As you know (see this post), UD has begun a project – at the request of an entity which will for the moment remain anonymous – of writing about writing.

One initial point she’s already made, via George Orwell, about serious writing, is that it’s very difficult, its actual process often acutely unpleasant. Here’s more data along these lines, testimony from some very good writers:

Colm Toibin: “I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult.”

John Banville: “The struggle of writing is fraught with a specialised form of anguish, the anguish of knowing one will never get it right, that one will always fail, and that all one can hope to do is ‘fail better’, as Beckett recommends.”

Robert Greacen: Writing poetry is like “trying to catch a black cat in a dark room.”

Most university creative writing courses make it fun, because they make it about you. But Orwell, you recall, also said, “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”

T.S. Eliot said something similar. “What happens is a continual surrender of [the writer] himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality… Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

James Joyce, in the character of Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist, writes: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

Let’s put these two things together:

1.) Writing is hell.

2.) Writing extinguishes the personality.

and suggest the following. Writing is hell because in order to get at and express the truth of some aspect of existence you have to get over yourself — an excruciating task. You have to be riveted to the world outside yourself — both the physical world of objects and other people, and the metaphysical world of history and, in particular, the world that is the history of the literature preceding you.

If you remain riveted on yourself, you produce, at best, sincere feeling.

And “All bad poetry,” Oscar Wilde notes, “is sincere.”


Update: Wow. These are really easy to find.

Joan Acocella in The New Yorker:

Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. (For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer.) … Anthony Burgess [says] a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And . . . the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”

Acocella also quotes Elizabeth Hardwick: “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.”

Trackback URL for this post:

15 Responses to “Why is Writing Hell?”

  1. francofou Says:

    Are you saying that these things are sine qua non for good writing? for a certain kind of good writing?

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Excellent question. There are first-rate writers who do not seem to sweat and strain and turn into suicidal Hemingways and D.F. Wallaces when their writing stops coming, or in the act of producing their writing.

    There are first-rate writers who aren’t depressives, multiply divorced, or alcoholic, etc.

    But I would note that many of the best writers – and the best other sorts of artists – do seem to have notoriously difficult and tumultuous and bad personal lives. Saul Bellow comes to mind among recent American writers. Norman Mailer. Many of the Key West denizens I’ve been featuring lately, just to grab at a very local example, were seriously messed up – Elizabeth Bishop, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams…

    There’s a whole category of secondary talents – Charles Newman, Malcolm Lowry, Harold Brodkey, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz – who were probably first-rate talents but did themselves in through self-destructive inner and outer turmoil.

    There are also the tormented first-raters who didn’t live long enough – Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman – to produce anything near what they could have produced. David Foster Wallace is one of them.

    Writers like John Updike and Robert Frost and UD’s own beloved Don DeLillo on the other hand seem to have been very prolific and very personally steady. I’m not arguing that great writing’s difficulty always exacts a high personal price. James Joyce, though a drinker who occasionally ended up in the gutter, kept things steady. Not everyone is Kafka or Kleist.

    I’m noting, instead, two things:

    1. It does seem empirically true that many, many of the writers we most revere seem to have suffered immensely for their art, or with their art, or something. That is, everyone has noticed a striking coincidence of mental anguish (Robert Lowell… I can’t seem to stop listing) and high-level aesthetic creation. I think one of the reasons Wallace’s demise has been SO talked and written about, and has had so strong an impact on people is that his life conformed all too unsettlingly to this model.

    2. I think it is also likely that because the best writers dig the deepest, insist on the truest truths, they carry wounds other people don’t carry. Edmund Wilson wrote about this in his theory of the wound and the bow. Ted Hughes also talked about it — the idea that art is both sickness and curative. I mean, it’s CERTAINLY curative for us — you might even think of the artist as a kind of sacrificial figure, someone we desperately need to impose pattern and meaning on existence for us, but who, in the anguishing effort of facing and overcoming chaos and providing this meaning which helps us live, herself dies.

    I want to say a bit more. Hold on.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Here’s a statement from Edmund Wilson about this:

    “Literature is merely the result of our rude collisions with reality, whose repercussions, when we have withdrawn into the shelter of ourselves, we try to explain, justify, harmonize… Literature is a long process of neutralizing these shocks… [W]orks of art [have] ingested … hostile bacteria, the source of the inflammation, the disturbance of the system’s equilibirium -… [T]here must be a struggle with real hostile bacteria; the constantly recurring enemies of the organism. – The produced works of art themselves, which, in a sense, like the white cells, are dead, can never by themselves, i.e., by merely being contemplated, set up the inflammation which evokes the live leucocytes. — It is only by reinfecting the reader – in the case of literature, with a milder form of infection – that works of art may produce more works of art.”

    The ultimate source of art, let us say, is pain. The best serious writing will tend to come out of pain — the painful truths of being. The artist is more inclined to, more able to, maybe more hopelessly condemned to, let more of that bacteria in — feels the shocks from the outside more, struggles with them more… insists on looking at them relentlessly and close-up. The brilliantly written work of art which both discloses the painful truths of being AND gives them reassuring aesthetic order will produce a curative catharsis in us – Wilson’s idea is rather Aristotelian – but not necessarily in the artist, who will continue to do battle at a very high level, while our infection will be milder, transient, and will be in some sense overcome.

  4. The_Myth Says:

    Would you UD be willing to speculate why and how this connects with plagiarism (and makes it so egregiously heinous)?

  5. RJO Says:

    > That is, everyone has noticed a striking coincidence of mental anguish (Robert Lowell… I can’t seem to stop listing) and high-level aesthetic creation.

    The definitive study of this at present is certainly Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which UD should surely read if she hasn’t.

    Sometimes there are undercurrents that are more apparent when you examine first-degree relatives. Frost suffered from some pretty serious depression, and had a son who committed suicide (there is a very high correlation between suicide and manic depression).

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Well, I guess the connection would have to do with this profound commitment to the truth. We grant serious writing serious truths; but they are truths OF a consciousness which has done this battle, suffered it. To discover that someone has merely lifted these words — stained with the blood of the authentic artist who bled them — don’t wanna get all lurid here, but you get the idea — that someone has taken not merely language but the courage and skill and anguish it took to generate that language… well, this is, as you say, heinous.

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    For those keeping track:

    “Tom Dardis begins his book “The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer” (1989) by noting that of the seven native-born Americans awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature five were alcoholics: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. As for problem drinkers who didn’t get the Nobel Prize, Dardis assembles an impressive list, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Djuna Barnes, John O’Hara, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Carson McCullers, James Jones, John Cheever, Jean Stafford, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, and James Agee. A number of these careers ended early, and badly.”

  8. Bonzo Says:

    Two little niggles…

    John Berryman died at 57. He lived considerably longer than Mozart. It is always hard to imagine what someone might have written if he or she had lived longer. Was Hemingway through when he pulled the trigger? Maybe that is why he did it?

    As for Raymond Carver, I thought that he had put it together in the end and had made peace with himself, the world, and Tess. But maybe I have this wrong?

  9. Margaret Soltan Says:

    RJO: Yes, that’s a crucial book to cite. I’d also mention The Savage God, by A. Alvarez.

  10. philosoraptor Says:

    This is fascinating stuff. So, thanks to the for-now-anonymous entity who has inspired/requested/provoked the project.

    You wrote (among other things): "But I would note that many of the best writers – and the best other sorts of artists – do seem to have notoriously difficult and tumultuous and bad personal lives" — which, while maybe true, isn’t yet enough to distinguish them from the many of the worst writers/artists, or for that matter, from the general population. At least, the general population around these parts.

    It also strikes me (and I’m a little reluctant to bring this up at the risk of having my intent misunderstood) that there’s a certain… likeness of sociocultural background (to say nothing of historical period) among many of the writers you’ve cited. I’d be especially curious to know, first, how many of those writers acquired those views about writing independently of what everyone around them was claiming about the necessity of suffering for the sake of one’s art, that that’s the hallmark of What It Means To Be A Great Writer, etc. And second, I’d be really curious to know how the links you’ve tentatively asserted — between, say, art, pain, and self-effacement — have looked to writers (artists generally) whose sociocultural backgrounds are a bit more dissimilar.

  11. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thanks, philosoraptor.

    In her long article about writer’s block (I provide the link in the post), Acocella suggests that Michelangelo was also a miserable artist… But she also says, in line with your suggestion, that modernism (from which I draw most of my examples, yes) is particularly hard on writers, and that writers who, centuries before, thought of themselves as part of a guild, or objects of benefactors, probably didn’t suffer, or suffered less, or suffered differently.

    Actually, I’ve written about this already on the blog – in relation to Alvarez’s arguments about modernism:

    First, from a comment about Alvarez:

    “… [A.] Alvarez argued that [Sylvia] Plath’s death was the “intolerable cost of a certain type of modernist art.” Like Robert Lowell and John Berryman, she used her own sickness as subject matter. “This solitary enterprise, when you push it in a certain way, is a high-risk activity,” he said. “The byproduct of her particular form of originality was that she ended up killing herself.” ”

    And then this post in its entirety:

  12. Christopher Vilmar Says:

    UD, I’m off to bed momentarily, but if memory serves from reading that Acocella article, she claims that writer’s block was more or less invented in the nineteenth century. Surely there’s a historical component here that has to be acknowledged, and not just in Acocella’s off-handed noting of a fact. (If it is a fact, which would be the whole point of historicizing it.)

  13. Quid plura? | "I was filled with creative desire, I set my mommy's house on fire..." Says:

    […] Margaret Soltan ponders why writing is often “acutely unpleasant.” […]

  14. Carolyn Says:

    Thought I’d share this quote from Jean Rhys:
    "Only writing is important. Only writing takes you out of yourself."

  15. University Diaries » UD’s Post-Shuttle Whereabouts Says:

    […] I’ve spent today working on stuff for that anonymous agency  (I mentioned it in an earlier post) that has asked me to write about writing for them.  If anything dramatic comes of this […]

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE