The poet’s paperwork
There’s a famous quotation, attributed to the humorist Peter De Vries, that sums up how a lot of aspiring writers feel about their chosen craft: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” In fact, it’s really a line from one of De Vries’s many novels, and the punchline is that it’s credited to a character making a list of clever observations in preparation for the interviews he’ll give after he writes a bestseller:
Standing at the window with his hands in his pockets, Mopworth had a vision of the day when he would be interviewed by the press on the publication of his book. He had some mots all ready. “What I hate about writing is the paperwork.” And: “A writer is like the pencil he uses. He must be worn down to be kept sharp.”
It’s a little amusing to see how the line mutated and detached itself from the underlying story to become exactly the kind of pithy remark that it was intended to satirize. De Vries was a shrewd writer in his own right, and he captures the feel of a writing aphorism so well that it transformed itself into the real thing. And most of those who quote it probably don’t realize that it’s poking gentle fun at the whole notion of canned writing wisdom.
Still, if the line remains so popular, it’s in part because it’s the kind of quote that comes dangerously close to vindicating those who love the idea of being a writer, but don’t much care for the actual writing. (As Martin Sheen says to DiCaprio in The Departed: “Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question. A lot of guys just want to appear to be cops.”) But there’s a grain of truth to it. Anyone who sits down to write a story of any length soon realizes that he’s spending most of his time on work that he doesn’t particularly feel like doing for its own sake. Research can be fun at the beginning, but it quickly turns into a laborious hunt for useful material, or into a futile search for the one scrap of information you need. Outlining is a pain, especially if you’re doing it right: you find yourself asking boring questions like “What does the protagonist want?” and “What is this scene about?” when you’d rather just jump into the story. Even after you start writing the first draft, you find that it’s frequently hellish, too—or, at best, a daily uphill climb in the face of the morning’s crippling doubt. Revision, which writers like Toni Morrison have called the best part of the process, all too often turns into a scramble to put out countless fires, with each problem opening up into a dozen more. And then, if you’re lucky, you get notes.
In fact, after years of writing, I’d say that there are only three parts of the process that give me undiluted pleasure: 1) The moments of inspiration when I come up with an idea better than anything I could have consciously invented. 2) The early stages of research, when I’m learning about a new subject or exploring a location without any thought to the story itself. 3) The very last stages of revision, when the story is already more or less finished, I like what I’ve got, and I’m just looking for ways to make it better. The first category accounts for maybe one percent of my total writing time; the second, about ten percent; and the third, something like five percent. Add them all together and round up the total, and I find that I’m happy while writing about a fifth of the time. The rest ranges from long stretches when I’m not actively unhappy, but grinding out material in a mechanical way, to moments when I’m ready to pack it in with frustration. And if there’s a pattern here, it’s that I’m happiest as a writer when I’m most outside myself. A flash of intuition, absorption in research, or the detached revision of a story that might have been written by someone else: these are all times when I’ve escaped my personality. Otherwise, I’m stuck in my own head, and when you’re just trying to fill a blank page, that isn’t a fun place to be.
Yet I keep at it, primarily because the eighty percent of the time I spend in a state of tedium or existential despair enables the twenty percent that I love. And I wouldn’t be doing this at all if that didn’t strike me, in the end, as a fair trade. Over the last ten years of my writing life, the moments of inspiration, set end to end, could fit into the space of an hour, but they made the rest of it worthwhile. I never tire of quoting the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who compared the act of writing poetry to mining for radium: “The output an ounce, the labor a year.” And it’s the paperwork that makes the poetry. Those who can’t endure it will never know how it feels when months of preparation crystalize into a few seconds of insight. And although such ideas feel as if they’ve come from the outside, they’re really the result of all the labor that came before, just as the eureka moments in science only come to those who have spent years thinking about specific problems. A writer is a little like a novice who comes to a monastery seeking enlightenment, only to find that most of his time there is spent sweeping the floor and cleaning out the toilets. The one can’t exist without the other, and trying to live in a way that is nothing but the former is bound to end in failure. Nobody, not even the most productive or successful among us, can really stand the paperwork. But it’s the work that makes the paper possible.