I was.

Ken Gordon, a contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe Magazine and the New York Times and editor of JBooks.com, is also the editor and publisher of QuickMuse.