I have a talent for laziness. I’ve known this for a long time, but retirement is making it clearer. I can pass whole days, day after day, with books, TV, and crossword puzzles. And I take long walks. This is very pleasant but not very creative. Thus this blog.
Several years ago I had a conversation about writing with another English teacher. I was claiming that writing is hard work, partly because improvement—in clarity, concision, and voice—occurs so slowly, but also because the work never seems finished. Paul Valery famously wrote that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” I know I can’t look at any of my old writing without making at least mental revisions. My colleague agreed with my points about the difficulties of writing, but he insisted they did not make writing hard work. Knowing that I like to spend time getting thoughts and feelings on paper, he insisted that for me it is actually a kind of play. I had to agree.
Still, as Hawthorne apparently said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” which is the unspoken but underlying principle of the teachings of Strunk & White and the editorial demands at The New Yorker, both of which I generally applaud (while also loving the damn hard reading of Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and early Cormac McCarthy). But, returning to my colleague’s point, damn hard writing doesn’t always feel like work.
What often does make it hard work, though, is the development of what Hemingway called a writer’s essential tool: a good crap detector. That’s the alarm that goes off when I read something I have written and smell the bullshit. Then the sinking feeling kicks in, leaving me certain I haven’t got a thing to say or a worthwhile thought in my head. That’s also the alarm behind the cliché of the tormented writer whose workroom floor is covered by the balled-up drafts that have sickened her. (Think Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman in the movie Julia.) She puts another blank page into the typewriter, lights another cigarette, takes a slug of bourbon, and re-enters the fight. Damn hard work.
Hemingway is also one of the innumerable writers who insist that the key to being a writer is to put your butt in your chair and just get to it, every day and for several hours a day. That’s what I’m setting out to do, at least most days. Here’s hoping the talent for laziness doesn’t get in the way. Here’s hoping the work often feels like play. And here’s hoping that enough of what I produce feels reasonably free of crap and thus worthy of a blog post.