“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway.
It’s a tired quote, wheeled out by tired writers. We’re probably tired because we were up at 3am – either feverishly typing, pursued by some fiendish muse – or, more likely, staring at a blank screen, gnawing our nails, every beat of the cursor saying “you suck you suck you suck.”
I’ve been reading, and talking to people, about their writing processes lately, and there’s something we all have in common – the pain involved in the creation of something good.
Pantograph Punch is doing a series of interviews with writers, exploring how they approach their work. One of the most interesting questions they’re being asked, to me anyway, is: “Is the actual act of writing enjoyable for you?”
Naomi Arnold, features writer and columnist at the Nelson Mail (also an award winner) (also my friend, eep!), says “It’s always a matter of just getting through it,” which, yes. Yes it is.
She alikens it to “pulling teeth with moments of feeling pleased.” Her procrastination methods sound similar to mine. Sit down, get up and make a cup of tea. Sit down, get up and get a biscuit. Sit down, be distracted by the cat…
Ben Stanley, best known for his sports feature writing, says writing a great line is a religious experience.
“It’s always a tough process, but when you make the magic happen, and you’re in that moment and you’ve really captured something, that’s holiness right there for the writer.”
Stanley says he feels a story like a weight, something to be carried around until the last word is stuck down. This is familiar. I feel my stories and poems and words as an itch. My father once wrote in a poem “Creativity, unused, grates” and that’s always resonated with me.
Hemingway’s edict “Write drunk, edit sober” is something I’ve never been able to live by. I can see its merit, but I get attacked by my internal critic constantly. I labour over single sentences for half an hour, adding a word, backspacing, adding another.
I was speaking recently with a friend of mine about writing poetry, and how it can become this ugly struggle over one word or one full stop. You get so tuned, so focused on making sure every syllable feels right, you end up with something that just sounds overwrought. And by the time you’re finished, you’ve spent so long staring at it, you hate it and it goes straight in the bin. This probably applies to all writing, but it’s particularly prevalent in a genre that prides itself on brevity.
Every now and then, an idea will come to me fully formed, and I’ll become an absolute mad thing until I get it all down. But it happens rarely, and rarer still will anything stay in that first form. Sometimes I’ll have 20 iterations of an article. Or 50 of a poem (and 49 of them will be in the bin).
Who said that thing about inspiration knocking – but you have to be working to hear it?
Ben Stanley’s thoughts about the ‘religious experience’ reminded me of Hunter S Thompson talking about his writing, in particular, this bit of his autobiography which I’ve always loved.
“Every once in a while, but not often, you can sit down and write a thing that you know is going to stand people’s hair on end for the rest of their lives – a perfect memory of some kind, like a vision, and you can see the words rolling out of your fingers and bouncing around for a while like wild little jewels before they finally roll into place and line up exactly like you wanted them to… wow! Look at that shit! Who wrote that stuff? What? Me? Hot damn! Let us rumble, keep going, and don’t slow down – whatever it is, keeping doing it. Let’s have a little Fun.”
I love his surprise (which I am sure is feigned, but nonetheless relatable) in discovering he’s written something good. I read back over my own writing with varying degrees of horror, chagrin, anxiety… and sometimes, every now and then, a tiny zing of pleasure. (Which is immediately quashed by my lovely inner critic telling me not to be so arrogant).
That idea of “not slowing down” though… that’s where it’s at. That’s key. Once you get a hook, you must keep going. It will be painful. It will feel like you are bleeding, probably not all over a typewriter, but the wound is the same. It may feel like you’ve bashed every sentence until all you see is bruises. But something will be there. Something good.
Some Wild Little Jewels.