“A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.”
How refreshing and encouraging it is when an accomplished writer — someone who’s widely admired for his or her craft and dedication — freely admits that writing doesn’t come easily for them. David, one of my writing buddies, alerted me to a recent feature in The New Yorker magazine in which Philip Roth talked about the challenges he faced as a writer. As he put it, he had “to fight for my fluency, every paragraph, every sentence.”
Given his legendary discipline and his reputation as a prolific producer of literary fiction, this seemed more than a bit surprising. When someone crafts a huge body of work, it’s tempting to think that it just pours out of them. In Philip’s case, the only things that seemed to be pouring out were “blood, sweat, and tears.”
Wow! In this story, Philip also reveals that he wrote many drafts of a book before he found himself even moderately satisfied with it. Sometimes, six hours of work only produced a single page (this reminds me of Flaubert, a master stylist who was known for his painstakingly slow pace). Or, if he had a good day and ended up producing four or five pages, Philip said he’d find himself spending four or five days working them over.
On the one hand, this is encouraging, because it demonstrates that fluency of style, at least in Roth’s case, isn’t something that came naturally or easily to him — it isn’t the product of genetic flair that he happened to possess. On the other hand, it is sobering because it reveals what all of us know in our heart of hearts, but often hope isn’t really the case: good work is hard work.
This simple but profound message is what came through for me loud and clear in Philip’s description of his daily struggle to achieve fluency. And yet, though he of all people should have known better, even he fell prey to the idea that other writers had an easier time of it than he did. In his comments about two authors he admired, John Updike and Saul Bellow, Philip seemed to think that their facility with words was the product of some skill or level of mastery that he lacked. Dollars to donuts, they spent a lot of time rewriting and wrestling with every paragraph as well.
Philip sanctified the page with his dedication and discipline. He acted as if every word mattered. Why? Because to him, it did. Can we take inspiration from this? We may not have all the ingredients that he brought to his work — we’re all at different stages and bring different backgrounds and passions to the page. But can we bring the same level of devotion and effort to our writing? Yes, I believe we can.
The good news for us? Hard work pays off. The bad news: Hard work pays off. Write on!