For colossus of modernism James Joyce, writing in English was the “most ingenious torture
ever devised.” For Kurt Vonnegut, it was a heartbreaking reminder of the difficulty of articulating himself: “When I write,” he confessed, “I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” Hunter S. Thompson also humorously described the torment of putting pen to page: “Writing is the flip side of sex— it’s good only when it’s over.” Those of us who’ve stared down the blank page know to write is to battle your inner saboteur:
“Who do you think you are? What makes you think you have something worthwhile to say?”
“Really…that’s your topic? All your ideas are hackneyed and tired. Millions of people have already written the same thing and have written it better.”
“Nothing you do will ever be intelligent/funny/original enough.”
If you write, you invite your most merciless demons to your desk day after day. Sometimes writing even a single sentence is beset with debilitating self-doubt. Yes, there are days of creative rapture, blissful moments when writing is a mystical convening with the muse but they are few. Most days writing is work: rather than scribble in a fit of ecstatic revelation, we combat one line after another. No matter how hard we try to quell their rebellion, our sentences mutiny. More often than not, the act of expressing ourselves requires excruciating effort: instead of feel seized by a divine power, ideas pouring forth from some otherworldly plane, we experience each sentence, each word as a struggle. At times, writing a meager one hundred words is a trudge up a steep hill.
So why, when writing is such a demoralizing profession, do novelists and essayists, poets and playwrights, willingly put pen to page? In her timeless essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion, patron saint of mythic 1960s LA, observed, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” When distinguished author and National Book Critics Circle member Meredith Maran posed this perennial question to twenty of our era’s most acclaimed authors in her indispensable collection Why We Write, the answers were as assorted as the authors. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan remarked she writes “because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.” New Yorker contributor Susan Orlean responded in characteristically beautiful, understated prose, “I write because I love learning about the world.” Fearless poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied she wrote “to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead” while controversial bad boy James Frey wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”
One of the most insightful responses came from Kathryn Harrison, writer of haunting, hypnotic beauty whose memoir The Kiss shocked audiences around the world. When first published in 1998, the deeply disturbing account of her incestous affair with her father was both lauded and scorned: while novelist Tobias Wolff argued Harrison redeemed her dark subject matter with the “steadiness of her gaze” and the “uncanny, heartbreaking exactitude of her language,” Wall Street Journal critic Cynthia Crossen admonished her to “hush up.” Thankfully, Harrison ignored her detractors. A woman of remarkable candor, today she continues to turn an unflinching eye toward the taboo. But what, exactly, motivates her to write— especially when speaking the unspeakable has historically made her the target of vehement vitriol? Like many overachievers whose obsession with success conceals deep-seated feelings of inferiority, Harrison hoped writing would finally be an accomplishment impressive enough to win her mother’s approval:
“I write because it’s the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love. It has everything to do with my relationship with my mother. I spent my childhood in an attempt to remake myself into a girl she would love, and I’ve translated that into the process of writing— not intentionally, but just as I was always looking beyond my present incarnation toward the one that would woo my mother’s attention, I’m always looking toward to book that hasn’t come out yet: the one that will reveal me worthy of love.
When it’s great, writing can be ecstatic. Even when it’s just hard, it’s always involving. The moments that are sublime— I get just enough of them that I don’t lose hope of being given another— are only so because for that moment, when even as little as a sentence seems exactly right, before the feeling fades, it offers what I think it must feel like to be worthy of love. I want praise of course; it’s a cousin of love. But equally important to me is a bit of evidence, here and there, that a reader got it, saw what I’d hoped to reveal.”
When pondering why she writes, Harrison notes writing is a meaning-making machine, a consoling way for her to comprehend what at first seems unfathomable:
“I write, also, because it’s the apparatus I have for explaining the world around me, seemingly the only method that works. By the time I was in high school I’d discovered that the process of hammering text on the page— being able to articulate things, to get them right— offered not only consolation but a place I could live inside.”
The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing. Today, we know it more informally as being “in the zone.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named this transcendent state of complete absorption “flow.” To experience such an elevated state of consciousness, explains poet of resplendent prose Diane Ackerman, is to be transfixed in a “waking trance.” When artists throughout the ages have compared creating to being a vessel, they were describing this psychological process. For Harrison, writing is a portal to this euphoric, almost otherworldly state of being, a magical place where she can both erase and affirm her identity:
“One thing I love about writing is that in that moment, I am most completely myself, and yet totally relieved of my self. I don’t really like spending that much time with myself when I’m not writing, but when I’m in that strange paradox of being most and least myself, I can be transcendently happy, rapturous. Those moments are rare— I’m doing well if it’s two percent of the time— but memorable, like a drug you have to get back to.”
In a moment equal parts tough love and practical no-nonsense, Harrison concludes by dispelling the long enduring myth of the suffering artist. Though we sentimentalize the image of the artist as a tormented drunk, Ms. Harrison, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, maintains the most productive writers are actually sane, happy and healthy— not irreparably fucked up. A real writer doesn’t harbor romantic notions about his profession (“Writing is hard…coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal? They do not. They simply dig,” Cheryl Strayed counseled with hard-earned wisdom in her advice column Dear Sugar) nor does he wait around for the mercurial muse to whisper a masterpiece into his ear—he treats writing just like any other job. In other words, he shows up:
“Writing is a job. If you’re going to do a job, you’re going to do it everyday. You’re going to get enough sleep, and not fall into dissolute habits. I never had a romantic idea about writing. In grad school other people would spend the evening drinking, then tear home to write something at three in the morning, thinking the work would be exceptional because of the exceptional circumstances under which it had been produced. You don’t write by sitting in a garret thinking the muse might arise under some particular circumstances.”